“Spy x Family” is one of the reasons I’m looking back at 2022 this way instead of just pushing a top 10 list. I’m not sure that I’d put the hit anime on a top 10 list. For all its unbridled enthusiasm and sense of joy, it has some pacing and focus issues and one or two subplots fall flat for me. Yet I’m going to remember it way better than anything I’d stick at #6 or #7 for the year. It’s going to mean more to me going forward than most things on a top 10 list would. So what’s the point of that list? We don’t watch series so we can organize lists. We watch series for how they bring out the human parts of ourselves that we don’t always get to feel in other moments of our days.
“Spy x Family” appears to land as the most popular anime of 2022 by far, and for good reason. In a land that’s based on the Cold War between West and East Germany, the spy Twilight is assigned to befriend a high-ranking government official who plans to restart an active war. The best way to do this is through the official’s son, who attends a prestigious private academy. Under the cover of Loid Forger, Twilight will have to adopt a child, find a fake wife, get his new child enrolled at the academy, and ensure that she performs well enough to join the social club of upper echelon students.
Things go off the rails pretty quickly. The child he adopts is Anya, who hides that she’s a telepath discarded from a state experiment. She’s not the age Loid needs to enroll her, and she’s not the academic standout that would get her in, but she can read his mind and fake exactly what he’s looking for.
Anya tells no one she’s a telepath – she’s scared she’ll be hunted and rejected. She does use her powers to help connect Loid with a potential new mom – a woman named Yor who’s an elite assassin. Yor’s fearful she’ll be investigated for the unofficial crime of not being married. Loid needs someone to play a wife. Yor needs someone to play a boyfriend. Anya takes care of the rest.
The pair agree to play out a fake marriage. Loid is unaware that Yor is an assassin, Yor is unaware that Loid is a spy, they’re both unaware that Anya is a telepath, and Anya knows everything about them to the detriment of anything academic. And that’s all way before they get the dog who can see the future.
What follows would usually be a comedy of strangeness, of hiding truths and miscommunicating with each other. Instead, it’s something rarer – a comedy of normality. Yor’s strength and martial prowess come off as normal to Loid because those are the kind of people he’s always been surrounded by. When they put on a massive role-playing game for Anya and a drunk Yor plays a witch who fights Loid, he doesn’t wonder why she’s a better fighter than the most legendary spy in the world. He wonders about the role-playing, “Why is she using physical attacks when she’s a witch?”
Raising her younger brother without parents, Yor imagines she has no clue how to parent despite being immensely caring, attentive, and fiercely protective. She’s never had anyone to affirm that she’s doing things right, and even if he can be slow on the uptake, this is what Loid can ultimately give her.
Anya has meant nothing to anyone, and has never had the opportunity to make anyone proud, but here has a chance to participate in an operation that can save the world – even if she misinterprets what’s going on half the time. What’s strange to the world around them is the greatest amount of normal and comfort any of the three has ever experienced.
We get to see spy missions, some with Anya and some without. These are routinely good and often ridiculous – finding microfilm swallowed by a penguin, winning a brutal underground tennis tournament. One of my favorite moments in the series is a brief vignette, only minutes long, where Loid meets with his handler, petals falling from a nearby flower. Loid quietly recognizes that his handler has overlooked a fine detail in her disguise, and when she asks him about the mission, he brags about Anya like any parent would – a gorgeous moment of two spies losing their edge for different reasons.
Anya is the series’ motivator, though. She’s a below-average student, but when her parents try to help her, she can only read their thoughts about spying and assassination. She’s not a savant or phenom, but a kid who knows she’s saddled with the fate of the world, something she understands by reading Loid’s mind, but can’t share with anyone lest she reveal her secret.
What connects about her is that her parents do everything they can to shield her from their burdens, but because of who Anya is they never have any chance of doing so. All they can do is support her through them. In between dodgeball tournaments, craft fairs, and dog adoptions, there’s something about this that speaks to our modern moment. Anya’s played as the cutest thing on television, as a character who exudes ‘must be protected at all costs’, but her attempts to befriend a politician’s son and help Loid succeed in his mission are nearly all remarkable misfires because kids aren’t tactical. They’re unpredictable, pushing boundaries, fearing the lack of them, and just getting a sense of how the world works. In its own way, amid dozens of unrealistic events and satires, “Spy x Family” gives us one of the most accurate depictions of how a kid acts.
Anya stands up for others and what she witnesses as the truth, but she’s also a huge troll who’s naturally curious and likes seeing what she can get away with. She tests out empathy and ego, lying and self-sacrifice. She’s a kid who barely knows anything, except the reality that the future of the world hinges on her accomplishing a mission way beyond her capabilities. Even if it’s desperate, doing something is better than not taking any action.
That’s why “Spy x Family” is a joy. It has a couple subplots that I’m not big on, such as Yor’s brother who works for the secret police and harbors an obsession for his sister, or Loid’s protege who wants to take Yor’s place. The series is a remarkable, quick-witted comedy, sure, but it’s also one where Loid repeats his mantra of creating “a world where children won’t have to cry anymore”, something Anya believes in and takes to heart because she’s never known a world like that before.
We root for Anya partly because she’s an innocent kid with a streak of gremlin, but mainly because this is her chance to live a life where she has hope and is protected. The fate of the world is abstract and hard to grapple with. The fate of one kid is something we can feel in our bones and fight for. We need to see this family work, and as it messily comes closer together, it’s a joy to have it reaffirmed for us that yes, this is a family that cares for each other more and more by the day.
“Spy x Family” is a cleverly over-the-top spy anime, a savvy comedy, a solid actioner, a beautiful story about adoptive family, but what works best about it is that it’s a story of a child finally having the opportunity to be happy and loved.
And its theme songs are absolute bops.
You can watch “Spy x Family” on Hulu or Crunchyroll.
There was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year, but one stood out as striking enough to surpass everything else I saw. “The English” demonstrated a staggering visual sense of endless wilderness, an infinite natural backdrop both gorgeous and intimidating. It contrasts this with pernicious and ironic iconography that represents the destruction wrought by colonization and Westward expansion. The show’s use of natural light shows that few lighting and color-grading effects can match the simplicity of filming at certain times of day – even if that restricts the time you have to capture a scene.
The Western stars Emily Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke, who’s come to the American West to kill the man who killed her son. Chaske Spencer plays Eli Whipp, a Pawnee scout for the U.S. Army who seeks to live the rest of his life in quiet despite a world that’s determined to kill his people. Naturally, they link up, discover a shared past, and guns blaze.
“The English” doesn’t shy away from commenting on the unbridled savagery of European colonizers, assessing the genocidal history of “Manifest Destiny”, and linking Christian expansionism as directly responsible. Its main story may be equal parts romance, actioner, and tragic backstory, but “The English” picks apart imperialism and methods of forced assimilation thread by brutal thread on its way.
I do have a few issues with “The English”. It’s so eager to demonstrate its clear mastery over every era of Western that the pacing has a few hard shifts. A separate B-plot that eventually ties in hides its secrets and never gives its characters enough time to burn into memory, meaning every time we switch to it, it’s overly confusing. I normally love overly confusing, but I just had to shrug my shoulders and go with it. A few supporting performances here and there try way too hard and cross over into sketch territory. These are infrequent, but enough to notice.
As briefly as it can frustrate or confuse, these elements are ultimately pretty easy to set aside. What really lingers is the unparalleled cinematography, seeing for miles at times, the haunting use of light and shadow in others, and never letting go of a special kind of magic that feels truly cinematic and larger than life. I remember my breath being sucked away at one point as a horse and rider are silhouetted by the sunset in the dust they kick up, a shot that requires complex choreography yet was only possible to capture for a few minutes in a day before the sun changed angle.
If you appreciate the patiently developed tableau of classic cinema and can accept a great series that makes occasional storytelling mistakes, “The English” is a visual feast with superb leading performances and a driving sense of purpose. (Read the review.)
A close runner-up: “First Love”
I could say many similar things for “First Love”, a Japanese romance series that tells the story of lovers in the 90s who reconnect today. Yae wanted to become a flight attendant and travel the world, but an accident prevented this. Now, she’s content working as a taxi driver, but struggles bridging the gap to her son Tsuzuru, who lives with his father. Her former lover Harumichi works as a security guard after serving as a pilot, but when they meet, she doesn’t remember him.
“First Love” is remarkable for director Kanchiku Yuri’s choice to film in the style of each narrative’s time frame. She echoes the dramatic approach of each era’s storytelling, the parallel stories told during the 90s and today changing down to shot choice, coloration, and even hints of picture clarity. As the flashback begins to catch up, these choices also change according to those times. It’s not the kind of thing that jumps out and hits you over the head; it’s used subtly and in service of the story.
The match of directing, cinematography, costuming, set design, and even dance choreography comes together to highlight the strange mix of quietly trying to find satisfaction in life against a backdrop of loneliness and disappointment. It serves as a phenomenal metaphor for Japan’s Lost Generation, which includes Gen X and Millennials who saw a stiff economic downturn as they entered the job market. Yae’s and Harumichi’s own stories and careers reflect this as well.
The wintry setting of Sapporo, Japan is used exquisitely, sometimes just in the daily routes Yae takes around the city, and sometimes more dramatically – as in a youthful confession of love in a blinding snowstorm. Kanchiku Yuri accomplishes one of the best directing jobs of the year, and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever she does next. On top of this, Mitsushima Hikari gives one of the best performances of the year as the adult Yae.
Like “The English”, “First Love” has long streaks where it feels like it’s the best show of the year, but it’s similarly undermined by some of its writing. It relies on a key plot device that’s cliché (at least among Western viewers) and large portions of its romances hinge on forms of stalking. It’s certainly not the first drama to treat stalking as romantic, but it feels like a giant rift to justify crossing, even if the other parts of the series are superb.
I’d still recommend it with this caveat. It’s OK to watch problematic things as long as we don’t cover over the problem or lie to ourselves about its presence. It is a remarkably filmed and acted series, but one that includes a necessary “Yes, but…”
Like I said, there was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year. The others at the top include:
“Pachinko” tells an elegant epic of Korean diaspora that survives genocide and war. (Read the review.)
“Cracow Monsters” is a sumptuously dark and dreary Polish modern fantasy with a silky sense of color and shadow. (Read the review.)
“Andor” is a moving embrace of 70s social sci-fi that may be the height of Star Wars storytelling. (Read the review.)
Horror on TV doesn’t have a great history of success. Most of it is watered down for general audiences, and the demand of so many episodes a year can leave many series with uneven plots and unfocused characterization. “Evil” struggled with this in its first season on CBS. It was good, but clearly strained against the format. Then it switched to Paramount+ last year, and it started knocking its plots out of the park.
“Evil” follows an assessment team sent by the Catholic Church to decide whether exorcisms, miracles, sainthoods, and other mysteries are real. It’s run by a priest named David, played by “Luke Cage” himself, Mike Colter. He favors having skeptics on board, so he’s recruited Kristen, a lapsed Catholic psychologist played by Katja Herbers, and an atheist debunker who was raised Muslim, played by Aasif Mandvi.
Each episode’s plot focuses on different aspects and subgenres of horror, getting as nitty gritty as road trip and meme horror. Outside of the episodic plots, the running subplots center on demons ruining the world with clickbait and cryptocurrency, or a priest wondering why his visions of a protective saint switch race as he learns she was really Black. There’s an edge of irony and satire that might be more recognizable in something like “Good Omens”, but as funny as “Evil” can be, it uses its ridiculous moments to hone the horrific.
The comparisons to “The X-Files” it’s gotten aren’t that far off. Some of it’s the mystery of the week and how character development feeds into the big, longer-term arcs. Some is the balance between the scientifically trained Kristen and true believer David, though “Evil” couldn’t be called a lift – much of Kristen’s story deals with her four daughters, and David is a former journalist with a reporter’s mind for research. On top of this, Mandvi’s extremely skeptical Ben often shifts Kristen less into the skeptic position and more into the swing voter role on how to go forward. In a way, this provides her agency within the plot that was denied “The X-Files” Scully when Mulder steamrolled a decision.
I think the comparison is most apt when it comes to the balance of dark humor and true horror. There’s a strange way they can be twinned and start to become the same thing. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I would say this is what makes “Evil” both similar to and different from “The X-Files”.
Michael Emerson’s performance as the villain Leland, possibly a demon, basks in that intersection between the ridiculous and the awful. My favorite moment in the show still comes from the second season, when we pick up the premiere with a breathtaking vision David has of Kristen being threatened. We wait to see the outcome from the prior year’s finale, only for Leland to pop up in the middle of the vision doing a meme dance. Leland and the show often veer so close to nonsense it’s laughable, but the show always pulls it sideways into something threatening. “Evil” isn’t just frightening, it also expertly disarms us of our defenses so that we’re accepting of that fright. That’s the core approach to “X-Files” through and through, but “Evil” then builds on that foundation by taking it steps further.
Often, Leland uses social tools in a common but nonsensical way, allowing the show to point out areas of privilege and systemic abuse that operate the same way: nonsense that we justify as everyday reason. “Evil” doesn’t just disarm us so that we’re willing to experience fear, it then uses that fear to ask why we’re willing to be afraid of these things in a TV show, but act like they’re normal in the real world. Much of the show’s sharpest critical elements center on the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church itself.
The other biggest difference is Kristen. Sure, she’s a scientific skeptic who starts out with a healthy work-life balance. What makes her so different from the Scully archetype is that she can readily exist in the same space as Leland. Whereas David is doing his best to fulfill an idealized role of a priest, and Ben is an ethical skeptic who’s haunted by misuse of his past work, Kristen is fully capable of stepping into the ridiculous and the dark with a smile, of existing in it and speaking its language, of using it, fighting it on its own terms. She’ll look at someone cutting corners and cut the very same ones if it holds them accountable. Out of her team, which includes a gigantic, muscled dude and a hard-line skeptic with no fucks to give, it’s the tiny mom of four who will step in, get the dirty work done, give demons anxiety, and somehow go home with enough energy left to ably (and often single-handedly) take care of her family. It’s one of the most dynamic roles going right now.
This isn’t to say she doesn’t struggle with some of her decisions – this is most of what season 2 was about, after all. But in season 3 we see a Kristen who’s come out the other side and has learned better what is necessary, how to forgive herself for it, and how to trust herself in impossible circumstances. In fact, after early days of Leland going directly after Kristen, it’s clear he’s understood he needs to chip away at her support structure to have any chance of shaking her – and he’s regularly hampered by his own misunderstanding of Kristen as overly emotional and David as overly logical, the complete reverse of who they actually are.
There are so many other wonderful things that have developed on this series: Christine Lahti’s descent into corporate evil, Andrea Martin’s fantastic no-B.S. nun Sister Andrea, and how great it’s been to witness Mandvi seriously grow as an actor from the first season to this one.
Freed from the constraints of network TV, “Evil” has become the scariest series going, and it uses both its humor and fear to highlight the hypocrisies we willingly live with every day.
Studio Trigger’s anime is based on the video game “Cyberpunk 2077”, which was adapted from Mike Pondsmith’s genre-defining tabletop role-playing game. With that many layers of adaptation, it’s a deep surprise how resonant the show is. The cybernetic dystopia of Night City is overrun with both corporate and street-level crime. After disaffected student David tries to do things the right way and loses the few anchors he has in life, he turns to the mercenary life known as edgerunning.
Despite his youth, can David fit in with an experienced, successful crew? In a world where replacing pieces of yourself with hardware blurs the lines of reality, and David wants to run away from his reality, can he keep his sanity? Can he achieve any of the dreams others have for him? Can he protect the people around him?
That’s all pretty familiar territory, but “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” is one of the most damning visions of terminal capitalism I’ve seen. The natural comparison might be the classic “Ghost in the Shell” and its series continuation “Stand Alone Complex”, but “Edgerunners” lands much more closely to a different classic. In 1988, “Akira” warned us of and argued for the rejection of what’s come to be known as disaster capitalist futurism.
Like “Akira”, “Edgerunners” captures traumatic repetition on both the personal and cultural scale. As Thomas Lamarre once wrote of “Akira”, it houses two types of mimetic repetition of trauma. In its constitutive mode, “Akira” translates the future of a Japan still coping with nuclear destruction. How does it develop economically and industrially? How does it change national identity? In its generative mode, how is this taken advantage of in an information society where populist political power is built on disaster capital?
Lamarre argued that “Akira” sees how the constitutive passes into the generative, or how repeating of a trauma during the development to cope with it creates the circumstances for that trauma to be taken advantage of, and creates a situation where the traumatized seeks to enact that trauma on others. In other words, if you live in a mentality of that trauma’s repetition, then survival is to be on the other side of it when it happens again.
“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” poses a world shattered by the poisoning of the well, by a collapse of the world’s previous mode of information sharing – our modern internet. It envisions that poisoning as a condition that prompted mass violence, civil war, world war, and cultural immolation. Corporation-states survive because their territory is notional, intangible, a maintenance of perceived value. Territory can’t be bombed when it’s a data set, and you can’t run out of people in a world where people are the most fungible asset that exists.
David’s tale is that of a boy chasing trauma and repeating it ad nauseam because he thinks that’s the way through it. This reflects the story of its world – that of a society chasing trauma and repeating it ad nauseam because it thinks that’s the way through it. When shock doctrine is the rule of the world, survival is to be on the other side of it when it happens again.
Needless to say, the results aren’t happy. That’s not a spoiler. Whatever the saddest things you can think about this story are, you probably aren’t prepared. Neither are the story evolutions in “Edgerunners” cheap – they’re sudden, unsentimental, harsh, and they go unmourned. They are heavy in their lack of meaning, in their lack of consequence, in how the world travels on because you can’t run out of people in a world where people are the most fungible asset.
Genre and fan social media was overrun with viewers asking for help from each other in coping with how depressed the series made them, so when I say “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” is sad, I mean it spills over with grief. The show is a beautiful, repulsive howl, the voice of a world in disintegration envisioning a futurism of living in shock doctrine, to the point where everyone’s gaze has been turned to normalize that shock. We’re even introduced to David as he experiences a braindance – the sensory recordings of someone who dies violently – a snuff film that might seem like a sci-fi creation if there weren’t also image boards in our world dedicated to gore and people dying.
“Edgerunners” balances the 80s futurism of macro cybernetics – an aesthetic that feels less realistic in today’s digital world – as a metaphor for transforming our humanity into notional currency so we can trade it away for the newest, most powerful and influential technological elements to get ahead. Take Rebecca, who’s had her body replaced piece by piece to look like a child again – a clear advantage in drawing out and distracting men in a corporate world.
Like, I said, it’s repulsive. That doesn’t mean what it depicts isn’t true. “Edgerunners” can often feel like the nausea that comes on after getting punched in the gut. There’s devastation here, and a sense of profound desperation and loss I’ve rarely seen a show capture. It belongs among the best sci-fi series made, animation or otherwise.
“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” may not be what our future ends up looking like, but it captures a horror of roads the world may travel down, of the populism, fascism, disaster futurism, and terminal capitalism that have already taken shape. It’s a masterful metaphor for how much of ourselves we trade to survive, that where once we sacrificed for the next generation’s dreams, now we sacrifice for the next generation’s sacrifice.
You can watch “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” on Netflix.
The more content we have, the more our “to watch” lists rack up shows that we may never get to touch. That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to have more than we can find time to watch than too little, but it’s important to share those series and performances that move us. Sometimes we find these where we don’t expect.
I’m not a big TV comedy watcher, in part because I prefer shows that are willing to tread into the absurd. That hasn’t been the style the last decade. When we’ve standardized even the mockumentary format, we need to find new approaches before it’s tired out. Yet this year has shown a tendency to do just that, not just navigating into far more absurd and satirical waters, but also changing formats and genres on the fly without worrying about whether each half hour forms a complete thematic arc.
There are so many other performances this year that don’t make a list like this. When you highlight the individual, you can overlook the ensemble, and “Abbott Elementary” boasts one of the best ensembles of the year, led by Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams. (I know I just complained about standardized mockumentaries, but this one shines through the format.)
Similarly, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” has no weak spot in the cast. Anson Mount may be trying to make himself my new favorite captain in the franchise, but as “Star Trek” often is, the show is a resounding group effort.
I didn’t really dive deep into voice acting, but I do have to highlight Rie Murakawa’s work as the gender-expansive Osana Najimi on “Komi Can’t Communicate”. Few convey the balance of care for others with the pure, willful chaos that she does.
There are also those performances that might not ask their actors to stretch too far because that’s not what the show needs from them in that moment. They’re examples of perfect casting nonetheless. I think of Hazal Kaya’s charismatic light mystery turn as Esra in the Turkish “Midnight at the Pera Palace”, Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian and Jordan L. Jones’s Jazz on “Bel-Air”, and Alan Ritchson’s Jack Reacher on “Reacher”.
There are several performances I want to highlight even more than these:
Emmy Rossum, “Angelyne“
You could dismiss Emmy Rossum’s performance in “Angelyne” as that of playing a ditz, but this would overlook an incredibly complex role. The story of an 80s celebrity famous for being famous is described through various conflicting recollections. These different perceptions, including Angelyne’s own, each change who she is and her path to celebrity.
There’s a scene where Angelyne sits down with Playboy owner Hugh Hefner. He’s surrounded by an entourage of women, and Angelyne counters with her own entourage of men – both retinues are only there for show. He wants her to pose nude, but it quickly becomes clear he’s outclassed. He’s part of an old-fashioned misogyny that trades fame for ownership and exploitation. She’s pioneered the trade of exploiting celebrity itself, without the need to answer to someone like him. It’s here that her ability for negotiation, cutthroat attitude, and business acumen all bite, where her airhead presentation gives way to a keen understanding of Hollywood and how to beat men at their own game.
Don’t get me wrong – Angelyne comes off in many other situations as a narcissist and manipulator, but not because she’s a sociopath. She ditches who she once was and embraces a celebrity persona as an escape from abuse, itself a re-enactment of generational trauma. Her performance serves as both a critique of New Age commercialism and the influencer culture that evolved from it, and an understanding of the desperation that drives people to chase it as a survival mechanism. That Rossum’s performance utilizes camp as well as drama lends a stunning flexibility to the series. Rather than portraying someone who’s conflicted, she portrays someone who conflicts us: she’s deserving of our horror and judgment as well as our empathy and admiration.
Jabari Banks, “Bel-Air”
The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is good, and it does the difficult, thought-out work of adaptation well. Do we need a second take on “Fresh Prince”? How could it not ruin what came before? Won’t it complicate my nostalgic understanding of the character to have a completely different actor play him? I lament this difficult question so much I can barely pay attention to movies containing anywhere between three and seven Spider-folk.
“Bel-Air” updates many things that wouldn’t be said on TV in the early 90s, advancing conversations about racism into today’s media and political climate. At the show’s heart is Jabari Banks’s performance of a young man who’s torn between versions of who he wants to be, who both admires and resents the wealth that suddenly surrounds him and is wary of the self-hate that social acceptance in white circles demands of him.
Banks captures so many of the tics and nuances in the actor Will Smith’s original performance, while still giving his interpretation of the character Will Smith. You can emulate someone else’s performance with nods to their movement, but Banks encodes it into his performance in a way that feels much more natural and internal than an acting nod. The characters don’t just act similarly, they think similarly. “Bel-Air” leans on a strong cast with a number of good performances, but Banks’s is a captivating interpretation that drives the show.
Barbara Liberek, “Cracow Monsters“
“Cracow Monsters” is a Polish horror series that’s more fantastique than fantasy. Based on Polish folklore, the series hearkens back to the moodiest and most atmospheric habits of 90s horror with quick and harrowing bursts of action. Barbara Liberek plays Alex, a medical student who fears the onset of schizophrenia and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. She’s revealed to have a power that can help hunt otherworldly creatures, and grudgingly works with a group of similar students.
Alex’s curiosity, earnestness, and frustration are balanced against a tendency for self-destruction and isolation. She wants to survive, but is so afraid that she’s on the cusp of repeating her mother’s mental illness and suicide that she also wants to destroy herself in what time is left to still control her own fate.
Liberek realizes a character who’s dreaming yet terrified her dream is doomed, rushing against the clock to become a doctor before the onset of schizophrenia. She takes care of others, yet aggressively rejects anyone attempting to aid her, lest they get invested. She couldn’t care less about helping anyone hunt demons until her curiosity drives her enough to tolerate having to work with other people. Alex is the kind of standoffish, matter-of-fact, justifiably resentful noir character that women rarely get to play, but Liberek realizes her in both humanizing and iconic ways.
Claudia O’Doherty, “Killing It”
Claudia O’Doherty possesses that rare Madeline Kahn ability to exist in the show’s story so completely that she’s naive to it, while at the same time sitting outside of it and pointedly commenting on it. It’s one of the toughest demands in comedy because it asks the actor to simultaneously portray two extremes that each comment on the middle ground where all the other characters live.
O’Doherty achieves both the character and the meta extremes, whether it’s fulfilling a dead man’s last wish by eating his identifying information, or dragging a bag full of dead snakes through a convention hall where the wealthy con their worshippers. She delivers an outsized portion of the absurdism in “Killing It”, while existing inside of it as someone who’s completely normalized to it.
One of the midseason episodes, “The Task Rabbit” involves O’Doherty’s Jillian housesitting in a mansion, and coached by Zoom call to pretend she’s rich and cutthroat for a wealthy date. It’s an acidic take on “Cyrano de Bergerac” that becomes a half-hour of modern science-fiction as pointed as anything I’ve seen this year. It entirely relies on O’Doherty’s ability to comment on the story even as she suffers it.
You may also recognize O’Doherty as Stede Bonnett’s wife Mary in “Our Flag Means Death”.
Kheng Hua Tan, “Kung Fu”
“Kung Fu” is an important show, but not necessarily a great one. It’s the kind of CW fare where you can drop in on an episode and know everything that’s going on in the first three minutes, chiefly because all the characters repeat it over and over again. Nonetheless, I love it, in large part because its cast is so incredibly charming.
As their kids run around having adventures, it’s the parents played by veteran actors Kheng Hua Tan and Tzi Ma who anchor often-poignant B-plots. The main plot about artifact trails, all-too-convenient clues, and insta-hacking can get very silly, but they often serve as an opportunity to open up points about Chinese history in the U.S., racism, and fighting gentrification.
Preserving one’s culture in a society determined to assimilate and re-purpose it hides traumas both historical and personal. Where Tzi Ma’s emotionally open Jin abides and understands, Kheng Hua Tan’s Mei-Li is more intense and guarded. Those scenes when she opens up enough to speak about her own history provide some of the clearest and most resonant moments happening on TV.
Taika Waititi, “Our Flag Means Death“
“Our Flag Means Death” lets director and Oscar-winning writer Taika Waititi stretch his legs as an actor. His improv and comic timing are impeccable. On the surface, his character of Blackbeard is a man for whom nothing is a challenge anymore. He’s grown numb to life, and wants to retire and enjoy his wealth. Yet this numbness hides something else – a growing attraction to the incompetent gentleman-pirate Stede Bonnett.
Paired with Rhys Darby’s Bonnet, Waititi’s Blackbeard offers a lens on two ways that men are taught to deny their homosexuality. In Stede’s case, it’s trying to fit into a suffocating heterosexual lifestyle – acting the part in regards to wife, children, place in society.
In Blackbeard’s case, the metaphor is that of suppressing who he is through a psychological self-mutilation, an inwardly turned hate and cruelty that bubbles to the surface and has to find other targets beyond himself – thus reinforcing the expectations of who he should be and how he should act.
Stede is an escape from that, but both struggle to escape the cages of expectation they’ve lived in most of their lives. They’re each expected to act a certain way, and do massive harm to themselves and those around them just to keep up the facade. To find each other and accept who they are is a kindness for both of them and their communities. That this is presented so well in the storytelling of a satirical sitcom is remarkable. Waititi is surrounded by an excellent cast, but it’s his performance that gives the series its pace and rhythm.
Minha Kim & Youn Yuh-jung, “Pachinko“
Minha Kim and Youn Yuh-jung play young and elderly versions of Sunja, in a story that follows her family across half a century. “Pachinko” uses this family as an opportunity to look at the Korean diaspora, some of which fled Korea during a brutal occupation only to suffer more hate and racism in Japan and the U.S.
Kim and Youn (along with child actor Yuna) realize the same woman across half a century, keeping and evolving mannerisms, showing how physicality changes without losing what makes that physicality unique. The way each glances, considers a silence or speaks before thinking, the way each enters a space, looks out for someone else or forgets to…it’s all the same person. It’s all the same character in a way that goes beyond two actors finding something shared. There’s an essence on-screen, something that we talk about when we think of movie magic, that these two actresses evoke.
There’s no suspension of disbelief needed. They’re the same person. In the emotional, gut reaction we have as viewers, there’s an instinct in me that would sooner believe they’re the same person across decades than that this could possibly be a character played by different actresses. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever felt that before.
Alan Tudyk, “Resident Alien“
“Resident Alien” might be the best thing SyFy’s managed in years and years. The comedy about an alien who’s crash-landed and has to live among the humans he was sent to destroy had a strong first season last year. This year’s been a little more up and down, but Tudyk’s performance continues to be a comedic goldmine.
The evolved-octopus-out-of-water story asks Tudyk to be doing outlandish physical comedy constantly, and the man hasn’t hit a wrong note. The series is edited for a sense of irony, and this only helps. It’s the kind of show where it would be very easy to chase a joke that doesn’t work. Very occasionally, it will do that for some of the other characters. The series centers on Tudyk’s Harry first and foremost, though, and a live-action series anchoring itself to this much physical comedy is nearly unheard of today. That’s because it needs someone with Tudyk’s skill to pull it off.
Bridget Everett & Jeff Hiller, “Somebody Somewhere“
The way these two characters appreciate and speak to each others’ unique way of looking at the world – and their anxiety at not finding a place in it – helps them find a joy that’s otherwise blocked.
Stuck in small town Kansas, and struggling with a rural environment that often feels claustrophobic, Jeff Hiller’s Joel is the only person around who treats Bridget Everett’s Sam as if she’s somebody admirable and worthy of notice. It’s not a romance. Joel is gay and he has a boyfriend, though the rest of the town is so willfully blind to this fact that they all just assume it’s a “corrective” romance for both.
Their friendship opens up a level of acceptance and self-acceptance that both have trouble finding elsewhere. It enables them both to not just help each other up, but to foster the beginnings of community within a community where they’ve rarely fit.
Andrew Garfield, “Under the Banner of Heaven“
I opened my “Under the Banner of Heaven” review by calling Andrew Garfield a beautiful performer. The crime scene that opens the show is horrific – you just don’t ever see much of it. We see its corners and edges, but we never leave Garfield’s Detective Pyre. It’s his reaction, the plaintive eyes that he can’t disguise, the bodily shudder, the beginning of erosion in someone’s beliefs played out in his carriage…it tells me so much more about the effect of that crime scene than the goriest image ever could.
It shook me from the beginning. Pyre’s caring but insistent manner is ideal in a detective, and arises from his faith even as it readies to be ripped to shreds by the realizations he’ll make about the brutal, misogynist Mormon fundamentalism he investigates. Pyre’s a walking emotional and spiritual sacrifice, and there are points where even he knows this. Yet he’s played with a care and gentleness that’s more admirable and capable than the blunt, desensitized cops that are worshiped on so many other shows. (The only flaw I find in his performance is how much he looks like Jimmy Carr in this hairstyle.)
The Oscars tend to latch on to specific films and focus all attention on them. There are 17 categories a feature film can be nominated in (since it can’t be nominated for both adapted and original screenplay). Of course, certain categories can see two nominations, such as two supporting actors for the same film. There are 18 possible if you’re an animated film, but at that point several of the other categories are realistically shut off to you.
This year, “The Power of the Dog” has 12 nominations, “Dune” has 10. They’re both extremely good films, but I’m not so sure that both excel past so many other films this year in the vast majority of categories. The record for nominations is held in a tie by “All About Eve”, “Titanic”, and “La La Land”. “All About Eve” saw nominations in 14 of the 16 categories for which it qualified. “Titanic and “La La Land” saw nominations in 14 of 17 categories. That tendency to boil the industry down to only a few films is counterproductive – not because of the quality of the films, which are very good, but because it necessarily overlooks technical, writing, and acting achievements in smaller films, genre films, and sometimes otherwise average films.
A movie that’s good-but-not-great might have superb editing that deserves a nomination. An intentionally cheesy horror film could deserve a nod for its jaw-dropping production design. A black-and-white film might deserve a costume nom, and there might be a whole host of brilliant smaller films that simply got overlooked (this entire paragraph is foreshadowing).
More than any other awards show, the Oscars are built as an advertisement. The Academy harnesses the preferences of its membership to create zeitgeist around a limited number of films. If dozens of films each have a few nominations apiece, the ad doesn’t work because audiences aren’t really pushed in a specific direction. There’s too much choice for the advertisement to direct you. If a very few films have a mountain of nominations, then those movies become must-see.
I’d argue that this is counter-productive because it sells to a limited section of your audience. Horror and science-fiction films that break new technological ground get ignored; independent films and non-English language movies compete for a limited range of nominations; and many of the bravest directors taking the most chances are overlooked. While the recognition for Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” this year, Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” last year, and the films of Asian and Hispanic directors the last several years is long overdue, this limited focus in nominations is a big part of the narrowing that barred entry for including these perspectives in the first place.
There are ways to celebrate the entire industry without losing focus – especially when you’ve got three hours to do it – but hammering a few films into mind over and over again is a more risk-averse strategy. Again, these films deserve it; they’re just not the only ones that do. I’d suggest the repetition and lack of focus on the accomplishments of the industry at large is a big part of the reason the Oscars keep losing viewers. Audiences have the entire world of filmmaking at their fingertips now; their nominations still don’t consistently reflect that.
I don’t mean to treat this in a cynical way. You can still like watching an ad. Hell, I’m writing this whole article about one. I’ve enjoyed the Oscars a number of times, though I think it took a wrong turn when it shifted away from Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, and song-and-dance numbers and instead pursued James Franco and – at least an improvement from him – no host at all.
And while I’m excited for Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes hosting, I’m also wary of host Amy Schumer given her history of racist jokes. That includes some that are basically Trump lines about Latines. Yes, she apologized in 2016. It must’ve been difficult to write that single Tweet before she went straight back to making even more racist jokes, including the racist cluster of clusterfucks that is “Snatched”. And…actually, you know what, I just wrote nearly the same intro about Ellen Rapoport last week. Maybe let’s find comedians who don’t build their careers off of posing Latines as inhuman, untrustworthy animals. You have no idea how tiring it is and, if you do, wouldn’t it be nice to write and talk about what we love without having to feel that hatred sucking away our soul when we come to these parts of it?
Let’s circle back. The Oscars offer a well-recognized lens through which to look at which nominations struck and what movies and accomplishments were overlooked in the past year:
Best Costume Design
Nominated: Cruella, Cyrano, Dune, Nightmare Alley, West Side Story
Forgotten: Marci Rodgers, Passing
A black-and-white film can have trouble standing out in this category, but the costume design in “Passing” is astounding. What’s most remarkable are the places where it isn’t flashy, where we see the clothes people dressed in on a daily basis. Our central characters are socialites to a degree, but they’re not ridiculously wealthy. What they wear is nice, but unlike so many period films, it looks like the clothing that characters from that period would actually wear more than one time.
There was a focus on avoiding flapper fashion tropes, which didn’t define that era yet is routinely recognized for doing so on film. As Costume Designer Marci Rodgers says, the film’s characters were “more likely to adhere to respectability politics than to flout sartorial strictures of that era”. After all, part of passing as white is fitting in without calling too much attention to yourself.
In other words, the costume choices make the period film feel lived-in instead of simply giving us idealized examples that look nicest being worn once for the camera. That alone should put Marci Rodgers’s work in “Passing” ahead of certain other films that prioritize cinematic showiness over period accuracy and practicality. You may’ve seen Rodgers’s work before in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird”.
Best Make-up and Hairstyling
Nominated: Coming 2 America, Cruella, Dune, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, House of Gucci
Forgotten: Eldo Ray Estes (makeup head), Cliona Furey (hair designer), Mike Hill (special makeup effects designer), Nightmare Alley
The exclusion of “Nightmare Alley” from this category is astounding, especially when you consider that the film tracks across several years and shifts characters through different social classes and styles. To my mind, only two of the nominations approach the sheer amount of work that “Nightmare Alley” accomplishes, representing a carnival in the 30s, high society in the 40s, shifting characters in and out of hairstyling, wigs, wigs on top of wigs. I’d even say the hallmark accomplishment of the film – making Bradley Cooper unrecognizable in two wildly opposite directions – stands alongside the best individual make-up jobs of the year.
Best Production Design
Nominated: Dune, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story
Forgotten: Desma Murphy, Malignant
The Academy has a habit of overlooking stellar technical achievements in films that aren’t otherwise great. “Malignant” is more complex because it’s actively created to be ambitiously, consciously…I don’t want to use the word “bad”, but it has a serious investment in schlock horror and why we connect to it. “Malignant” succeeds so wildly at evoking shocking slasher films because it’s so knowledgeable and precise about their history. I didn’t imagine “Malignant” had a chance to be nominated for anything, but it does some remarkable things with its production design, and how that design is purpose-built for so many other elements of the film – such as its cinematography, special effects, and choreography.
For its production design, “Malignant” draws from 60s/70s giallo and pop art, the wide gamut of 80s horror, more specific sci-fi like “Blade Runner”, and especially 90s gothic action movies like “The Crow”. It also pulls from much more recent horror films, although this is harder to separate from director James Wan’s own style considering he’s created so much of this newer aesthetic himself.
“Malignant” introduces a surprising amount that’s fresh in horror filmmaking from a technical standpoint. The production design is outstanding, even if the rest of the film’s ambitions lie in giving us a grisly creature feature that doesn’t really care how good or bad it is, so long as it keeps your attention.
Best Visual Effects
Nominated: Dune, Free Guy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, No Time to Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home
Forgotten: The Suicide Squad (clip contains major spoilers)
I’ve long hated this category because it prizes the greatest amount and fidelity of visual effects. It tends to lean away from how those effects are actually used in an artistic sense. I’m not sure we’ve seen an action movie that so effectively translates comic book sensibilities through visual effects, and that’s saying something considering how competitive and well-funded the genre is right now.
It’s tough to see “The Suicide Squad” snubbed here when it introduced a more playful and character-focused use of visual effects than superhero movies think we deserve. If I name my 10 favorite moments of visual effects this year, at least four come from “The Suicide Squad”. From Harley Quinn’s Disneyfied vision of violence and Polka-Dot Man’s lo-fi powers and high-strung anxieties, to King Shark’s entire existence and the cartoonish horror and beauty of the film’s dementedly heartfelt climax, no other movie’s visual effects this year actually served the characters inside of the film better than in “The Suicide Squad”.
Nominated: Belfast, Dune, No Time to Die, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story
The ticking of a watch as it passes by the camera. The strike of high heeled shoes on marble. The lively bustle of a carnival. The empty white noise of a city. The strange sound absorption of snow, a sensation rarely captured so well in a film. I loved the sound design of “Nightmare Alley”. It has a number of nominations, so it’s not exactly lacking, but I would have loved a nomination here.
Best Original Score
Nominated: Don’t Look Up, Dune, Encanto, Parallel Mothers, The Power of the Dog
Forgotten: Natalie Holt, Fever Dream
Natalie Holt garnered a lot of attention this past year for composing the music for “Loki” (and years before that for hurling eggs at Simon Cowell). Her work in Claudia Llosa’s “Fever Dream” is a pulsing thing centered on breathing strings and a sense of profound isolation. Magical realism on film is extremely reliant on its music because it’s the element that can most immediately mirror a character’s emotional state. The score connects the inner experience of being in that moment to a form that’s defined by a far more abstract and disordered sense of time and place.
Holt’s score is yearning and lonely. It reflects the finality and fatalism of this particular kind of magical realist storytelling. It’s consequential and dramatic without ever feeling overbearing. It’s quiet and lurking, but sympathetic at the same time, just like the threat of tragedy that’s understood too late even though it begins and concludes “Fever Dream”.
Nominated: Dune, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story
Forgotten: Oscar Faura, Fever Dream
As a piece of magical realism, “Fever Dream” needs to blend the suggestive and abstract to the everyday. Landscapes themselves become animist, and homes that interrupt the farmland create a progressive layering of what’s perceived as safe giving way to field and copse and finally wood.
There’s a consistent use of backlighting, natural evening light, and shallow focus that is generally avoided in film but here highlights the woman at the center of its story as unable to see the full picture even as the audience recognizes it. That’s a central tenet of magical realism: that the audience already knows the what, but we need to learn the why and how. To find ways that evoke this through cinematography is remarkable, and this is all before taking into account the film’s shades of horror and beautifully filmed hallucinatory elements.
I’d also strongly push “Titane” and “Passing” here because I can do so and quickly move on to the next category without explaining how I’d still get it down to five nominations:
Best Film Editing
Nominated: Don’t Look Up, Dune, King Richard, The Power of the Dog, tick, tick…BOOM!
Forgotten: Fred Raskin, Christian Wagner, The Suicide Squad
This shouldn’t come out of left field if you’ve seen the film. Every bit of personality, comedy, and emotional resonance in “The Suicide Squad” is underlined by its extraordinary editing. What’s most impressive is the sheer range on display here: action movie, comedy montage, noir, drama. There’s a full rotation of different editing rhythms that James Gunn’s film cycles through for its various characters and their different emotional states.
It fuses title screens into the environment, flashbacks within literal windows, and a host of stunning tricks that you’d expect to see in something far more experimental than this genre usually gives us. I’d place this as one of the most difficult jobs for an editor out of all the superhero movies we’ve seen, but it doesn’t just hit that mark – it excels beyond it on every front.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominated: Coda, Drive My Car, Dune, The Lost Daughter, The Power of the Dog
Forgotten: Rebecca Hall, Passing
Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel brilliantly discusses the co-optation of culture and identity. I’ve seen a lot of reads on the film that talk about how it rejects a Black woman who’s long passed as white and is trying to return to being Black, but I think this risks overlooking a central conversation in the film.
Clare isn’t someone returning to being Black, she’s someone who’s still passing as white, returning to a Black community as a white tourist in the fashion protagonist Irene and novelist Hugh discuss mid-film. This redefines “Passing” into a far more complex consideration of privilege, co-optation, and whether someone can embrace who they are while still hating it. It’s one of the most wrenching discussions of race I’ve seen in narrative filmmaking.
Best Original Screenplay
Nominated: Belfast, Don’t Look Up, Licorice Pizza, King Richard, The Worst Person in the World
Forgotten: Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby
Emma Seligman’s debut film lands an audacious number of risks. It tells the story of Danielle, a college student who bumps into her sugar daddy at a Jewish funeral service. She navigates her parents’ expectations, a passive-aggressive ex, and a number of realizations about the lies her sugar daddy’s told her. As it touches on feminism, sexual empowerment, Millennial and Gen Z angst, and generational lies, “Shiva Baby” becomes an unflinchingly tense navigation of both personal and cultural truths that still aren’t wholly deciphered.
The screenplay is equal parts funny and horrifying, and manages to make us laugh even as things grow more uncomfortable. At times, I even found myself comparing the quickfire theatrical pacing and claustrophobic use of a single location in “Shiva Baby” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Best Supporting Actress
Nominated: Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter), Ariana Debose (West Side Story), Judi Dench (Belfast), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)
Forgotten: Ruth Negga, Passing (CW: clip contains racism, use of the N-word)
This is one of the biggest oversights of the year. One of the most complex roles in recent years asks Negga to portray a Black woman passing for white. Through a friend, she returns to the Black community – but not as someone re-embracing or relearning who she is or the violence she’s done to her identity.
Instead, she returns as white, entering this sphere as a tourist, assuming centrality in a community she still rejects from her own identity. She does this in a way that’s outwardly kind, soft-spoken, and often plaintive, but also reads as manipulative, in full use of the white privilege she’s learned. Rarely has someone portrayed the insidiousness of cultural co-optation so completely.
Best Supporting Actor
Nominated: Ciaran Hinds (Belfast), Troy Kotsur (Coda), Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog), JK Simmons (Being the Ricardos), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Forgotten: Willem Dafoe, Nightmare Alley
The Oscars have a way of overlooking some of the best genre performances. Unless someone’s playing the Joker, the most precise and chilling performances in genre work go without a nomination. Dafoe’s carnival boss Clem Hoatley sticks in your brain as a hideously abusive, yet nonetheless chummy man. He’d love talking to you and showing you the ropes, but he’d just as soon stab you in the back if it served his purposes. What communicates for all his toothy, slithering presentation is just how banal and workaday he makes abuse, how he can discuss it like any other work procedure over drinks and a meal. As housed within horror fantasy as Clem Hoatley is, we’ve all met many managers and supervisors who are just like him.
Nominated: Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Andrew Garfield (tick, tick…BOOM!), Will Smith (King Richard), Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth)
Forgotten: Nicolas Cage, Pig
Nicolas Cage movies are often B-grade flights of nonsense, but you can’t dismiss all of them. That risks overlooking some of the most interesting independent work of the last several years. None stand out as strongly as “Pig”, a quiet and understated testament to gentleness housed within the framework of what would be a revenge film with any other script.
Cage plays Rob, a man whose truffle pig is stolen. Truffles go for thousands apiece, and he seeks the pig out amid Portland’s cutthroat restaurant scene. Cage delivers the performance of his career. Rob is an aggressively guarded misanthrope, shut off because he remembers every bit of empathy throughout his life. A towering, bearded, bloodied hermit, he navigates confrontation through a gentle understanding of others. Rarely have characters so overwhelmed by their empathy and desperate to shut it off been portrayed with such human nuance.
Nominated: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” stands out as one of the most chilling and soul-emptying performances of a psychopath in cinema. As Alexia, she goes through every emotion there is as if performing a shell of expectations for others. She spends most of the film hiding in a guise that begins to accept elements of her psychopathy – under that of a man among other men. The male privilege that accepts and prizes aggression is one she can find a comfort in, and the ability to create such a cold character who still evokes our empathy – not because she’s changed but because her environment has – is a performance that challenges our understanding of the norms we use to demarcate gender and its privileges.
Many times, the best performance in a year is something you’ve seen done before in an exceptional, unparalleled way. This year, it’s something exceptional and unparalleled that I’ve just never seen done before.
(I want to be specific – hers is not a performance of a trans character. She is hiding out, disguising herself as a young man because it prevents police from finding her. She remains a woman throughout, even if she hides this from others. This allows writer-director Julia Ducournau to investigate the masculine tendencies that are discouraged among women, and the feminine aspects in men that we’re trained to psychologically self-mutilate out of ourselves).
Nominated: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car), Steven Spielberg (West Side Story)
Forgotten: Julia Ducournau, TitaneandRebecca Hall, Passing
Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” and Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” both leap toward the front of my list of the best films of the past decade. “Passing” requires a precise realization of its smallest moments and gestures, whereas “Titane” is a visually evocative tour-de-force. Both feature an exquisite pairing of actors directed with purpose: Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in “Passing” and Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon in “Titane”.
Both directors fit stories into worlds both recognizable and related to our own, yet at the same time stylistically removed so that story can bite deep when the time comes. Both films had me thinking for days, falling asleep in a fog of their implications and waking up with a deep desire to tackle them anew. Both offer questions and challenges to my perceptions that I’m not sure I have the answers to, and that’s exciting art that I know I’ll return to again and again.
Ask me whether Hall or Ducournau did a better job and the answer will change day by day, depending on which one I’m thinking about. They’re my 1-2 for best film of the year, and neither saw a single Oscar nomination.
Nominated: Belfast, Coda, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story
So why choose “Passing” over “Titane”? There’s a precise answer, and it’s that the screenplay for “Passing” elevates it above “Titane” in how it speaks to me. Even if both are precise creations, “Passing” cuts into me where “Titane” extrudes something from me. Nine times out of 10, I’d choose what’s more evocative, but I’m not sure I’ve met a film that cuts so deep as “Passing”.
The Black and Hispanic experiences for those who aren’t both can be very different, but both face some similarities in the systemic constructs that ask us to internalize racism against ourselves. That separates us from our communities, and even makes us reject them or repeat to them the very same racism practiced on us. I spent much of my childhood learning from my environment to hate the Hispanic half of who I am, and much of my adulthood learning to accept it. That requires coping with the trauma that was inflicted on me and that I was taught to inflict on myself.
At the same time, as Rebecca Hall says in the clip above, I have to reckon with the aspects of privilege I have embodied or used. What benefits have I enjoyed that others who can’t pass haven’t? What aspects of that system have I propagated?
Oh, but that’s all subjective? How else would we watch film? Saying the best film of the year is any film says that it speaks to us in some subjective way. Few films have bothered with concepts of passing and internalized racism, despite racism against oneself being one of the most widely repeated messages in the history of American media. There needs to be more that speaks to this section of the audience, and frankly, there needs to be more that speaks like “Titane” as well. The reason it’s right next to “Passing” is because it speaks to vicious and hateful reinforcements of binary gender constructs. I think we all could’ve used a bit less of that growing up, too.
Frankly, the difference between what I’d call the best and second-best film of the year, or even fifth-best film of the year isn’t really that much. They’re all worth seeing. The nominated films are all worth seeing. I just don’t want to let the moment pass without highlighting so much else of what made last year special in film.
The 2010s were an odd decade for music videos. The medium seems to have both a record audience and a diminishing importance. Music videos at the beginning of the decade measured the celebrity of an artist. The best were (for some reason) often considered those with the most cameos of other celebrities.
Now, viewership is overwhelming, there’s more access to music videos than ever before, and that interest is much more fragmented. Websites dedicated to covering music videos have gone under. A star can no longer maintain their celebrity solely on opulently produced music videos.
Are these good things or bad? It’s genuinely hard to say. It’s an evolution. I certainly don’t mind that stars themselves have become less central to music videos. When they do feature, it’s less about anchoring the video to a musical performance and more about how the star features, highlights, or contrasts to a story taking place. It leaves more room for narrative, setting, a director’s touch, dance, choreography, performance.
These are the 10 music videos of the last decade that stick with me the most:
10. “Land of the Free” – The Killers
directed by Spike Lee
Hope can’t function without the work to realize it. Change doesn’t happen unless people enact it. Spike Lee’s video for The Killers’ “Land of the Free” speaks to the sad, backwards phase the United States has found itself embracing. We’re running concentration camps for Latinx immigrants, tearing children from their parents and keeping them locked away for no reason. Incarceration has been transformed into a modern version of slave labor for the prison industry. Children are shot in our schools with no real effort made to decrease the risk they face.
“Land of the Free” is a Rorschach test for how you’re feeling that day: hopeful, angry, motivated, hopeless, desperate. All of those feelings are part of a whole. All of them are legitimate and natural. Just keep taking the next step to changing something. Keep taking the next step of the work that feeds that hope and one day realizes it.
Many of Mitski’s videos center on the dissonance of being biracial. Director Maegan Houang’s “Happy” might investigate this best in terms of the white beauty standards held against women of color. What the video reveals is how racism is used to undermine feminism that isn’t intersectional. While it supposedly prizes white women over women of color, it’s ultimately used to suppress both. White patriarchy doesn’t enable or reward women held as successful in it, it just points them at another marginalized community while both are victimized.
8. “Genghis Khan” – Miike Snow
directed by Ninian Dorff produced Sarah Boardman, Rik Green choreography by Supple Nam
And now for something happy. A surprise hit that came out of nowhere, “Genghis Khan” is a terrific love story that exemplifies the strengths of music videos as a medium. It communicates its ideas quickly and upends your expectations through song, dance, and just a few cutaway shots.
We’re familiar enough with the tropes it plays with that it doesn’t need any more than this. It’s successful because it can tell a story in under four minutes with very broad strokes and a bare handful of specifics that establish and then invert cliches we love. It’s expertly directed because it knows where to pull back and trust the audience.
7. “Elastic Heart” – Sia
directed by Sia, Daniel Askill choreographed by Ryan Heffington
Dance can communicate a great deal, including the inability to escape certain struggles and bring the people we love with us. Sia has discussed the video in terms of being two sides of her personality, and it also works as demonstration of family members struggling and fighting – sometimes with each other. A daughter learns to cope with mental illness and trauma and a father can’t escape its impact – whether because it’s too late or too progressed, he simply didn’t have the tools and help in time.
The responses to this video were understandable. Many worried about connotations of pedophilia at the idea of Shia LaBeouf dancing opposite Maddie Ziegler in a cage. Impact outweighs intent, so it’s appropriate that Sia herself quickly clarified the aim of the video and didn’t seek to blame or attack those who were concerned about it.
As a metaphor for mental illness and trauma recovery, it can be powerful. The video itself is the sum of a number of smart decisions. Ryan Heffington’s choreography is off-kilter and imbalanced, playing with the power dynamic and difference in size between his two dancers. The camera remains still at various points only to explode into motion. The editing is energetic and chooses its patient moments. There’s sometimes a slight fish-eye effect used in shots taken from inside the cage that creates a slightly distorted perspective. And of course, the two dancers are phenomenal, both in their choreography and in their performances as actors.
6. “What Kind of Man” – Florence + The Machine
directed by Vincent Haycock produced by Jackie Bisbee, Mary Ann Marino, Alex Fisch choreographed by Ryan Heffington
Florence Welch has a catalog of fearless performances in music videos. Perhaps none of them match “What Kind of Man” for their range and the flexibility of their interpretation. Welch and Director Vincent Haycock put together a 48-minute film called The Odyssey, composed of nine original Florence + The Machine music videos. “What Kind of Man” serves as the opener to it.
I’d describe it as a burgeoning storm of a music video if it wasn’t expressly making that comparison within the video itself. The range of scenes swings wildly across intimate experiences, framing an entire rocky history of trust, anger, desire, shame. We come away with the shape of what someone’s love life has felt like – whether across multiple romances or just one is hard to say. We understand the gender inequality that played into it, the feelings of disaster and healing that accompanied it.
If we were asked to build a chronology of events out of the video, we couldn’t possibly. Yet if we were asked to describe the feelings surrounding those events, we could describe what the video shows us for far longer than it runs. “What Kind of Man” is like an impressionist painting – we may not be able to identify individual objects in it, but we can describe exactly what it feels like.
(I had this list sorted out before I looked at the production and choreography credits. Lo and behold, choreographer Ryan Heffington again. I supposed I should be looking for more of his work.)
5. “The Body Electric” – Hurray for the Riff Raff
directed by Joshua Shoemaker produced by Dan and Cathleen Murphy
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s protest anthem “Pa’lante” could just as easily have made the list, but “The Body Electric” is the music video I go to when I feel most helpless in changing things. It’s not because the video makes me feel hopeful. It’s because it makes me see how much more hopelessness out there is felt by others, how many marginalized communities are struggling and seeking for their voice to be legitimized, to be seen as human. The sheer volume of that struggle isn’t reassuring, but I know we’re none of us alone in that struggle. The hopelessness I’m feeling isn’t unique, or unprecedented, or insurmountable. It’s a desired effect of the racism I fear and fight against, of the misogyny and transphobia addressed in the video.
“The Body Electric” reminds me I’m not alone. There are more of us who want to change things than those who want them to remain this way. That pain is heard. It’s felt. It has platforms. People are fighting every day. I don’t fail if I’ve fought until exhaustion. We all have at some point. I fail if I don’t recognize that in others, if I don’t see the communities who are all in this. Art like this can be poignant in driving a point home, and it can also serve as a bridge to the lonely and exhausted that reminds them it’s OK, that exhaustion is shared, just as overcoming it is shared.
4. “Quarrel” – Moses Sumney
directed by Allie Avital, Moses Sumney produced by Meghan Doherty
Moses Sumney’s song speaks of the power imbalance in a relationship between people of different privileges. The music video deals with the desire to transform into something he cannot, the fairy tale that people of color can be seen as the same when the difference that’s applied to them is itself illusory. We turn the hate of that inward in an impossible effort to become the things that hate us.
Or, the music video deals with the desire to oppress and cause violence to those we care about who don’t have the same privileges, and it’s not until Sumney puts himself into the shoes of those he oppresses that he can understand how his actions cause harm.
“Quarrel” is difficult to parse. Like many great fairy tales, it can say multiple things depending on your point of view.
3. “This is America” – Childish Gambino
directed by Hiro Murai produced by Danielle Hinde, Jason Cole, Fam Rothstein, Ibra Ake choreographed by Sherrie Silver
Obviously, “This is America” belongs high on any list like this one. Why does it work so well for so many people? It speaks to a country (and cultural movement across many countries) that increasingly uses fear to dominate and radicalize its people against each other. It builds layers of violent imagery immediately ignored with smiles and dancing. The smiles and dancing immediately enable the next eruption of violence.
Nothing is healed in that cycle. All of us quietly fear it while simultaneously feeding it, participating in it, enabling it. It fuses together the acts of violence and illusions that erase them to evoke a lurking fear that we use those illusions to suppress and deny.
2. “RAPIN*” – Jenny Wilson
Content Warning: sexual assault
animated & directed by Gustaf Holtenas
Jenny Wilson’s 2018 album EXORCISM is an unraveling of after-effects from a sexual assault. The entire album serves as a maelstrom, an extensive fallout of damages and dealing with them. Its uncomfortable discussion of recovery as a process that often repeats the trauma is stark and realistic. There’s no before-and-after picture to it.
“RAPIN*” is the first song on the album, a fever dream that serves as a terrifying monument in life that can never be erased. Gustaf Holtenas’s animated music video reflects that terror in a way that’s both surreal and sickeningly physical.
It’s not a representation that can be easily digested. It’s confrontational, visceral, revolting, haunting. It conveys how trauma changes the way someone sees the world from that point forward, how the event itself replays in their mind. It’s a direct and painful music video that places the viewer into the shoes of the victim, if only to describe in some slight way something that can’t be described.
1. “Afterlife” – Arcade Fire
directed by Emily Kai Bock produced by Anne Johnson
The best we can do for the people we’ve lost is remember them. Sometimes we can only do so in impressions. Perhaps its a TV show you grew up watching with them. Perhaps its a place where you danced. Perhaps its a shoulder you rested upon. We don’t always have access to these things anymore. We reach out to them in our imaginations, in our dreams, we try to resurrect them in the art we create.
We try to touch them just one more time, to evoke something lost – their image, their voice, their presence. Sometimes a death can feel like nothing will ever be the same. Sometimes it can feel like they just stepped out for a minute, and they’ll be right back.
“Afterlife” deals in the impressions we might remember in our dreams, the memories of work and leisure a father might have, a teenager’s memory that’s precise but lacks context, the brief feeling of reassurance after a child’s nightmare.
“Afterlife” is sad and longing, but it’s also immensely reassuring. It shares one glimpse of something we all feel in our lives, at a way our hearts all break and mend until we can test their breaking once again because we so dearly want to remember those we’ve lost.
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The best films of the decade will be wildly different for everyone. Naming them is a way of highlighting what you value and anchor to. It might call attention to a movie someone else hasn’t seen, or that they don’t see the same way as you. The films on lists like these show us something about ourselves.
Sometimes the films named anticipate a movement that follows, or interpret one already happening. Other films are simply unique, and unlike anything else. Is the perfect war film superior to a challenging and flawed film that’s utterly unique and does what no other film you’ve ever seen before has? The answer to that is going to vary by critic, by viewer. The reasons for that answer are more important than the answer itself.
These are the films that stay with me, that I think about on random days because they’re close to me. There are elements in some of them I haven’t fully figured out. The viewing experience may have been going on for years because I still haven’t stepped out of that beautiful moment after the credits are over and I consider the way each sits like a presence beside me.
written by Paul Webb directed by Ava DuVernay
“Selma” isn’t a biographical or historical film. It’s a war film. It communicates the process and procedure of meaningful protest. It follows the strategies the groups involved created and reacted to. It engages the architecture of successful protest and the work that goes into it at the ground level. It’s not a film about individual icons, though it features them. It’s a film about real, flawed people who fostered and empowered community to make change.
“Selma” measures its sacrifices as both countless and deeply personal. Each is unknowable as even more mount, and each is world shattering for the people left in its wake. It’s an exercise in perfect direction and tight character acting. It doesn’t stylize its era and it spends time with smaller roles to show you the impacts and emotion of that moment in time.
written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz
The third film chronicling a troubled and unsatisfactory marriage, “Gett” is a movie that erodes you just as it does its main character. Struggling against her country’s religious laws, Viviane Amsalem (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) spends years in court trying to obtain a divorce from her husband.
He refuses to grant her one, and even when he does the conditions are his alone and subject to change. The film is simply presented, relying on its very real performances. Among many other things, “Gett” is an incredible examination of communicating desperation through restrained and even dulled emotions. It’s a film that, inside one courtroom, portrays a consistent resistance to the normalization of being treated as sub-human and without rights.
8. “The Secret of Kells”
written by Tomm Moore & Fabrice Ziolkowski directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)
“The Secret of Kells” designed its animation to look like the illuminated manuscripts that monks would spend years designing. The story it told concerned some of those monks attempting to finish the Book of Kells and then save the manuscript before invading vikings pillage their abbey. It doesn’t help that a god of death is lurking in the woods, but a helpful faerie does her best to help.
It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but it works as a beautiful fable and the Celtic-styled animation is often overwhelming, stunning, and evocative. The film achieves an experience of calm and wholeness that matches the best of Hayao Miyazaki.
written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan directed by Christopher Nolan
This is one of the two big event films on the list, and I genuinely think it deserves to be here. As a high-concept science-fiction film, it sits comfortably alongside predecessors like “2001”. What’s unique about writer-director Christopher Nolan is that in his best moments, he melds high-concept to event filmmaking. That “Interstellar” also succeeds as an adventure film is incredible.
It’s also a movie that finds hope buried under layers of hopelessness. It presents a world that’s given up, that lies to itself to maintain the illusion that it’s not clearly dying – a world that becomes more and more familiar with each passing day – and it shows us an optimistic story of finding a way through. That way through is demanding, it takes generations, and it asks for work and sacrifice.
written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer directed by Jonathan Glazer
“Under the Skin” is an art film that nearly all my friends hate. I love it. It’s a chaotic and lurking work that follows an alien (Scarlett Johansson) as she picks up lonely men and consumes them. You try to understand her and her burgeoning interest in becoming human – or at least experiencing human things.
The specifics of the Michel Faber novel on which it’s based are thrown to the side in favor of a multitude of potential readings. In fact, director Jonathan Glazer allowed his crew to design and score the film according to their own individual interpretations. A movie can so easily go careening off into disaster with that approach – and some would say this one did.
For me, however, it’s a disturbing work of inverting horror. It asks you to identify with a predator, making it inaccessible as it should be but coaxing you into the work of attempting to do it anyway. Then it confronts you with the idea that this is the work you’ve been doing. That might seem like a betrayal or trick on the movie’s part, but so much of our society has been built on normalizing and shielding predators that we’ve now elected one. Maybe we could have used a few more movies like this one.
Few films try to tackle the meaning of faith. Far fewer actually engage it without focusing on proselytizing or idolatry. “Life of Pi” tells the story of a young survivor stuck on a life raft with a tiger. The second of the two event films on this list, it’s patient, heartbreaking, and utterly human.
I hate frame stories – they’re a terribly used concept across movies. Yet the idea of a journalist going to interview the survivor as an adult allows Irrfan Khan to recall his story in ways that build both emotional and logical anchors (Khan has a solid and overlooked argument for greatest actor of his generation). Doing so creates a remarkable moment of self-questioning in the audience that makes the frame story a valuable way of describing and explaining hope and faith.
written by Taylor Sheridan directed by Denis Villeneuve
“Sicario” is a stalking thing. It’s a movie that’s a nightmare, a film about FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). She’s tasked to an ill-defined covert operations team in order to legitimize its actions across the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s all standard spy fare so far, right? The film itself begins like a mystery and descends into a murk of threat and erasure.
It’s controversial in some circles of critics of color because of the way it poses Mexico as a war zone for the drug trade. The presentation in the film is definitely somewhat overblown. I find value in how the film illustrates the way the United States feeds the drug trade and installs leaders who are no less violent – but whose violence simply aligns with and feeds the financing of our own.
The villain in the film isn’t ultimately Mexico in any way. The villain is U.S. imperialism. What’s powerful in the film to me is one woman simply trying to do her job, and how the overwhelming nature of that imperialism increasingly dissolves the values that she imagines she’s risking her life to uphold. As I put it in my review, “It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters”. For my money, it’s Blunt’s best performance.
I once called “Sicario” the best film of 2015. I don’t know that I was wrong – it’s very close by in this list. The movie that’s stuck with me ever so slightly more, however, is my runner up that year – Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”. I’ve found that many “bests” in years past have shifted slightly – this list itself might look entirely different in a decade’s time.
“Girlhood” itself is a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t deal in the usual trials and tribulations of maturing. It follows a group of high-school girls in France. Most of them are Black or of Middle Eastern descent. The film deals with trans identity. It covers the silence of women before groups of men. It shows the path of maturing in a far different light than in the safe, stereotypical, low-risk, middle class ways that most coming-of-age tales cover.
It’s a film that shows growing up as a constant struggle to find or create safe harbor in a world that doesn’t provide it for everyone. It is inspiring, emotional, evolving, it feels all the more real when very light touches of magical realism are used, and there is a full scope of emotion to it – from the joy of community to the isolation of survival.
written by Sarah Polley & Michael Polley directed by Sarah Polley
“Stories We Tell” is a complex family documentary that covers extensive meta territory. Filmmaker Sarah Polley was curious about stories that she might not be her father’s daughter. She delved into her own family’s history to profile her late mother, interview her mother’s lovers, her own family, and to research who exactly she was, what stories shaped her, and which were truthful.
One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is that Michael Polley – her mother’s husband and the father who raised her, serves as narrator for it. He’s also interviewed, and his calm and acceptance of the entire endeavor is another layer to be…not examined, but simply sat with and understood.
The film reveals piece by piece, but it’s never a mystery so much as it’s a contemplation of lives lived, of what a person understands about someone they love and might also fail to understand about them. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen, and stands out as something truly and quietly unique in all of film.
1. “The Milk of Sorrow”
written and directed by Claudia Llosa
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)
“The Milk of Sorrow” is a Peruvian film that traces how trauma shapes future generations. It follows Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman whose mother passes away in a remarkable first scene. Fausta’s mother was raped in a civil war, and her stories and experiences of this have shaped Fausta’s view of the world. She passes through it quietly, timidly, shying from a hundred normal things that she reads as potential dangers.
Fausta’s also made shocking decisions for her own health that make no sense, but that are framed by paranoia, superstition, fear, and how trauma has infused itself into folklore. The film is a reserved piece of magical realism that traces in one character how trauma echoes in a society – especially among its indigenous communities.
The cinematography is stark and beautiful one minute, rich and full of motion the next, yet another argument that Natasha Braier is without a doubt the cinematographer most overlooked by the Oscars this last decade. Writer-director Claudia Llosa’s film operates on two levels: a quiet, obvious, and patient one on the surface, and one that exists below that in the muted suppression of panic that deals with anxiety, shame, and betrayal.
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A friend recently asked me if I could only listen to a specific decade’s worth of music for the rest of my life, which 10 years would I choose?
Folks idolize other eras – perhaps it’s the pop of the 60s or the radical shift the 80s represented. Maybe it’s the grunge and alternative movements of the 90s. For me, the answer was simple. I said the last 10 years, and if you ask me next year you can just shift it up a year.
There are a lot of things technology has endangered lately, but art is both stubborn and flexible. It’s easier to make music than it ever has been. More people have access to releasing music, more subjects are acceptable to talk about in music, and we have instantaneous access to a wider variety of artists and cultures than ever before.
2018 was a long, tough year, unbearable for many people in many ways. It demanded a lot, so I tried a few ridiculous things putting this together. Eventually, I decided to share my top 100, but only allow myself a sentence for most. The idea is to give a brief impression of what each album is so that you can find something new that appeals to you.
If you’ve got Spotify, I’ve made a 1,000 song playlist of the best songs of 2018. It contains these and other artists. It allows you to find the artists and albums listed below easily:
These are my top 100 albums of 2018. Prepare to hear me use the word “range” way too often.
100. Extralife – Darlingside Ultra-precious, quiet indie pop that alternates between navel-gazing as an art form and harmonizing about optimism in darkness.
99. Bad Witch – Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor discovers saxophones and tortures them until they give up their secrets, much like David Bowie once did on Outside.
98. Aviary – Julia Holter Experimental orchestro-electro-jazz-pop that sounds like the music they put in sci-fi films to symbolize what people from the future who dress like they’re from the 1930s will listen to.
97. Depth of Field – Sarah Blasko Ridiculously catchy yet intensely moody synth pop that (mostly) dumps the synths for strings.
96. You Never Were Much of a Dancer – Gwenifer Raymond Welsh guitar music in the style of Appalachian folk, aggressively realized in its ambition, speed, and atmosphere.
95. Port Saint Joe – Brothers Osborne The funniest country band out there flexes its muscles across a broad range of country and rock genres.
94. Birthplace – Novo Amor Gentle indie folk that feels like getting tucked in for the night.
93. Oxnard – Anderson .Paak A self-aware rap critique of the dangerous risk Black men are expected to face in today’s America that unfortunately descends into a creepy and misogynist reinforcement of the dangerous role women are expected to fill in today’s America. The lighter sexual fantasies are fine-ish, but it veers too close to hatred later. Half is in the top 50, and half has no place on this list, so consider this an average with an asterisk.
92. Premonitions – Miya Folick
Inventive indie rock that tests a wide range, often echoing Florence + The Machine in versatility, but much more bluntly pop-oriented.
91. Open Here – Field Music Art rock that evokes Talking Heads, playgrounds falling apart, flutes conspiring against you, and lost Beatles songs each in turn.
90. The Midnight Hour – The Midnight Hour
Tight jazz songs soaked in atmosphere with a range of guest performers; just beware an ill-advised CeeLo Green appearance for one song.
89. Mother of My Children – Black Belt Eagle Scout Folk-grunge that builds strength out of vulnerable introspection, contemplating singer Katherine Paul’s indigenous and queer experiences in a world that’s often hostile to both.
88. A Laughing Death in Meatspace – Tropical Fuck Storm Australians get mad about the state of the world and shout about it over powerful, deliberate art-punk, burrowing into hopelessness and frothing anger.
87. All at Once – Screaming Females 2018 was the year for this album, which pretty much gives you exactly what you want out of a punk alternative band named Screaming Females.
86. On Dark Horses – Emma Ruth Rundle Fast-paced slowcore post-punk (yeah, I know) for those who miss early Esben and the Witch or Mazzy Star, even though Mazzy Star came back this year, too.
85. Double Negative – Low Slowcore champions of the world shove what sounds like a brilliant album through a shredder and let you try to reassemble it.
84. Nearer My God – Foxing Emo band gets artsy, borrows pieces of industrial, pop, and folk from various decades, actually succeeds, news at 11.
83. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tells men off in music that leans into a lo-fi punk aesthetic. It highlights the album’s extremely clever and very legitimate bite (often referred to in Australia as “dolewave” – yes, really).
82. The Horizon Just Laughed – Damien Jurado Indie rock meets lounge music, and I mean that in a good way, like in a really cool lounge that plays indie rock with heart-achingly beautiful lyrics.
81. abysskiss – Adrianne Lenker Soft, floating, often yearning folk delivered in a simple style that alternates between calm groundedness and eerie dissociation.
80. Let Night Come On Bells End the Day – Sarah Davachi
Drone music is composed of tone clusters elongated into slow, hypnotic rhythms, a kind of ambient sound art that evokes prog rock and Gregorian chants all at once – Davachi realizes a clear and surprisingly organic interpretation here.
79. The Other – King Tuff Psychedelic power pop that expertly recalls classic rock in sound, storytelling, and – for better or worse – ego.
78. I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions – Santigold Santigold loosens her laser-precise approach into a more free-flowing album focused on Afro-Caribbean influences.
77. Lush – Snail Mail Patient indie rock storytelling in perfect song structures, though its focus on restraint may make the difference between a good and a great album for some.
76. Recovery Mission – MIDI Myers Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the musician.
A very meticulous consideration of trauma and many of the pitfalls and setbacks that can undermine a process of recovery that never fully ends, housed in an album that at times evokes late 90s Aimee Mann levels of lyrical storytelling.
75. Twerp Verse – Speedy Ortiz The forefront of grunge’s still-thriving evolution starts in the work of Sadie DuPuis and her band.
74. Dans da main – Jean-Michel Blais Beautiful, haunting piano solos accompanied only by spare electronic touches, played by a performer who ditches technical perfection for emotional whirlwinds guarded with a sense of world-weary hesitation.
73. Radyo siwel – Melissa Laveaux Dance, folk, and French pop fused together by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and vocals that often slyly take lead on percussion.
72. Orquesta Akokan – Orquesta Akokan Superb, original, big band mambo music performed by an all-star band of Cuban players, with buttery horns, brilliant rises and falls, and soulful singing by Jose Gomez.
71. El Mal Querer – ROSALIA Emotionally compelling flamenco music by way of Spanish pop and R&B, captured in a concept album about a 13th century toxic relationship.
70. Analogue – ODIE
Stripped down rap that essentially presents a character in honest detail and focuses on everyday fears and inspirations.
69. All Melody – Nils Frahm A mix of live instrument work and electronica that sparks an emotion not always focused on in music: curiosity.
68. Chris – Christine and the Queens
Synth-pop that could have come straight out of the 80s, and that delves into questions about gender roles and presentation. There are both English and French versions included, so listen to the one that helps you understand the lyrics first, but the French one feels more seamless.
67. Cloud Corner – Marisa Anderson Thick, weighty guitars that paint sonic landscapes from folk and blues – with no lyrics, just your imagination.
66. For Ever – Jungle British electro-soul driven by layered hooks, funk loops, and joyful singing about disillusion.
65. Safe in the Hands of Love – Yves Tumor Remarkably produced hip-hop built around sound collage and a poignant, unrelenting confrontation of culture-wide racism.
64. Room 25 – Noname Noname’s rap conveys a simultaneously laid back and documentarian presentation of her internal monologue (even when racing along at impressive speed).
63. Dead Magic – Anna von Hausswolff One of the world’s greatest experimental rock artists makes a variety of instruments feel like they’re eyeing you up suspiciously and just waiting till the pipe organ gets there to start something you don’t want to be around for.
62. Beyondless – Iceage Punk from a band that’s flexible enough to stretch into either commanding grunge or rollicking pop hooks depending on what each song needs.
61. Cocoa Sugar – Young Fathers A band that very consciously tries to elude genre might best be described as experimental rap that’s able to veer from Radiohead-like art rock to Massive Attack’s strangest moments of trip-hop.
60. Icon of Ego – Arc Iris
Arc Iris is a little-known art pop group that fuses just about every genre you can think of smoothly into immensely listenable and consistently unpredictable pop songs.
59. Childqueen – Kadhja Bonet Soul music with complex orchestral backing that feels directly lifted from an alternate history where the music is cooler.
58. 7 – Beach House Dream pop that occasionally threatens to become Phantogram but realizes it wants to lurk in the shadows for a while longer, you just keep on what you’re doing.
57. Temet – Imarhan Algerian rock that draws from blues, yet is upbeat and centers its hooks around a distinctive Tuareg vocal style.
56. Love is Dead – CHVRCHES Powerful Scottish synth-pop that’s reminiscent of Paramore and is very easy to re-listen to over and over again.
55. Loma – Loma Dream pop that marries Americana and hauntology elements, with a focus on slow burn song evolution and clearly demarcated layers of sound.
54. Time ‘n’ Place – Kero Kero Bonito As much art installation as album, full of overly comforting pop music undercut at regular intervals by uncomfortable sound collages, as if you woke up in the 90s and a new episode of Friends was suddenly interrupted by static garbles of an unnerving public access program showing photos from your childhood.
53. Bark Your Head Off, Dog – Hop Along Mostly acoustic indie rock that paints short stories and their characters in moments of both struggle and beauty with incredible depth.
52. Yesterday Was Forever – Kate Nash Some will furrow their brows, but if you want airy Britpop fused to punk, grunge, speak-singing, and diary entries that can veer from George Michael 80s pop to Machines of Loving Grace-style industrial at the drop of a hat, all inside an honest connectional about mental health, there is nothing else I know that’s even brave enough to try.
51. The Drought – Puce Mary Cold and unrelenting feedback and noise tracks built into haunting sound environments by a Danish woman who makes Future Sound of London look tame and passe by comparison.
50. Hunter – Anna Calvi
Aggressive art rock where the instruments themselves can’t help being in awe of Calvi’s operatic delivery, where nearly every song sounds like a James Bond theme if Bond were a woman bent on challenging gender concepts and toppling the patriarchy.
49. Bon Voyage – Melody’s Echo Chamber French baroque pop that suddenly breaks out R&B backing, drumline solos, jazz flutes, electric guitars, and noise electronica in ways that all feel like they genuinely build each song into an expansive yet cogent whole.
48. Exit Future Heart – Dustin Wong, Takako Minekawa, Good Willsmith Wong’s surreal habits, Minekawa’s experimental Japanese pop, and Good Willsmith’s pattern-heavy electronica all accentuate each others’ strengths, resulting in a focused experimental electronica album.
47. Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts Extremely political punk with forefronted vocals that extends into pop accessibility with natural ease.
46. The Lookout – Laura Veirs Chamber pop-influenced folk where each sound feels either very close or very distant, creating a space where every note is resonant, occasionally invoking the work of Sufjan Stevens or Listing Ship.
45. Can’t Wake Up – Shakey Graves Alejandro Rose-Garcia makes the shift from folk to alternative so that he can concoct dreamy mixes of detail and abstraction. Sometimes it sounds like antique cartoon music and other times like someone dug up old Portugal. The Man demos.
44. Heaven and Earth – Kamasi Washington Exquisite jazz that’s cinematic in scope, incorporating everything from Ennio Morricone-style, Spaghetti western choirs to Busby Berkeley dance numbers and Santana-like guitars, though it can all feel a bit bloated and lacking enough attention to the listener at points.
43. Future Me Hates Me – The Beths New Zealander gets mad at the state of the world and politely takes it out on herself near to the point of breaking so that she doesn’t bother anyone else, via energetic and deceptively well-studied indie pop.
42. Your Queen is a Reptile – Sons of Kemet Surging, emotional jazz that calls out Britain’s history of colonialism and declares a list of Black women as queen instead, searing in its delivery and constantly advancing in pace.
41. Criminal – The Soft Moon Traditional industrial music on the near-pop side, like the better moments of Gravity Kills or Stabbing Westward, yet that explores territory of an abusive childhood through concepts that come around to self-analysis and self-care – itself an emotional evolution in industrial that’s badly overdue.
40. Sweetener – Ariana Grande
Grande’s extensive control over the various elements of her brand is rare for women in pop, and allows her to take bigger risks and more aggressive evolutions, creating a broader style of pop that can stretch further than an older Millennial pop front that’s quickly stagnating.
39. Music for the Long Emergency – Polica, s t a r g a z e Polica’s indietronica is melded to Berlin-based orchestra s t a r g a z e, resulting in seamless shifts between electropop and orchestral composition in an album of expertly crafted unease.
38. Only Love – The Armed Hardcore that does a superb job of creating breathing space for each melody and theme to surface, allowing you to understand and identify each even as the noise builds into chaos again – like playing different At the Drive-In songs into each ear.
37. Isolation – Kali Uchis Pop built off Latin roots and an incredibly strong foundation in soul music, dreamlike and hopeful while still socially conscious, aware, and communicating a great deal about having multiple cultural identities.
36. High as Hope – Florence + The Machine What might be the worst Florence + The Machine album is still easily in the top 50 of the year and introduces more than a few masterpiece songs, a testament to just how good Florence Welch, Isabella Summers, and their crew are.
35. The Dream My Bones Dream – Eiko Ishibashi An experimental jazz album with elements of Japanese pop, accompanied at times by drone music, haunting choruses, eerie strings, and a range of found noises.
34. This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet – Moonface The best marimba rock album about the Greek Minotaur forgiving his captors as a metaphor for our daily technological exposure to toxic abuse you’ll find, complete with surprisingly good use of auto-tune, and a natural voice that stakes out David Bowie-esque territory while still feeling very original.
33. Fever – Black Milk Rap with a basis in funk and soul, with enjoyably loose production and relaxed delivery, even when calling out systemic racism and police violence.
32. Cannonball! – Sen Morimoto Experimental rap framed by jazz hooks, with genuinely funny wit, honest internal monologues, and great mood work. It works as both an easy background listen and a rewarding focused listen.
31. At Weddings – Tomberlin Soft indie pop that perches on the balance between acceptance and denial. At Weddings deals with a Tomberlin growing up and rejecting the role her family’s Baptist faith expects her to play as a woman. The songs hover in those moments where you do everything you can just to take another step. “I’m Not Scared” is the best song of the year.
30. Knowing What You Know Now – Marmozets
Relentless mathcore with an incredible range across rock and punk, powered by Becca MacIntyre’s vocals that metamorphose at will.
29. Honeybloom – Choker Mood-heavy rap that leaps from indie pop to math rock influences and varies quickly from minimalism to ultra-modern production.
28. soil – serpentwithfeet Avant-garde, R&B, and electronica all join together in contribution to an album that feels like a deeply personal and progressive gospel.
27. Broken Politics – Neneh Cherry A profound album that starts with a trip hop foundation and extends into a terrific scope of rap, jazz, pop, and indietronica that all center on, well, our broken politics.
26. How Many Times Have You Driven By – Hana Vu Straight up dream pop built off catchy hooks and production that deliberately layers Hana Vu’s unique voice just a little off-center.
25. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo A complete cover album of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, redone with Afropop, Caribbean, jazz, and a variety of other influences.
24. Negro Swan – Blood Orange A superb funk and R&B album with a throughline of hope that addresses the common traumas people of color suffer, and the anxieties that grow because of it.
23. In a Poem Unlimited – U.S. Girls Experimental pop doesn’t quite cover it. Each song sounds like it could have been the standout single for completely different bands, yet a variety of echoed themes and sounds tie it all together in a way that feels incredibly consistent.
22. Follow Them True – Stick in the Wheel A re-imagining of British folk that hauntingly connects modern political and cultural battles to those of other eras.
21. Black Times – Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 Seun carries the tradition of his father (Fela Kuti) in intensely political music geared toward protesting foreign imperialism by highlighting the futures and possibilities it continues to cost Africa.
20. How to Socialise & Make Friends – Camp Cope
Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tears into the old boys’ clubs, toxic masculinity, and gaslighting she and her band’s encountered in lo-fi, somewhat minimalist punk.
19. Old Rockhounds Never Die – Odetta Hartman Bluegrass and rockabilly encounter a woman who slices them open, adds in electronic and experimental elements, and replaces all the broken patriarchal parts piece by piece with feminist concepts while she smiles and nods at them with just enough reassurance. This might be the most excitingly meta album of the year, and as the title song states in an observation/mission statement, “Old Rockhounds never die, they just slowly petrify.”
18. Stranger Fruit – Zeal & Ardor Scandinavian black metal in part grew as a rejection of Christianity, so what would have happened if American slave spirituals had followed a similar path? Black spirituals have a long history of hidden meaning, but Manuel Gagneux imagines a blunter alternate reality as a modern take on resistance, fusing black metal to delta blues in what he calls Satanic spirituals.
17. From When I Wake the Want Is – Kathryn Joseph The bones and sinew of Scottish folk resurrected into a stalking indie horror of loss and survivor’s guilt that rivets you to the spot.
16. I Need to Start a Garden – Haley Heynderickx One of the purest folk singers I’ve heard, with a talent for taking very laid back and detailed songs into crescendos that realize their point with a stunning catharsis.
15. DROGAS WAVE – Lupe Fiasco An expansive hip hop album that takes real tragedies and paints heartbreaking alternate realities, from rebel slaves who live underwater and sink slave ships, to a drowned refugee boy who instead grows up to become an Olympic swimmer, and a little girl who dies in a shooting instead becoming a doctor and saving another little girl from yet one more shooting.
14. I’m All Ears – Let’s Eat Grandma Art pop blended with a punk mentality and very plainly delivered psychology, that finally inhabits life underneath that meta, we-live-in-a-cyberpunk-reality barrier that’s been scratched and cracked over the years by Sneaker Pimps, Porcupine Tree, and 18+.
13. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae Funk expertly revolutionized through pop, R&B, and electronica elements in an album about empowering women, people of color, and celebrating the array of sexual identities.
12. Primal Heart – Kimbra Pop that calls on a range of other genres to tackle various doubles that we wrestle with: those that result as a defense from abuse, those that copy what we see in media, those we invent to perform a more idealized version of ourselves online, those we attempt to inhabit to make relationships work, the list goes on.
11. Hell On – Neko Case If screwed-over, out-of-work Millennials who had the rug pulled out from under them are this era’s screwed-over, out-of-work manufacturers who had the rug pulled out from under them, then Neko Case is this era’s Bruce Springsteen, on a determinedly feminist album that at times out-Fleetwood Macs Fleetwood Mac, and echoes in the shape of its narratives a similar masterpiece like Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel.
10. Pasar de las Luces – Mint Field
Mexican shoegaze that evokes ethereal moods of quiet lulls in cities at night watching bleary-eyed as if taking a shortcut to dreaming without going to sleep, like an aural cradle for the ghost of a moment warmly held.
9. Lavender – Half Waif A tour through missing senses, places, people, and normalcy, in songs that may evoke Bat for Lashes but are more insistent and alarmed about our dreamy dissociation from gently delivered nightmares.
8. KOD – J. Cole Incisive rap with an expectation of the listener, that runs through experiential victimizations and hypocrisies to build connection with our own yearning to make change.
7. Shades – Vera Sola Needle-precise Americana bent on eviscerating the very idea of Americana, centered on haunting emotional scars left from colonialism and misogyny, and hell-bent on reclaiming Americana, country, and folk for the people it’s erased. (Makes a great companion piece to Odetta Hartman’s Old Rockhounds Never Die at #19 above.)
6. LONER – Caroline Rose Piercing wit delivered by a hugely judgmental narrator on an album that re-purposes a rockabilly skeleton into snarky, poignant, catchy songs, which remain unpredictable even after many re-listens.
5. Be the Cowboy – Mitski There is no singer who so deftly and honestly dissects the experience of coming from a mixed identity. Mitski creates musical monuments out of both emotionally living inside a trauma and dispassionately analyzing it in the recovery – examined through indie rock heavily influenced by grunge.
4. Both – Okay Kaya Patient, stripped down, experimental indie pop that deals with the idea of performing a self that’s more polished than what feels natural. Unexpectedly, it thinks often about how these two aspects might begin to agree.
3. Now Only – Mount Eerie The most honest album about coping with the death of a loved one I’ve heard, inhabiting wrecked places and the unhealthy temptation of staying in those places as a way to not give up on the pieces of that loved one you keep alive.
2. Djarimirri – Gurrumul An indigenous Australian album that was the last Gurrumul worked on before his passing, filled with soaring tracks that evoke senses of discovery, warning, yearning, tension, and awe.
1. EXORCISM – Jenny Wilson
There’s no exact way to start talking about Jenny Wilson’s EXORCISM. It’s a painful maelstrom dealing with the after-effects of sexual assault. Please be aware the rest of this entry will talk about that topic before continuing.
The opening song of EXORCISM outlines an act of rape. Everything else unravels from there. This doesn’t make this a go-to album for listening, but it’s absolutely the artistic achievement of the year.
We often seek music for comfort, and EXORCISM has none whatsoever to offer, at least initially. The first half is about suffering and attempting to cope with a rape. The second half deals a variety of aftereffects, even lasting years into the future. One of the first steps taken here is a common one: staying in emotionally abusive relationships as an attempt to make sense of what happened. This is a dangerous draw if you’ve suffered trauma. If it becomes normal for other people to treat you with varying forms of abuse, then you can begin to justify the act of abuse you suffered as normal.
The music itself is interruptive and uncomfortable. It reminds me of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, but its order doesn’t feel as if it comes from structure the way that does. It feels instead as if it comes from the chaos itself, applied in a panicked kind of way. Many of the songs themselves are relentlessly anxious and alerted.
This feels far from Wilson’s more traditionally orchestrated – if still experimental – work. Yet it feels more grounded, which in itself is tragic. It’s confrontational in its bluntness, and always driving. Yet sometimes it drives forward, and sometimes it drives straight back into you. Recovering from trauma is an act of taking a step forward and sometimes taking a step back. There are whirlpools in the music that drag you in and reflect a sense of uncomfortable inescapability. Sharp synth choruses build over insistent refrains, as if Wilson desperately urging herself to stay in the healthy mindset that leads to recovery.
This is ultimately an album about that recovery, but not as an achievement or a goal. Too often, albums and songs like that are a before-and-after picture. That misrepresents the recovery itself as a snapshot, something easy to do. When you’re wading through its difficulty, you can look at those snapshots and wonder why it can take you years to recover when a song can do it in four minutes. EXORCISM is an album about recovery as a difficult, often painful process, full of pitfalls and mistakes. It’s an honest representation of something rarely honestly discussed.
It’s been a strange year for music, with the loss of legends and one essentially recording his own epitaph. Yet it’s also been a year of gifts – of rollicking country and an unexpected comeback from a band many had given up on, of Mayan hip-hop and gothic folk songs. My number one album of the year (so far) is from a woman whose heartbreaking work I feel stands at the juncture of Nirvana and Neutral Milk Hotel.
So let’s dive in:
10. Gag Order – Vainhein
Vainhein (roughly translating to “heinous vanity”) started off in the San Francisco drag scene as a lip-sync performer. In the last five years, he’s moved into producing original music as Vainhein (or Vain Hein). There’s not a lot out there, but you can listen to the debut album Gag Order on the Bandcamp page.
9. Collect – 18+
18+ maintained near-total anonymity for the first three years of the band’s existence. They’re difficult to describe – a band that takes the way love and relationships are portrayed in modern music and throws the formula out. They seduce in a manner that blends carelessness with deep feeling, through music that’s deconstructed to impressionism almost to the point of falling apart before it finds its way back.
8. Pawn Shop – Brothers Osborne
Yes, this is one of the most eclectic lists I’ve ever put together. It’s a testament to just how diverse 2016’s been in music. Brothers Osborne can push out anthemic country songs at the drop of a hat, but the best part of Pawn Shop is how often they drop the love song pretense on which country too often depends. The album is wickedly varied, stopping to comically sing the praises of the pawn shop or break down into a slow one-part bayou, one-part honky-tonk testament to rum. This is the kind of country I almost never go for, but this album’s just too good.
7. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange
Blood Orange has been carrying Prince’s musical torch for a few years now, so in the year when Prince died, it’s reassuring that Dev Hynes’s band continues to explore a similarly easygoing yet soul-baring musicality. Blood Orange has never found the kind of breakout hits that Prince did – they relent when it comes to that extra edge, that musical and social insistence that Prince brought – but that’s not exactly what Blood Orange is. They slant toward chilled out.
6. Strangers – Marissa Nadler
Strangers is a step back for Marissa Nadler, but a step back for the woman is still better than the vast majority of other music that’s out there. Her July was my choice for Album of the Year in 2014. It was so patiently stirring, a masterpiece of lamenting, gothic folk. Her music sounds like a message from another time, like black-and-white footage of old funeral processions. There’s sadness and importance, even celebration, but it all feels so beautifully removed, like watching (as in her 2014 music video “Dead City Emily”) the silhouettes of lovers dance out-of-focus from behind smudged, scratched glass. It’s always someone else’s sadness, someone else’s lament, and there’s a profound sorrow in not being able to share those pains.
Her music often evokes the frustration of empathy, of witnessing pain in another yet falling short of being able to truly understand and experience it, to heal it. It’s a rare evocation in any form of art: to have your empathy evoked and stilled, to witness yet be frozen, to stand on the shoulder of that passing funeral and yet not know it. The tragedy of people passing in and out of our lives is the tragedy of their moments – the experiences that let us step outside ourselves and into the connection of loving others – traveling further and further away. Yet there’s something to that disconnection that only makes us strain all the harder to step outside ourselves again and again. Nadler’s songs and albums and career are almanacs of connections made and treasured and lost, and so her music rests right against the bones like only nostalgia and closure can.
5. Blackstar – David Bowie
I’m weird when it comes to Bowie. My favorite period rests in his late 90s/early 00s experimentation combining industrial and jazz. Not all of it worked – in fact, some of it was downright bad – but it was supremely different to anything I’d heard before. Bowie’s Blackstar will always be remembered most for how it’s written to anticipate and guide Bowie through a death he knew was coming fast.
Blackstar picks up so many musical threads throughout Bowie’s career, so many stylistic endings left unfinished, yet among those endings, he also starts new ones. He seeks to process what’s come before, to conclude much of it, yes – but he doesn’t end there. He also pushes forward into new realms, starts new musical ideas he knows he’ll never finish. This is the way to go, he seems to say in Blackstar, by saying goodbye and wrapping things up not to conclude this life, but so he can say a fresh hello to whatever life is next.
4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
Finally. Only the second album Radiohead’s released in nine years shows the time that went into it. For many, this is the first time Radiohead’s broken new ground in those nine years – while 2011’s The King of Limbs was good, it didn’t convey Radiohead’s irrepressible ambition. Maybe they fell off, we thought. Then five years passed. Maybe they disappeared. Then their site went offline. Their social media presence was pulled. Maybe that’s it, we thought. Just like that. And then A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, this whole new challenging, chaotic map of dreamlike and nightmarish places to tour.
3. Tributo a Los 20 Nawales – Balam Ajpu
This is a tribute to the 20 spirits that represent each day on the Mayan calendar. Balam Ajpu is a Guatemalan rap group that’s part of a growing movement of Mayan-language hip-hop. The verses on their album alternate between the Mayan dialect Tz’utujil and Spanish. In Guatemala, 60% of the population is Mayan, yet the country is rarely represented this way – both domestically and abroad. Hip-hop has been one way for the Mayan population to coalesce around surviving elements of Mayan culture.
Balam Ajpu combines hip-hop with a stunning number of styles and instruments. Salsa, reggae, and cumbia are all folded into the songs. The array of musical instruments and the talent behind them here is ridiculous. Guitar, cello, pan pipes, a host of drums, xylophone, and sounds from nature all underlie a patient album about spirituality and social change.
2. Not to Disappear – Daughter
Remember a moment when you failed to cope with the damn unfairness of it all. Now trap it in amber. That feeling of crashing against the shore, when you could barely hold your head up because the lump in your throat was so overwhelming. When you were numb and angry and your tears were the best act of vengeance you had against the universe. When your teeth grit and your lips quivered and your breath caught. When you sobbed and the time of day didn’t seem to matter. Daughter makes music of the moments trapped before catharsis. Thank God, because those moments could use some understanding of their own.
1. Puberty 2 – Mitski
She destroyed me in two-and-a-half minutes. Took me apart suddenly weeping. That was on track four, “Fireworks.” Then she did it again two songs later with “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” If it doesn’t share the same sound as Nirvana’s most plaintive moments, it shares the same character.
“I bet on losing dogs
I know they’re losing and I’ll pay for my place
By the ring
Where I’ll be looking in their eyes when they’re down
I’ll be there on their side
I’m losing by their side.”
Sometimes, it can be easy to feel like one of those losing dogs, still running because it’s what we know, because it’s the process – through repetition – for which we begin to believe we’ve been made. It can be the role we’ve been taught to play in relation to those around us, or the role we’ve been taught by a specific person. It can be hard to break out of being a losing dog, and to break out of the habit of betting on them. Is it an act of care to do so? Is it enabling? Can you create of someone else a losing dog?
These aren’t the questions directly posed to us, because Mitski isn’t a philosopher on her tracks. She’s the character, inhabiting every moment, and we witness every mistake, every want and need, every tiny victory and major defeat. Music often tells stories about experiences viewed through lenses, non-specifically emotive enough to be universal. That’s not what Mitski gives us. Her emotions are hers, her stories are deeply personal. It’s in the personal loss, in the impacts of defeat, in the hardening of herself to the world around, that we find connection. Her struggle to remain soft and loving despite it all is our struggle. Songs here aren’t wasted, they aren’t filled out any longer than is needed. This is an album of bare mental, emotional, and sometimes physical survival. It’s heartbreak as a way of practicing for mortality, and the resistance to heartbreak as a way of denying our mortality, the way each wears us down and builds us.
Marissa Nadler (whose Strangers I highlight above) is how I found out about Mitski. Nadler highlighted her favorite Mitski lyrics in article for The Talkhouse. This turned out to be from “Fireworks,” a melancholic take on…what, exactly? One’s own journey toward entropy? The desensitization of loss, both inside and outside oneself? That desensitization itself is a loss one must desensitize to? A lover’s simultaneous capability for support and inadequacy to heal?
“One morning this sadness will fossilize
And I will forget how to cry
I’ll keep going to work and he won’t see a change
Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye.
I will go jogging routinely
Calmly and rhythmically run
And when I find that a knife sticking out of my side
I’ll pull it out without questioning why.
And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.
I will be married to silence
The gentleman won’t say a word
But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
Runs a river that’ll never find home.
And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”
Mitski Miyawaki sings about surviving through entropy, about becoming a bastion and falling apart, about betting on losing dogs, about being one. I once was told that Led Zeppelin didn’t make songs, they made musical monuments. Mitski does, too…but the focus is anxiety, using, being used, giving in, being unapologetic, forgetting how to apologize to yourself, settling on how you should be treated, remembering how to treat yourself. Here are monuments to the cycle of falling apart and constructing oneself never to fall apart again, and falling apart anew, and constructing anew, ad nauseum. It stops at some point, right? The album’s called Puberty 2, and it’s not named that because she recorded a Puberty 1.