I’m sitting at the desk of a room at the Holiday Inn in Dublin with Cecily lounging on one of the queen beds, watching reruns of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on MTV2. What better tableau could I ask for?
Let’s get into the media that I encountered last year that made a special impression on me!
There was a magical moment this past year when it felt like we might all be back in theaters in 2022. That feeling may have waned a bit now in the new year, but there was a certain magic in seeing some of these films in theaters.
I’m also going to recommend more movies this year, mainly because one man was very prolific and pumped out three pieces of work that are worth mentioning.
The Miranda Trio
Oh boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda was busy this year. He had four projects and three were recommendation-worthy! (Vivo wasn’t terrible but was a bit more forgettable.)
In the Heights
We went and saw In the Heights at a private movie screening with a small number of friends on Father’s Day. It was one of the first movies we saw in the theaters. Which is to say that it started on first base.
Ah, well, it’s also a highly entertaining movie with beautifully shot songs and a really touching climax and plot, so we can count it as a home run.
It’s also a prime example of a movie musical that embraces both halves of itself. It is cinematic while also embracing its musical half, providing a blueprint for other movies adapted from stage musicals. As much as the filmed stage version of Hamilton is fantastic, In the Heights remains singularly Lin while being a more broadly appealing movie.
In direct contrast, the niche quality of Tick, Tick…Boom! is what makes it work. It’s a movie musical for musical theatre lovers, based on an obscure show that is somewhat tough to stage. It’s a show that’s most well known to the Rent generation given a chance to finally shine on a bigger stage.
I’ve seen Tick, Tick…Boom! staged once and listened to the soundtrack countless times, but to be honest, it’s always felt like a bit of a mishmash. By turning it more explicitly into a biopic and having Andrew Garfield play a surprisingly effective Jonathan Larson, it works a lot better for me. It’s a tougher recommendation, because I think at least some prior knowledge of Rent or Larson helps facilitate full enjoyment here but everyone’s at least heard of Rent at this point. And if you dig stories about artists contemplating how much of themselves to give? Tick, Tick…Boom!’s got something for you.
And to finish the year off with an animated Disney movie that’s chock full of songs that are both lyrically clever and earworms? A triumph!
Not only does Encanto manage to deliver a sincere message about the magic of family combined with notes of “your productivity isn’t what makes you worthwhile,” it also has a fairly compelling adventure mystery plot that had me interested in wanting to see what was going to happen next.
It’s a pretty solid year when anything you touch seems to be worth recommending, so good on you Lin. It certainly doesn’t hurt that all his work has touches of discovering an immigrant identity, building a community, or how to define what your dreams and success look like through people who love you. I dig all of that!
There were so many other 2021 movies that I’d recommend, but I feel like I’ll never get this done if I write extensively about each, so I’m limiting myself to a short sentence for each of the rest:
- West Side Story – If you’re clamoring for still more musicals and you’re ready to be emotionally devastated for a non-stop half hour, this is a worthy adaptation that gives the characters a bit more room to grow.
- The Green Knight – It’s slow and it’s meandering and it’s confusing but there’s something about the way that David Lowery creates a world and fills it with emotion that is like nothing else, and The Green Knight – a wondrous exploration of heroism and legacy – is no exception.
- F9 – It is unbelievable that 9 movies in, the Fast and Furious franchise continues to execute on its core premise (“we have to go bigger”) with such vigor, leaning in to jumping the shark so sincerely that the shark joins the family and everyone goes home happy.
- CODA – A perfectly constructed coming-of-age dramedy that skillfully uses deafness both literally and metaphorically to deliver a knockout story about parenting, letting go, and finding yourself.
There is too much content these days and I barely keep up with the movies I want to watch, so imagine how I feel about shows! Here are just a few standouts for me this past year.
It’s a delightful love letter to and satire of true crime podcasts that is both genuinely funny and filled with engaging mysteries. It made for appointment television in an age when such a thing felt like a historical artifact of television watching. It made me want more deadpan Selena Gomez.
While podcasts haven’t been a part of my routine for a few years now, I do still have distinct memories of listening to Serial and In the Dark. The story beats of Only Murders show an understanding of what makes true crime podcasts work, while poking fun at the way they manipulate facts to make for a compelling story.
Oh, and the seventh episode – The Boy from 6B? An absolute masterpiece.
It’s the rare Marvel show that’ll draw Katie in, but WandaVision has no direct comparison. It’s a bit of a bait and switch, except that both the bait and the switch are compelling half hours of television!
The season starts with a promise of a trip through television history and each take on an era of the happy family home is mimicked quite well. And when we catch up to the present and the bait runs out? That’s when the series is able to unravel its mystery in a way that becomes a heart-wrenching exploration of how we protect ourselves from the emotions that truly scare us.
It’s a good watch for anyone who doesn’t actually care about the Marvel universe and it allows Kathryn Hahn to have a ton of fun, while sticking the landing on being about something more than just a clever joke or yet another alien invasion.
I’m not sure how popular the movie Blindspotting was but it seems likely that this Starz series that continues the story is even less so. But if you’re willing to lend your heart to an Oakland-based story of family, race, incarceration, and hope with some dreamlike dance and rap sequences, it’s a winner.
Its greatest trick, of course, is that it’s a series that allows its characters moments of true joy and hope alongside moments of absolute sadness and loss, in a reflection of what it’s like to be human.
What an odd little blip of a show on Peacock that I almost forgot about because we watched it back in the first half of 2022. I’m not the biggest fan of Ed Helms, but I think he really works as Nathan Rutherford – a man with a Native best friend who thinks he understands what his role in history means only to be confronted by consequences that demand more.
And I know that summary sounds like it could get a bit…preachy? Green Book? But the show has enough trust in its humor, its actors, and its storylines that it comes out feeling rather fresh and funny.
Like with other cases of representation, I can only hope this is the beginning of more Native voices, but I’m heartened that this show doesn’t resolve with the vindication and upraising of the white guy.
We’re spoiled for prestige dramas these days, but I’m really digging the single-season-arc / mini-series type show with a headlining actor of renown.
A slowly simmering murder mystery set in rural Pennsylvania with Kate Winslet as a tortured and flawed cop? Yes, please.
Perhaps it’s fitting that this bookends the list with Only Murders at the top, because the two shows are sort of mirror images of each other with distinctly different vibes, the sort of yin and yang in a year where we aren’t sure if we should be laughing or crying.
That’s it for shows! Though from the sound of it, I really should be watching Yellowjackets.
Just the one album for you this year, but I really dug this album. It’s a good album for driving around or a pick-me-up on a lazy morning or after breaking up or for reminding yourself why you’re with someone. Also, all bangers, every single track.
Sour by Olivia Rodrigo
I’ve always had a soft spot for breakup songs. There’s something about the combustible intersection of a love song and a diss track, between empowerment and self-pity.
Sour is an album full of really good breakup songs. From wallowing to bitterness to anger, every song seems to have a catchier hook than the last.
There’s no better example of this perfect synergy of everything a breakup song should be than these lyrics from happier:
I hope you’re happy, but not like how you were with me
I’m selfish, I know, I can’t let you go
So find someone great but don’t find no one better
It’s self-deprecating and honest and a brutal bit of emotional weaponry in the aftermath of a breakup. Maybe this all says more about me than anything else, but Sour is great. I couldn’t stop listening to it when it came out and still stream it on the regular.
All right, that’s all for the media recs. I’ll try to write up my annual game list next weekend and post it before February!