Another year down, another set of media recommendations to parcel out. As usual, though this is my version of a “best of 2019” post, I put as many items in each category as I feel fit and warn that these picks are obviously very subjective and personal.
I’ve even thrown in some of my picks of the decade – media from the past ten years that has stayed with me for one reason or another. All right, friends, let’s dive in.
The combination of the excitement for Star Wars I hadn’t felt in a long time after watching Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi and the playful, compelling trailer for this movie had set my expectations quite high.
Well, expectations met and exceeded! It really is quite the magic act when a murder mystery can have so many of the predictable beats of a genre film while also providing a real sense of surprise and subversion of expectations. This movie is a joy to watch: the unfolding of the mystery is supremely satisfying and the dialog is very clever. It is also able to layer a tart smattering of race and class politics on top of all that nutty plot successfully. It never chooses the easy path of having any of its twists be cynical, which is rare in modern movies outside of those aimed at children.
It is, in short, the most solidly entertaining movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.
There are movies that can reach their cinematic tendrils out of the screen, wrap them around my heart, and squeeze until I feel like there can be no way that the film is speaking to anyone other than me. The Farewell feels like my memoir that I don’t remember writing.
I lived this movie, this “lie,” this complete cultural collision with my own dying grandmother in 2014. Here’s a selfie we took together one of the last times I saw her.
So many of the specificities of visiting China as a Chinese-American, of differences in how the two cultures treat death and elders and family and emotion – all of it struck me to my core. I don’t know how this movie makes other people feel but it made me feel in turns silly and joyous and devastated. But, perhaps more than anything else, it made me feel seen and any piece of media that can do that is a rare jewel to be sought out.
Honorable Mentions: Little Women, Dora and the Lost City of Gold
I thought similar things going into these: “do I really need to watch another Little Women/a Dora the Explorer movie?” And yet, I left the theater in both cases with a rosy flush on my cheeks and a smile on my face.
The new Little Women feels fresh and modern, helped by the energetic performances of all the sisters but perhaps none more than Florence Pugh’s Amy. The split storyline structure elevates most of the story’s big moments and the updated ending feels like a very smart way to cheat and have it both ways. I’m a pretty big fan of both Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, but was still unsure on whether another film version of this classic story was really what we needed right now. I’m glad to be proven wrong.
As for Dora and the Lost City of Gold, I was expecting little more than a middling children’s adventure story but what I got (in addition to a good children’s adventure story) was a real rumination on what it means to grow up, what peer pressure and unspoken social rules do to your sense of self, and how to be a sincere and positive person in a world that treats that as a flaw. If you know me, you know that I have a soft spot for uninhibited positive sincerity, and Dora was able to target that soft spot with aplomb.
I also really, really liked Parasite and Booksmart.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
I read only a handful of books this year, but I was blown away by this essay collection. Each essay gave me a new way to view our world, broke down large societal puzzles and problems into bites I could chew and digest and think about without being overwhelmed. The writing weaves its way between tones of studious research, mock serious sarcasm, and outright humor masterfully.
As I finished each individual essay, I’d think to myself: well, that was my favorite so far, only to have to reconsider my opinion one essay later.
The Good Place
It’s time. I’ve tried to adhere to a rule of sticking to new shows or current seasons, but I can’t keep this show off the list anymore.
If you’re not watching The Good Place, you are doing yourself a disservice. This show has the clear modern humor of a show like Parks and Rec but also, at its best (which it manages to reach quite often), grapples with ethics and morals in a way that most shows cannot even begin to imagine.
It is a show that asks all of us what we owe to each other, why we do the things we do with our life, and asserts that perhaps the true good is the friends we made along the way.
We didn’t manage to get on the Fleabag bandwagon when the show first appeared a few years ago, so instead we inhaled both seasons in quick succession in 2019. Whew.
I posit that it is impossible to come out of this show and not be in love with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing (Killing Eve is also extremely worth checking out!) and acting. This show nails a sense of relatable awkward humor while also managing to create absurd situations. It manages to make watching some very unlikeable characters quite enjoyable. It literally includes the audience in the story and plays with that inclusion in such a delicious way in season 2, up to the last heartbreaking moment of the show.
A Black Lady Sketch Show
I don’t get all the jokes and references in A Black Lady Sketch Show and, honestly, that’s part of why I love it. I know what it’s like to have media feel like it has come out of a culture that you understand and that it is not responsible for having to explain everything. I want more media from a black perspective, a Latinx perspective, a female perspective. I want to feel a bit lost so that I can understand and examine what it means to feel comfortable and those implications.
So much culture – not just classic art and music, but also modern reaction GIFs and memes and online speech – comes from black women. I want more of it directly, not filtered through the muddying waters of Internet culture. This show gives me that, and is also quite funny.
Articles of Interest
99% Invisible is always an interesting listen for me and this mini-series that they originally ran in 2018 got pushed out as its own feed in 2019. It’s a great little taste of the best instincts of the 99PI podcast: fascinating history, solid reporting, and a penchant for whimsical storytelling.
This particular series focuses on clothing and approaches it from both ends. It looks at how the design of certain styles or pieces came about while also examining at the effects of how we wear that clothing.
Like Articles of Interest, this podcast also examines how a certain piece of our culture came to be and traces backwards to try to figure out what it all means. The only difference is that host Willa Paskin tackles a wide range of cultural oddities from the underappreciated laugh box in the first episode about the laugh track to the more modern mania about gender reveal parties.
While not every episode involved a piece of culture that I came in caring about, I always left with a greater sense of wonder at the tangled way in which our world creates cultural moments, touchstones, and ideas that we attach to.
I’ll be upfront; I haven’t actually kept up with Ear Hustle. I do want to highlight it, though, as I really loved the episodes I have heard of this podcast, which brings stories directly out of the San Quentin prison. There are plenty of stories out there that center around crime and have criminals as characters, but because this podcast includes real people speaking about their stories and experiences, there’s a forgotten humanity that Ear Hustle brings to our incarcerated class of Americans.
It was such a good podcast that host Earlonne Woods, who was serving a life sentence in San Quentin, had his sentence commuted in late 2018 and the podcast has expanded recently to include stories of what it means to be an ex-con.
The Highwomen by The Highwomen
A female country music supergroup that includes Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris? Do I need any more than that? (Not really.)
I’ve been low-key obsessed with how women in country music have been trying to take charge of their space and assert their value, redefining what seems like a genre that’s been unfairly policed for a long time. For further evidence, take a look at the troubles Old Town Road faced in being on the country charts.
So the first two tracks of this album are an interesting contrast to that context, with the rest of this album following up with a classic country sound that soars while only featuring female voices. Overall, it’s a welcome and rare find in a world of country music that can often seem artificially homogeneous.
Finch In The Pantry by The Arcadian Wild
I discovered The Arcadian Wild’s self-titled 2015 album a couple years ago and would put it on anytime I needed to feel a jolt of happiness in the car or at work. This recommendation is as much for that incredibly jaunty set of songs as for their more intense 2019 album.
Their core flavor hasn’t changed, of course. There’s a folksy sing-along shanty quality to all of their songs, which makes me feel like I’m settled near a fireplace at a cozy seaside inn before I head back out on my ship the next day toward some great destiny. I don’t actually know what that feels like at all in real life, but that’s how these albums make me feel and I don’t know what else to say other than I really like that feeling.
Recommendations of the Decade
That’s 2019 settled, then. Let’s quickly run down some decade recommendations! Less filler, more list-y, but know that I am always more than happy to talk about media I enjoy at any moment.
Brooklyn: I think this movie is why I’m such a Saoirse Ronan fan.
Fast & Furious 6: the strong conclusion of the best F&F trilogy.
Frozen/Moana: As revolutionary a pair of movies as we can expect from Disney with solid songs throughout both.
A Ghost Story: This movie sounded silly and pretentious but it’s actually just a slow, simple, human story.
Paddington: If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Even without the very real issues of mental illness, self-worth, and toxic relationships that this show tackled fairly well, the original music and choreography alone would have been enough to make it a standout of the past decade.
Downton Abbey: This show was appointment television for Katie and I throughout the decade and held just the right amount of drama, caricature, and foppishness to feel like a comfortable little dish. Seeing the movie recently was like stopping by at an old friend’s place.
Fresh Off the Boat: A mainstream network show centered around a Chinese-American family with plenty of lighthearted familial conflict? Yes please.
The Good Place: I feel like this show has literally made me a better person.
Jane the Virgin: Come for the bonkers plotlines and over-the-top characters, but stay for the reaffirming messages about love and family and the sly messages about what it means to be an immigrant.
Planet Earth: We don’t know enough about this world we all live on, and this show allowed us to see both the way life functions when humans aren’t around and the ways in which we fundamentally change things in ways we may never have foreseen when we are.
Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem: This book changed how I think about animals and humans and the relationship between the two. Almost every time I see a rare creature – in a zoo or on a documentary or in the wild – I think about this book.
Answer Me This: It’s two and a half Brits answering questions. It’s very funny.
The Memory Palace: Maybe my favorite podcast of all time, 2 out of every 3 episodes make me tear up.
Serial (Season 1): This podcast brought the medium to many people and I still think it’s a very compelling story about crime and the justice system. That it became so popular yet is about real contemporary people lends it a sense of discomfort – I think the In The Dark podcast was able to do a better job in that area – but the appeal and impact of this season of this podcast is undeniable.
Slate Political Gabfest: This was perhaps the first podcast I regularly listened to that wasn’t a recorded NPR or PRX radio show, and though it was easier to enjoy political discussion before the 2016 election, I still find it one of the most enjoyable talking-head discussion podcasts.
Hamilton Cast Recording: The album that, by far, has gotten the most play in our household. Every song on this is great. It’s a joy to sing along to in Act I and to cry along to in Act II.
Let’s Have a Kiki by Scissor Sisters: I had forgotten about this song until I thought about what music I’d recommend for the decade and then I was like, well of course I have to put Let’s Have a Kiki on there. I want to have a kiki.
Rainbow by Kesha: Every song on this album gets my heart pumping. Praying is cathartic, while Woman and Boogie Feet are belt-worthy singalongs.
Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves: I like all of Kacey’s albums, but this was the first one I listened to so it holds a special place in my heart.
Speak Now by Taylor Swift: Everybody and their mother has opinions on Taylor Swift, but for me, no album since Speak Now has been able to capture the playfulness of her younger songwriting. Never Grow Up is a perfect little example of something that would feel a bit artificial from a 2019 Taylor but fits well here.
Well, that’s that.
Thanks for making all the way to the bottom here. I’ll try to post my video game wrap-up sometime this next week! (Maybe I’ll replace this sentence and link it here when I do.)