This week’s question continues our year-end celebration of the good things about 2016:
If you were Santa and could gift everyone in the world with just one book, film, comic, TV series, album, or what-have-you from 2016, with the implicit understanding that they’d definitely read/watch/listen to it, what would you give them? In other words, what personal favorite of yours would you like to foist on to everyone else?
Everybody needs to relax. It’s been a bitter Twitter flame war of a year, one that culminated in millions of “cuck”-slinging trolls rage-quitting the American experiment in November. And while there is certainly a long fight ahead to stay vigilant, civic-minded, and kind in the face of so much newly emboldened nastiness, over the next few weeks, focus on using this time for some restorative rest. My recommendation: Delete your social media apps, uncork a nice bottle of Klonopin, and zone out to Gas. I’ve been doing a lot of that since Wolfgang Voigt’s pioneering ambient techno wanderings got a 10-LP box set reissue on October 28, finding a mere 11 days later that I really needed its deep, muffled throbs and muted electronic washes that envelop you like a blanketing fog, where time and space have no meaning and no one can post another Trump story. The full box set is prohibitively expensive, of course, but you can always listen for free on certain streaming sites. Try it—I guarantee you’ll end up feeling calmer. Repeat often and as needed.
There are valid reasons why Kubo And The Two Strings did not make our list of the year’s best films; the story is muddy in places and unevenly paced. But it is also a technical and artistic wonder. Laika studios, also responsible for Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, are making movies unlike any other. Not just through its dedication to the slow, seemingly agonizing-to-produce medium of stop-motion, but also with its offbeat stories. Kubo is a young boy with magical powers who goes on a quest to save his family and village. The movie has its share of dramatic set pieces—a battle against a colossal samurai skeleton in particular—but those scenes are no less astonishing than the smaller touches, like the hands playing a delicate tune on a musical instrument or the wind blowing through a snow monkey’s fur. Ultimately, issues with the movie’s plotting are made irrelevant when compared to seeing a battle between tiny origami warriors.
In 2016, I was obsessed with Girls, which had started consistently knocking it out of the park. That said, I still have a love-hate relationship with the show and am overall happy to see it on its way out in 2017, so, I’m not going to suggest you watch the first five seasons in anticipation for the final one. Instead, I would like to gift you “The Panic In Central Park.” This capsule episode from season five focuses on Marnie—decidedly the worst character among many horrible people—offering both her and the viewer an escape through a great mixture of etherealness, grit, and this earworm. It pulls you in, takes you on a journey, and sits with you long afterward. Perhaps part of that comes from its inspiration—1971’s romantic drama The Panic In Needle Park, a film with many of the same qualities and one I was moved to watch for the first time after immediately watching this episode for a second. Put it on when you want to get lost for a bit.
You know when you get someone a gift right after someone else got them the same awesome thing? That’s what just happened with Becca. So if you’ve already been gifted “The Panic In Central Park,” let me offer you an album instead. I got you all One Day All Of This Won’t Matter Anymore by the semi-obscure (at least in the U.S.) English folk-rock-pop-soul duo Slow Club. This somewhat hushed, restrained record is not even necessarily their best work so far. But it’s almost better to start with their not-best album, because it’s still really good, and your Slow Club experience will continue to get better and better throughout the year as you ravenously consume everything they’ve ever recorded. Then next year I can go back to getting you whatever semi-stand-alone TV episode best catches my fancy.
As always, I’m going to use my yearly pick to inflict my obsessions—improv, podcasting, fantasy nonsense—on the rest of the world and force you all to listen to Earwolf’s Hello From The Magic Tavern. Starring Chicago improviser Arnie Niekamp as himself, and Adal Rifai and Matt Young as his constant companions, Chunt the shape-shifting badger and Usidore The Wizard, the show has been the delight of my 2016, during which I burned through its entire back catalog and into its present run. It’s not just that Niekamp and company have settled onto a great premise, pretending to chat semi-amiably with fantasy characters ranging from cheerful skeletons to singing swords to sentient ooze. They’ve also recruited some great improvisers to do it with them, with folks like Comedy Bang! Bang! regular Jon Gabrus and Chicago improv legend Dave Pasquesi both popping into the Vermilion Minotaur to trade banter, jabs, and continuity light discussions of spiced potatoes, magic rocks, and the best ways to interrupt Usidore’s increasingly voluminous litany of names.
Track down Taika Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople, because it’s a gift that will keep on giving. This adventure dramedy (“addramedy”?) is so delightful, with its little songs, faithful canine companions, and overall Kiwi-ness. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a deceptively cherubic troublemaker who’s bounced around foster care, but as he so aptly puts it, he hasn’t chosen the skux life—it chose him. He’s also in Hec’s (Sam Neill) care against his own volition at first, though they eventually reach a state of grudging admiration while hiding out in the wilderness. Things go from Boy (another Waititi film) to Mad Max as Ricky and Hec try to evade child services and what looks like all the cops in New Zealand. That bombastic ending is earned, though, and the transition smooth enough to suggest that Waititi’s “buddy road trip” premise for Thor: Ragnarok could really work.
2016 scudded with truly alarming velocity into a miasma of events that have left even the more optimistic among us deeply worried about the state of things to come. So I’d love to give everyone the gift of a big, messy, heartfelt slice of forgiving humanity—Hailee Steinfeld’s performance in The Edge Of Seventeen. While I really enjoyed this flawed but funny little movie, it was Steinfeld as the neurotic and standoffish teenager Nadine that warmed my heart. She’s just like most of us hate to remember ourselves being at that age: insecure, selfish, desperate, passionate, anxious, forever adjusting our behavior based on the people around us, and—maybe most of all—far too quick to turn misunderstandings into disasters. If I were to anthropomorphize this past year, I suspect it would look awfully close to something like that. We’ll all continue to make mistakes, be too quick to anger, and probably shit on somebody on the internet who doesn’t deserve it, but this movie, and her performance, is a sweet and often bitingly humorous reminder that harshness doesn’t negate humanism.
This year, I’m going out on a limb and gifting everyone a pro-wrestling match: Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet from New Japan Pro Wrestling. Trust me when I say this isn’t what most people think of when they hear “pro wrestling.” The industry is in something of a renaissance right now, as fans have easy access to shows from all over the globe, and the performers who grew up idolizing wrestling are finding themselves at the center of it. From an artistic point of view, this is arguably the most important match of the year, and it’s a thrilling example of what wrestling has become: an art that supports a breadth of performances and storytelling techniques, from long-form narrative epics to jaw-dropping athletic spectacles. Ospreay vs. Ricochet is the latter, 17 and a half minutes of stunning, gravity-defying madness from two of the world’s most innovative and entertaining stars. If you want a peek at what modern wrestling can be or are curious why it seems like so many people you know and respect are talking about it for some reason, this match is the perfect place to start.
There’s a lot of buffoonery in the world these days, but for the holiday season I would love for people to meet one splendidly hilarious idiot: Sir James Martin of the film Love & Friendship. British actor Tom Bennett gives one of the funniest performances of the year as this daft fellow in Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation. Sir James is truly silly: This is a man who is baffled by peas! Still, Bennett’s take on him is never mean. He makes you love this fool and even pity him a bit. For me, the performance is something akin to Hugh Laurie’s as The Prince Regent in Blackadder The Third—and that’s high praise. Bennett is also a highlight of Christopher Guest’s underwhelming Mascots, released on Netflix this year. Discover him, delight in him, and thank me later.
Chris Carter took a lot of grief for the return of The X-Files not living up to expectations, and those criticisms were not without merit, but there was at least one installment within the mix that provided fans with just about everything that they could’ve possibly hoped for: “Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster.” It hearkens back to the glory days of the series, when the writers weren’t afraid to just get bat-shit crazy once in a while, and the result delivers lots of laughs, a few jolts, and—most importantly—a healthy helping of the chemistry between its two leads. It’s just a shame that the whole return couldn’t have been as perfect.
While I’m tempted to go with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (the soundtrack and the movie), I’m instead going to go with an old favorite and give the world the gift of The Best Show. Tom Scharpling’s gift to the masses left WFMU, took a hiatus, and returned as an independent venture a few years back. This year the show was firing on all cylinders. The Best Show’s supporting cast really came into its own this year, particularly Dudio and AP Mike, and Jon Wurster’s calls as various degenerates and opportunists were as consistently hilarious as ever. The show continues to evolve in weird and interesting ways. Scharpling’s secondary fame as a voice on Steven Universe has brought a surprising amount of child callers into the fold, bringing out a gentler, more avuncular side of Scharpling, and The Best Show remains both cozy and comforting and refreshingly experimental, most notably in a brilliant post-election episode that scrambled time and space to comment on the Trumpocalypse in a manner both deeply poignant and borderline avant-garde. The Best Show is always different, it’s always the same, and it’s always great.
I’m not feeling super-festive this year, which is perhaps why my gift feels a little instructive rather than light-hearted. Anyway, it’s easy to take Drive-By Truckers for granted, especially since the band’s spent the last 20 years churning out solid album after solid album. The group’s latest, American Band, summarizes the roiling political climate and emotional whiplash of 2016 better than any other record I heard this year. That’s largely due to “Surrender Under Protest,” which has sounded more urgent to me since the election. (And the song’s Lance Bangs-directed video, which highlights the power of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, is incredibly moving.) In general, however, American Band is a snarling and defiant record touching on everything from the Stones’ bluesy boogie to seething punk-folk. I’m finding solace and inspiration in the record’s ferocity and willingness to fight for what’s right. These days, we could all use a little more of both in our lives.
This seems less like Santa and more like Stalin, but I wish I could force everyone in the world to watch the second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and then discuss each episode at length afterward, maybe even singing a few of the songs in the process. If I could make viewing the show mandatory and enforceable by law, I would. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was very good in its first season, when the silly title was still sort of applicable. But it’s jumped up to a whole new level of quality and insanity this year, tearing down old allegiances, building new ones, and letting its ridiculously talented supporting cast carry more of the workload. At its heart is one of the most damaged, delusional, and possibly dangerous protagonists in TV history. Plus she sings and dances! By all rights, this should be the biggest thing on TV, leaving The Walking Dead and NFL football in the dust.
I hate to hand out what seems like an assignment, but for my gift to the world, here is a disc that’ll likely get filed away and remain unwatched until chance intervenes. All the better for a deliriously scuzzy movie like Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation, a dense two-and-a-half-hour documentary that plays like a paranoid conspiracy thriller. Except instead of a cabal of people keeping their dastardly plans secret, here what they’re doing is the official record. It’s a targeted history of the past 40 years of Western politics, beginning with the concurrent rises of finance capitalism in the West and suicide bombing in the Middle East and progressing to the point, nowadays, of what a Russian thinker called hypernormalisation: the social pretense that everything is just fine in the face of obvious meltdown. It has its overstatements and oversights, but nothing better captures the mood of waking up to the Trump era. And for a modern age, a modern replacement for newsprint wrapping: A print-out of the viral Gunshow comic about a dog sitting at a table in a burning building, adamant that “This is fine.”
You know what? Let’s bring on some love to end this year. My pop culture gift to the world is the television series You Me Her. A part of the Audience Network (which you’d think would be a bigger deal, given its past with Friday Night Lights and Damages), You Me Her takes the pretty clichéd concept of a struggling married couple in suburbia (Greg Poehler and Rachel Blanchard) and throws in the wrench of them individually and jointly falling in love with a psych grad student/the worst escort ever (Priscilla Faia). It would be so easy for the show to exist for titillation or to mock the concept of the polyamorous relationships or to be as faux-taboo as Audience’s one-and-done Billy & Billie; instead, it tells an oddly touching story about an “unconventional” relationship. It’s a show that shouldn’t work but does, and it deserves the attention. Plus, it’s been renewed for two more seasons, so you might as well hop on the bandwagon now.
I’m glad this exercise is hypothetical, as I’m not sure I could really deal with folks ranting about how much they despised my pick: Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. It has its flaws; the running time is overindulgent, the villains aren’t scary, and the climactic culture crash at Buckingham Palace goes overboard on the fart jokes. Yet the movie captivated me in a way few movies did this year, in large part due to the friendship between Mark Rylance’s titular Giant and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), the girl he takes a shine to. Rylance’s performance is a deft and lovely piece of work, providing a degree of subtlety and heartbreak to something that could all too easily have gone for bombast. Spielberg’s ability to make oversized CGI worlds at once alien and lived-in makes up for a narrative that occasionally gets lost inside its own shadow, trading in sentiment for something frequently close to awe. For those on a similar wave-length, it’s two hours of lyrical whimsy in a world that could use more of that.
It’s been hard to figure out what kind of comfort food entertainment actually feels comforting in Trump’s America. But the thing I’ve found more solace in than anything else is Moana. I’m a longtime Disney fan, but the studio’s latest princess flick absolutely blew me away. Its tribal Polynesian setting is unlike anything Disney has done before, and its ocean-set scenes rival Life Of Pi in terms of gorgeous cinematography. But while I was delighted by both the music (written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton darling Lin-Manuel Miranda) and The Rock’s turn as an egotistical demigod, it’s Moana herself who really got to me. More so than any other Disney princess, she’s an actual leader, one who takes it upon herself to save her people and protect the Earth. She’s brave, observant, empathetic, and eager to learn—all qualities that demonstrate why the ocean chose her for such a dangerous quest. And although the movie doesn’t really make a big deal about her gender, its quiet celebration of female leadership is something I’d love everyone in the world to see.
Although the election this year left the majority of us working through the five stages of grief, the one thing I’m glad it shed a light on, and would like to gift the world, is Jordan Klepper’s brilliance on the campaign trail. His forays into enemy territory at Trump’s rallies to film “Jordan Klepper Fingers The Pulse” for The Daily Show showcased an impeccable sense of timing and an incredible ability to be blunt without offending. This is nothing new to us in Chicago, where for years we got to witness Klepper’s brilliance as part of Whirled News Tonight, Late Night Live Show, or Steve And Jordan, Respectively (which still ranks as the best sketch show I’ve every seen) at iO (formerly Improv Olympic). Using a big, broad smile to disarm his targets, Klepper unleashes an “I’m just using your logic against you” or a “We don’t even see the irony in it” upon Trump loyalists. And in the wake of Trump’s victory, it’s at least nice to know that the one thing the left will always be able to do correctly is comedy (see exhibit A and exhibit B for how the right gets it oh so wrong). Well, that and the fact that Klepper will surely follow in the hallowed footsteps of former Daily Show correspondents Colbert, Oliver, Wilmore, and Bee by eventually getting his own show. Somewhat unrelated, but I also highly recommend watching Engaged, a series of sketches Klepper wrote with his wife, Laura Grey.