This year is finally ticking down to an end, and it seems natural to reflect. It is good to be mindful of the past, but don’t let it blind you. The past is only useful when it can inform the future.
With that said, I think it’s time to work even harder. This was a year of many successes, including launching this site, but also of many failures. I recently had a great conversation on Twitter with my friend and talented illustrator Rosemary Valero-O’Connell about this past year.
The basic premise was this: Is the world changing more rapidly than before, or are we becoming more in tuned to it? Are we learning to pay better attention? Is this what it feels like to grow up?
I think, as with most things, the answer lies somewhere in between these two options. But we both drew the same conclusion. Everyone can work harder to be better, and make it better around us. That doesn’t have to be life changing scale, it can be something small.
If this year has shown us one thing, it’s how quickly change can occur. So why wait? The time to act is now. Let’s make the world we want to see.
For the moment though, let’s take a look back. I want to recognize some of the amazing works I saw and was inspired by this year. Note that this is not a comprehensive list of all the best works that came out this year, but a selection of one or two of my favorites per section. There was plenty of great media and art released this year, and I’d love to hear about the ones I missed.
Have a favorite I left out? Let me know in the comments or contact me.
This was a big year for gaming, although not a year I often made time for it. Nintendo games are usually a big exception for this, and I loved a lot of the standout releases for the Wii U and the 3DS this year like Paper Mario Color Splash and Tokyo Mirage Sessions, and Pokemon Moon. However, indie games always have a big place in my heart and this year is no exception.
The Witness, by Jonathan Blow
If you have any familiarity with independent video games, you know of Jon Blow. His beloved game Braid helped launch the Xbox Live Marketplace and cement digital downloads as a new platform for the medium, as well as bringing prestige to the genre like never before.
After the success of Braid, many were eager to play his follow-up, a notoriously secretive successor. Could it live up to the hype generated by indie gaming’s genius? It could.
The Witness is a game of contrasts. Jon builds a vivid and beautiful world around one of the simplest mechanics seen in recent years: Line mazes. In what could have essentially been a series of flat puzzles released for iPad, Jon explores the environment around the puzzles and seems to test the limits of a mechanic alone. Could something like this be interesting for 30 plus hours? I’d say so.
Special Mention: Devil Daggers, by Sorath
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the independent first person shooter Devil Daggers by Sorath studios. An exercise in minimalism, the game drops you right into a nightmarish hell world, where demons ripped straight from an H.P. Lovecraft story are dead-set on killing you. Your only weapon against them are daggers you shoot from your palms, and your only goal is to see how long you can survive. Excellent sound design and graphics, this is a game that will have you saying, “Just one more round!” for hours to come.
Of course, fiction is a very important part of my life, but I must admit I’m rarely on the cutting edge of it. Often times, I spend the year catching up on works I’d missed, and end up missing out on the new novels and non-fiction put out that year. 2016 was one such year, so I’m going to cheat a bit on this one. I have a selection of novels from this year in a stack on my desk, but I cannot recommend any of them without having read them. Maybe in a month or two I’ll do a roundup. For now, here are the two best novels I read this year:
My Struggle: Book One, by Karl One Knausgård
In book one of Karl Ove’s sensitive and deeply honest novel, the young protagonist, a fictionalized version of the author, comes to terms with masculinity and the death of his father, a man he has spent his life on uncertain terms with.
The novel is such a breathtaking work of honesty and genuine thoughts, even when those are disparaging or not in Karl Ove’s best interest. The book reads like sitting down with an old friend who tells stories from his life, seamlessly flowing from one age and topic to another. There’s a lot of material to cover here, and it is all worth your time.
Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Marukami
One of my favorite novelists, and a constant source of inspiration, Haruki Marukami is most well known for his magical realistic mysteries. However, it’s this novel which eschews the magic for poignancy that has had the strongest emotional effect on me.
The story is of Toru Watanabe, a Japanese college student in the late 1960s, and his relationship with his friend Naoko. I fear of going further into the plot so to as not spoil what happens, but it is a story of nostalgia, loss, love, sex, and growing up that pulls no punches and will leave a lasting impact on your view of the world. Or at least it did for me. Immediately after finishing the novel I ran to hug my girlfriend, even though she had not experienced the same thing I just had. Highly recommended.
This was a great year for music, with more than a handful of excellent albums released.
A Moon Shaped Pool, by Radiohead
A triumph, and one of my favorite Radiohead albums to date. In the band no one can stop talking about, to the surprise of the band themselves, they continue to find ways to reinvent themselves. On this record, Radiohead is at their most introspective and somber. From classics like “Daydreaming” which deals with Thom Yorke’s seperation from his partner of 23 years, the late Rachel Owen, to “The Numbers” a soft ballad on climate change, each song is as strong as the others. In such a trying time, this is the best album to reflect that introspection.
Blackstar, by David Bowie
I often joked about how this year went downhill after the death of David Bowie only 2 days after his birthday on January 10th this year. However, he did not go without a bang. In his final album, Bowie confronts his own mortality and the state of the world. Intensely reflective, and featuring the innovative style Bowie was known for, he manages to combine jazz sessionists and his haunting vocals and lyrics into something truly special. This one will stand the test of time, and is a fitting cap on Bowie’s legacy.
Working in film, I often feel burned out from the releases. Often, films don’t live up to my expectations of the medium, or I have a hard time convincing myself to go to a theater after a long day on set. Regardless, 2016 saw some great films.
Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
This film hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s rare to see a film that so dramatically changes your worldview, or more successfully allows you to empathize with someone else. Moonlight does the best job of this of any film I’ve seen this year. As time goes on, I feel more and more like films need to justify their existence, more than other mediums do. With such a close relationship with capitalism, and such a heavy reliance on profit, often the artistic value or message of film gets deluded in search of the almighty dollar.
This is not the case with Moonlight. It’s from the amazing production company A24, who is almost dud-free (I’m looking at you, ’Tusk’…). But even in the catalogue of winners, Moonlight stands out as an excellent piece of cinema. Following a young black man, Chiron, through three phases of his life, as he comes to terms with masculinity and sexuality, the film presents a rarely depicted demographic. Along with tremendous acting, gorgeous cinematography, and an unreal soundtrack, this is a film everyone should see.
Special Mentions: 10 Cloverfield Lane, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, and The VVitch, directed by Robert Eggers
10 Cloverfield Lane is as far removed from the cult classic ‘Cloverfield’ as can be, but still fits within the same thematic universe, hence the shared title. The film slipped under the radar of many, directed by Dan Trachtenberg who was known for a Portal fan film online before this feature.
It features Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, stuck in an underground bunker. Both of them give amazing performances in this film. The screenplay, partially penned by Damien Chazelle (whose own film, La La Land was another excellent picture this year) is full of surprises and snappy dialogue, and kept me on the edge of my seat the whole runtime.
The VVitch (or, The Witch, for you layfolk) was a period piece horror film from the first half of the year. In it, A family exiled from shelter in Puritan America go to live in the woods. A baby disappears, and all hell breaks loose, literally. The film isn’t that scary, but features some amazing moments of suspense. It’s rare, especially recently, to see a horror film so full of Satanic references, but I was captivated from front to back. For those looking for something to spook, I can’t recommend this one enough.
Whew. These always turn out longer than I expect them to be. Anyways, what did I miss? What should I have been reading / listening to / playing / watching that I wasn’t? What are your favorites, and why? Is this a good year for your chosen medium, or not? Let me know! And as always, thanks for reading.