Last year I offered up a list of my favorite works in literature, film and television. It’s time to do it again.
The Best Books I Read in 2016
I didn’t read nearly as many books this year as the fifty-plus I finished in 2015, but I still got in a fair amount of reading. As with last year’s list, there were plenty of decent and entertaining choices, but only a few real standouts.
6) The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin: The final volume in Cronin’s massive Passage trilogy, the first book of which I read many years ago. Getting through that novel (about a post-apocalyptic vampire-ridden world) was such a massive undertaking that it took me a long time to even want to attempt to tackle its sequel. When I finally did this year, I had forgotten most of the characters and what had transpired in Book One, but Book Two was disappointing nonetheless. Still, I didn’t want to wait another eternity to finish the story off, so I tackled City of Mirrors immediately. And was glad I did. Whereas the previous books were either a slow burn or somewhat disjointed, Book Three picked up the pace with an excellent blend of drama and action. One expects to find a bit of hope at the end of generally depressing dystopian stories, and Cronin managed to end his epic with a pretty satisfying conclusion.
5) Midnight Riot, by Ben Aronovitch: This was a pleasant surprise. Another “modern day wizard” story didn’t seem like it could be anything different or special compared to the many other stories I’ve read in that niche, but this one was slightly different. Telling the story of London copper Peter Grant as he is introduced to the world of paranormal investigation, Midnight Riot offers just the right blend of mystery, fantasy and humor to make for an entertaining read. The plot drags on a bit too long and could have wrapped things up quicker, but it was a pleasant introduction to a fun series, which has stayed strong through Book Five.
4) Bull Mountain, by Brian Panowich: An interesting multi-generational story about a family’s criminal empire in the backwoods of the South and the far-reaching consequences of their actions on people both good and bad in the surrounding community. The atmosphere reminded me of one of my favorite shows, Justified, in some ways (though without the humor).
3) Morning Star, by Pierce Brown: Book Three in the Red Rising trilogy was a highly successful conclusion to what turned out to be one of the better sci fi series I’ve read in recent years (Book Two was on my list last year). There’s plenty of drama, action and intrigue in this epic space opera that grew from what on the surface was a very well-written Hunger Games clone. Unlike that series, Brown’s trilogy maintained its high level of excellent storytelling and came to a very satisfying conclusion. The only problem I had was remember the plethora of characters after having to wait a full year to read the final book!
2) Hyperion, Dan Simmons: This is considered by many to be one of the best fantasy/sci-fi novels ever written, and now I know why. However, it was not what I expected, and looking back on it, I’m still surprised I liked it so much. Set in our distant future (in which mankind has populated space, as you’d expect), Hyperion is written in the guise of a single plot, but in fact is broken down into a series of short stories, each focusing on one of its main characters. That’s pretty much the entire book, and you don’t get a more cohesive plot until the sequel (The Fall of Hyperion)… yet, the short story portion of this arc is much more interesting and enjoyable than the action-packed conclusion in Book Two. Nearly ever “episode” ends up being quite moving, and expounds on the protagonists’ motivations for coming together to solve a great mystery. I’m not a big fan of short stories, but the tales presented here are so well-written that they just work.
1) The Sarantine Mosaic, by Guy Gavriel Kay: Kay is an excellent writer, yet I’ve digested his work in moderation over the years. I’d previously read two of his novels (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan), enjoyed and respected both, yet didn’t immediately devour more of Kay’s books. Perhaps part of the reason is because Kay writes historical, semi-fantastical fiction. His books are set in fictional words that mirror regions from our own history: medieval Spain, the Mediterranean, etc. It’s not a subject that inherently appeals to me (don’t tell my parents, both historians), and with two volume The Sarantine Mosaic, Kay picked… a mosaicist as his hero. I have a background in art, but this wasn’t necessarily a huge selling point. So on the surface, there wasn’t a big draw to this story, but it ended up being just as beautifully written as Kay’s other works. And it’s not just about art, though that plays a part. The story blends art with court intrigue, religion, love, war, and even sport (the passages describing some of the chariot races are fantastic). Of the two books, I preferred the first, Sailing to Sarantium, but the Book Two holds up well and the story is worth reading. Even if you’re not an artist.
My Favorite Movies Seen or Released in the Theater in 2016
10) Rogue One: I’m a sucker for most Star Wars movies (not Ep. I-III), so if they’re done fairly well they’ll probably end up somewhere on my top ten list. Rogue One, like The Force Awakens, was flawed. The characters were thin and the CGI characters were distracting, but that ultimately didn’t detract too much from what was a dark and, at times, thrilling war movie. I liked how well they connected this film to Episode IV. The final act in particular was well done, and we got to see the best Darth Vader scene since Empire.
9) Queen of Katwe: A small film about chess in Africa, of all things, but entertaining and uplifting. Ultimately, the chess “action” isn’t what makes the movie. It’s bolstered by the familiar yet powerful themes of family, determination and finding success in the face of tremendous odds.
8) Spotlight: Last year’s Best Picture winner was good. Very good in fact. Yet there was nothing truly remarkable about it to make it seem like more than a well-written, solidly-acted film about investigative journalism. Even though the next movie on this list had more flaws, I still enjoyed it more than Spotlight.
7) Hunt for the Wilderpeople: I missed this in the theaters, but luckily it’s already streaming on Amazon. A fun romp by Taika Waititi set in the New Zealand bush, Wilderpeople centers on a troubled (and troublemaking) boy and a curmudgeonly older man who are on the run from the authorities. It’s funny, ridiculous and occasionally touching, and makes me wonder what we can expect from Waititi’s upcoming Thor film.
6) Swiss Army Man: The “farting dead Harry Potter movie,” is one most people missed, but I really enjoyed it. A fantastical story starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe as the farting corpse, this probably won’t appeal to anyone who lacks an imagination and an occasionally childish sense of humor.
5) The Revenant: This was my most anticipated movie of 2015, but it didn’t actually open locally until this year. I sort of had a feeling it wouldn’t live up to my own lofty expectations, and that proved to be the case. But it was still entertaining, anchored by strong performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and the well-rendered angry bear. And of course, it was beautiful. The cinematography was amazing, as expected. Still, it was slightly long and there may have been one too many sunbursts between the trees. Plus, I can only handle so much Malickian whispering voice over… thank goodness The Revenant actually had a plot and some action. Overall, very well done and deserving of the awards it took home, but I did not feel it was the best film of 2015, nor the best film I saw this year.
4) La La Land: I really don’t like musicals. So why did I want to see this film so badly? Well, it lives up to the considerable hype. From the director of Whiplash (my favorite film of 2014), La La Land follows a pretty couple finding their respective career paths in Los Angeles. There’s plenty of singing, dancing and a bit of fantasy. It’s a bittersweet love story that’s surprisingly uplifting. My only regret is that I was stuck in front of a row of teenagers that were babbling for the entire film. It sort of ruined the experience and means I’ll have to see the film a second time. Who knows, it may rank higher after a proper, uninterrupted viewing.
3) Arrival: Director Denis Villeneuve has crafted some pretty good films so far (Prisoners, Sicario), but I felt they were a step short of greatness. Arrival may be the film that has finally reached that level. Though I caught the plot twist before its late reveal, that element of this alien encounter story was secondary to the beautiful cinematography, solid performances and general sense of wonder and tension that makes the film a success.
2) Hell or High Water: Have you seen this yet? It was a small release in late summer, and may be the best film of 2016. It has just the right mix of humor, tension, action and family drama, supported by excellent performances from all of its main players. I may have enjoyed this film more than any other I saw this year.
1) Room: Another 2015 film that I didn’t see until 2016. I mainly chose to see it based on the buzz around Brie Larson’s and Jacob Tremblay’s performances and the overwhelmingly positive reviews. I didn’t expect it to be this good though. I admit I hesitated at first because I knew that it wasn’t a standard escape drama. Half the film occurs outside the room, and I wasn’t sure how compelling family drama and “adjust to real life” would be. But it worked. All of it. The actors were great, but I was touched more by the story and the very fitting ending. I knew I’d like the film. I didn’t know I’d like it this much.
Others I Enjoyed: The Big Short, Captain America: Civil War, Zootopia, Moana, The Nice Guys, Finding Dory
Biggest Disappointments: Suicide Squad. What a disaster.
Wish I’d Seen: Moonlight, Toni Erdmann, Green Room, The Witch
The Best Shows I Watched in 2016
Traveling so much this year made it difficult to keep up with the shows we’ve been watching, and to watch some of the new shows that debuted in 2016. So I missed a lot. Here are the better ones I did manage to binge-watch in between trips.
10) Fleabag: This short series (6 episodes) is based on a play by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who plays the main character. She’s something of a mess, and the show quickly establishes itself as a dry comedy centered around a woman who can’t seem to get her life together, and who is reminded of that fact constantly. But the series hints at more serious themes that end up making it a more satisfying watch than just a straight comedy (if you can’t tell, I don’t enjoy watching a ton of TV comedy anyway). The surprising and dark conclusion makes you rethink everything you just watched, but ultimately makes Fleabag much more fulfilling.
9) Mr. Robot: Mr. Robot is rightfully being criticized for Season Two’s rambling and inconsistent narrative. Some critics believe that Sam Esmail was a bit too indulgent after taking over the reins and directing every episode of the season. The episodes were a bit long and random at times, and the conclusion of the season left a lot to be desired. However, I can’t think of another TV show that looked this good. Esmail’s direction is so different than anything else on television that Mr. Robot remained visually engrossing throughout, even if its story couldn’t quite keep up.
8) The Returned (Les Revenants): I never thought I’d watch a full season of a French television show, but The Returned has intrigued me ever since it debuted on Sundance Channel a couple years back to rave reviews. It’s been on Netflix for a while, so we finally got a chance to try it. The show certainly lives up to the hype. The look and feel of this show gives it a haunting quality that accentuates the “living dead” story line. Excellent performances, including from the younger members of its cast, make for a very strong first season, though the story struggled a bit to keep things afloat while trying to maintain enough mysteries heading into season two. Season Two was still eerie and well-acted, but the show’s creators seemed to run out of steam. They seemed to relish in maintaining mystery and ambiguity, and as a result, things stagnated a bit.
7) The Hollow Crown: I never thought Shakespeare would make the list, but the December broadcast of Great Performances’ three part Shakespeare story of the War of the Roses was a big surprise. I’m not a huge fan of the Bard. I do love Henry V (at least, Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of it) and have read the more famous tragedies. However, I’d never sniffed this part of Shakespeare’s canon. This season of The Hollow Crown covered Henry VI (parts 1-3) and Richard III, which tell the story of the War of the Roses. So it was interesting in part because it was all brand new to me, but more importantly, the show made Shakespeare more accessible through effective storytelling and fantastic acting. The huge cast is made up of some of Britain’s finest talent, which tackles the tricky dialog with fantastic skill and nuance that is absolutely necessary in making these dramas more coherent for a modern audience. It’s Shakespeare, so there are loads of violence, blood and depressing themes… but it remains engrossing throughout.
6) The Expanse: Most of you probably haven’t watched this show on SyFy. It’s an adaptation of one of the better science fiction book series out there at the moment, a story that draws comparisons to Game of Thrones due to an expansive setting and an overflow of political intrigue. I had questions about how a lower tier network like SyFy would tackle the adaptation, but it’s exceeded all expectations. Unlike MTV’s Shannara Chronicles, the story hasn’t been dumbed down (making it a difficult show to get started with for the uninitiated, to be honest) and the settings and characters haven’t been dolled up and coated with a glossy sheen for television. The show feels as gritty and realistic as a space opera should. Definitely one of the most underrated shows out there.
5) Game of Thrones: Inconsistent as ever, Game of Thrones once again proved to be good, but not always great. In fact, a couple of the early episodes in Season Six were subpar… but they could be quickly forgotten by the time the season reached its fantastic conclusion. The final episodes, Battle of the Bastards and The Winds of Winter, are among the finest in the show’s successful run, featuring memorable directing from Miguel Sapochnik (who won an Emmy for directing Bastards). As the show continues to race past its source material, its direction toward the end of this season makes me more optimistic than ever that the show will end on a high creative note over these next couple years.
4) Horace and Pete: Like The Hollow Crown, Horace and Pete is essentially a play put to screen. Louis C.K. surprised everyone when he suddenly released this ten episode story on the web earlier this year. Now it’s on Hulu, and I was finally able to catch up on it. It’s a play, set nearly 100% of the time inside a bar, and features nothing more than dialogue from flawed and often dislikeable characters. But, as with his thoughtful brand of comedy, C.K. manages to write scene after scene that present so much more depth than the normal conversation it pretends to be. Alan Alda does some of the best work of his career, and even C.K.’s performance holds up fairly well against some more-seasoned actors. It’s quiet, plain and not particularly uplifting, but there were few family dramas that made for better television this year.
3) The Leftovers: Like so many other shows I finally watched this year, The Leftovers debuted a while ago. And early buzz was not particularly favorable. But then the second season arrived, and even though the show’s ratings dipped, those who stuck with the show began to rave about it. It made the Top Ten in Hitfix’s annual TV critics’ poll, and some folks were mentioning Season Two as an “all time great season.” So I had to try it. Though Season One, a reportedly-faithful adapation of Tom Perrotta’s novel, was simply okay (a bit slow, which probably explains the defections prior to the second season), Season Two ended up being outstanding, as promised. The show is centered around the events following the mysterious disappearance of 2% of the earth’s population, but it has been steadily presented itself as a family drama just as much as it is a mystery/borderline fantasy. The family drama in Season Two just happened to be ten times more compelling than its debut season, and the added mystery and magical elements only enhanced the story. Thankfully, The Leftovers has been renewed for one final season by HBO.
2) Bloodline (Season One): Okay, this was a bit of a surprise. Bloodline debuted on Netflix in the spring of 2015, but I kept putting it off. That was due in part to the glut of good television we have available today (remember, I listed a full twenty-one shows I enjoyed last year), but the critical reviews for this one seemed to be along the lines of “good, not great.” So I held off. But I was intrigued by the talk of Ben Mendelsohn’s great performance as troubled brother Danny, and casual television viewers seemed to love the show. So we finally sat down and gave it a try. And were very pleasantly surprised. Granted, it’s a slow burn, a story that could probably be truncated into about eight episodes spans thirteen. Still, that gives even more time for mysteries to build and be revealed (the conclusion of the story arc is depicted in the very first episode, yet so many questions remain throughout the season). It was an atmospheric family drama with much more suspense and weight than I anticipated. Mendelsohn, by the way, truly is excellent. He received a well-deserved Emmy nomination for his work… and probably should have won (he did somehow win for limited work in Season Two, which I have not yet seen).
1) The Americans: Unlike many of these other shows, The Americans did not dip in Season Two, or Season Three… In fact, it kept getting better. We finally began catching up online, watching all four seasons over the course of a few weeks. Though this 1980s spy thriller is probably a bit unrealistic in terms of the sheer amount of action and drama two spies must endure, it’s still captivating. I also have to give the producers credit for emphasizing authenticity when it comes to the Russian language and accents. Too often in Cold War drama we get lazy casting, acting or interpretation of the Soviet side, but that’s perhaps the most important half of this particular story, and the showrunners treat it as such. Casting Russians for Russian-speaking roles, relying on subtitles for long dialog rather than have characters switch to English halfway through a conversation… I appreciated these touches. With a great mix of action, suspense and family drama, The Americans was worth the wait.
Other Shows I Enjoyed: The Flash, Westworld, The Night Manager, Catastrophe (Season Two), Daredevil, Stranger Things, The Night Of, The 100, The Crown, The Man in the High Castle, Whose Line Is It, Anyway?
Favorite Performances in No Particular Order: Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline), Jon Bernthal (Daredevil), Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Joseph Gilgun (Preacher), Michael Cristofer (Mr. Robot), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Anthony Hopkins (Westworld), Claire Foy and John Lithgow (The Crown), Alan Alda and Edie Falco (Horace and Pete), Stanley Townsend and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown), Colin Mochrie (Whose Line)
Wished I’d Seen: Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire, Black Mirror, Happy Valley, Atlanta