There are a lot of 'Best of 2016' lists coming out now, but they're all flawed and wrong because they don't include the things we wanted them to include. More importantly, they weren't written by us.
As our gift to the internet - and therefore the world - we've put together the Absolute and Definite Guide to the Best of Everything. It is conclusive and final, and should be used as a reference to settle all arguments.
Dark Souls 3. If FROM Software hadn’t outdone themselves (and everyone else) last year with Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3 would be the crown jewel of dark fantasy. Everything about the Souls series is at near-peak form here--combat feels great, the environments are rich and evocative, the designs are gorgeous and classy, and the story is weird and obtuse.
Malibu. Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu came out in January and hasn’t been topped for me by anything since. It’s compositionally innovative and diverse but remains constantly funky, and it has an incredibly rich and personal vibe.
The Kettering Incident. Kind of a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, insofar as it’s an ensemble cast Weird-horror drama set in a temperate rainforest logging town. It’s only 8 episodes, and has some phenomenal characterization, it’s set in gorgeous Tasmanian coastal old-growth, and the speculative elements are handled with a subtle touch.
Check out Adam's feature on fantasy's shameful lack of parasites.
Deadpool. Apparently propelled into existence by little more than Ryan Reynolds' strength of will, Deadpool was and remains a breath of fresh air now that the MCU has begun to turn out mediocre films with worrying regularity. Crass, funny, self-referential and shockingly successful, Deadpool achieved at least one impossible thing - it made me like Deadpool.
Game of Thrones Season 6. No longer hindered by Martin's books, the most recent series of Game of Thrones finally began consolidating some of the hundreds of plot-threads demanded by previous instalments (mostly by killing characters off). The result was arguably the strongest series of the show to date.
BROTUS. The Barack and Joe BROTUS meme, where people caption photos of Joe Biden and Barack Obama with conversations illustrating Obama trying to talk Biden out of pranking Trump, has been the one thing making social media bearable since about 4 am on November 9th, 2016.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. This achingly personal memoir of a geobiologist is the best thing I read this year. A love letter to the rapturous, tedious, obsessive pursuit of knowledge, Lab Girl ran me through the full emotional gamut.
Steven Universe. I don’t know what we did to deserve the pure-hearted goodness that is Steven Universe. I wish I’d had this show as a kid, but I’ll happily settle for having it as an adult.
Obduction. If you were a fan of the Myst games, this is the immersive puzzle land you’ve been craving since 2003. Same developers, same gameplay, a whole new setting to explore. Get your notebook and clear your calendar.
Honorable mention: birdwatching. I casually took up birdwatching in 2016 and it’s freaking great. It’s like Pokémon GO, except your quarry is real and you get arrested if you make them fight.
Every shot of the BBC's glorious Planet Earth II qualifies for best of 2016, but here are a few particular favourites...
Marine iguanas versus racer snakes. An extraordinary piece of filmmaking, and perhaps the only time the nation spoke with one voice this year, as we simultaneously screamed RUN at the TV.
Lions versus giraffe. Showcasing the exquisite camera definition seen across this series, you could see every hair of the lion's fur - and then the camera pulls out, revealing the full extent of the arid wilderness these cats roam.
Fox faceplant. Effectively summarizing 2016, and top prize for surely the glossiest fox to walk the earth.
The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual. From the founders of one of New York's most celebrated cocktail meccas, this book is part mixologist's handbook, part all-American tale of two Irish boys making it in the Big Apple (complete with Gangs of New York reference). Be warned: the list of ingredients sometimes read more like a scavenger's hunt than a recipe, but if you're prepared to put in the work, you'll be rewarded.
Hibernacula. My favourite thing about NYCC this year was visiting this jewelry shop on a tip from Seanan McGuire. I was lucky to come away only a few hundred dollars lighter in the wallet, not because the fantasy-inspired designs are so expensive, but because there are just so damn many of them I want to buy. I settled for a silver ring inspired by Castiel of Supernatural, plus this Cthulhu-friendly pendant. I'm still dreaming about commissioning a piece based on the Bloodbound novels, because garnet studded jewelry would be the best.
Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails. If you're a fan of Ticket to Ride - and really, who isn't - you should definitely check out the latest release in the franchise. Not only is it two games in one, with a world side of the board and a Great Lakes side, it's got enough twists and extra layers of strategy to keep even the most hardened T2R veterans on their toes.
Read what villains Erin liked (and didn't) in 2016. Or, better yet, read The Bloodsworn, the awesome conclusion to her epic fantasy trilogy.
Vision (Marvel Comics, by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire, etc). If Isaac Aasimov had written for Marvel Comics, this is what it would have looked like. What happens when Vision, the Avengers’ own paranoid android, tries to live a normal life? Something tense, dramatic and haunting, beautifully brought to life (so to speak) by Hernandez Walta and superstar colourist Jordie Bellaire. This one will stay with you long after the final page.
Descender (Image Comics, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen). If you like your sci-fi grand, intriguing and immersive, this one’s for you. Now on it’s third graphic novel collection, Descender feel like it’s only just scratching the surface of the world Lemire and Nguyen have created. Following boy robot, Tim-21, as he seeks to find his place in the universe, this one is equal parts tear-jerker and epic mystery that’s leading somewhere very special.
Kubo and the Two Strings (Laika Studios, directed by Travis Knight). The fourth film from Laika, Kubo and The Two Strings pushes stop-motion animation to almost unbelievable new heights. A classic ‘boy on a magical quest’ fable (who doesn’t love those?) Kubo feels like an ancient creation myth but is grounded in a touching story of family and loss. Plus it has a theme song by Regina Spektor, which is always a mark of quality as far as I’m concerned.
Harrow County (Dark Horse Comics, by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook). Very few horror comics actually manage to be scary, especially when they’re not relying on gratuitous violence or gore, but Harrow County is genuinely creepy and shocking while keeping story and character at the forefront. At the heart of the tale is Emmy, a young girl in the deep south who discovers that the ghost stories she always took for granted are a lot more real than she thought. This is proper don’t-go-into-the-woods, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night horror with some great visuals and genuine warmth amongst all the chills.
The Liv Moore Funko Pop. Funkos have got to be close to jumping the shark, right? I mean, there's now an app for collecting virtual Pops, for reasons that total escape me. Whatever. My favourite zero-points-of-articulation hunk of adorable plastic action figure is iZombie's Liv Moore, whom I keep on my desk so she can eat the brains of people that irk me.
Mac Cosmetics' Star Trek Collection. I've not used it myself. Nor do I actually care very much about Star Trek. But, I think this is awesome. I love everything about its existence, and how it normalises 'geekery', as well as recognising SF's importance in pop culture, encouraging diversity, recognising the breadth and scope of SF universes and SF fandom, etc. etc. Also, cool design.
Hogwarts Exercise Books from The House of Minalima. I am apparently of the age where I Appreicate Fine Stationary, which makes me feel so depressingly hipsterish. (I am also addicted to sriracha, so, who knows. I don't even know me any more. But I liked me better at my first album.) Anyway, these lovely notebooks - made by the actual prop designers for the movies - are... a really shapely collection of empty pages. I don't actually know what you say about notebooks. They're sure papery!
Bungo Stray Dogs. Breakout anime hit with private detectives vs. mafia vs. police in futuristic Yokohama, oh and they all have supernatural powers, stylish trenchcoats and are named after famous authors. Lovecraft turns up in the second season. (The frankly superhuman effort that must have gone into getting two series out within one year means that Season 2 starts with a few weak flashback episodes – don’t give up, it gets better).
Battleborn. Violent, funny, colourful first person shooter from the creators of Borderlands. Husband and I might be the only people in the world who thought that this was better than 2016’s biggest shooter, Overwatch. What can I say – Battleborn had couch co-op. (Why is couch co-op dying? Are we the only people who like the idea that you can play a game WITH YOUR FRIENDS IN YOUR LIVING ROOM as well as with people on the internet on the other side of the planet? Isn’t it just WEIRD when you can play a game with someone in China but you literally can’t play it with your spouse unless you set up two Xboxes with two separate copies of the game? *keyboard mash*)
Ghostbusters. Bloody hell, this better be on the list, somewhere I mean HOLTZMAN COME ON. Plus it pissed off misogynists everywhere, which is a definite win.
Skyrim Special Edition. Look, you know and I both know it's basically just a cosmetic upgrade. So how come playing it feels like playing a new game? I'm even finding stuff I never did before, despite having sunk months into it back in the day
Giant Days. If there's a better 'non-mainstream' comic out there I certainly haven't found it. John Allison, Lissa Treiman and Max Sarin's tale of university life is funny, emotional and all round brilliant. Volumes 2 and 3 were released this year, but don't miss out on 1.
Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition. The game system changes really work, but the additional depth added in the core rulebooks make this more than just an updated stats system and some new character creation options. Sixth Edition was fine, but seventh adds unexpected depth.
Things That Were Not That Bad in 2016
What I can say about this list of things? I can say it is not a long list and also it isn’t an accurate list because some of these things are clearly not from 2016. But all these things were not that bad. I feel this what they have in common. Also, I realize there aren’t any Indian things on this list. This is because I mainly watched Tamil infomercials for real estate purchase in Chengalpet and other areas and frankly they were just ok
Channel Zero. I almost didn’t watch this because I didn’t really understand what a creepypasta was like people would ask me oh what’s a creepypasta and right at that moment I would realize that I didn’t know what it was obviously this did not stop me from telling people what I felt it was which I feel isn’t totally bad because someone told me I’m very intuitive. Anyway, this is something that I almost didn’t watch and ended up liking a lot. See this picture:
IT’S MADE OUT OF TEETH!!111
The Exorcist TV Series. I will watch almost anything with the word ‘exorcist’ or ‘possession’ in the title because I think I just really enjoy watching shows and movies where white people get possessed and there are Bibles and tired exorcists drinking huge steaming mugs of whatnot and wearing sweaters and hanging out in nice kitchens while ominous thunderstorms dot the horizon. This show has all these things. But also I thought it was lots of fun and the double pupil thing is something I’m hoping to see in many more things to come.
"It’s a Job" by Wolfie’s Just Fine.
I like the song and the video and the kid in the video and it’s nice to see something new from Jon Lajoie who I also like.
Hunt for the WilderPeople. When I first read or saw Shaun Tan’s The Arrival I was like why isn’t everyone seeing this and talking about how great it is? I feel the same way about this movie it is so great here is a great song from it:
"Me and Your Mama" by Childish Gambino. Good no?
Ya it’s pretty good.
I Am The Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. I did watch this because of the title and I get why it can seem like an annoying movie but I don’t care I liked it.
Things That Are Not from 2016 but Were Not Bad in 2016
Over the Garden Wall. Why aren’t more things like this show? I don’t know.
Cossacks of the Kuban. For real, I enjoyed this.
"One of Us is Dead" by The Earlies:
Propaganda Posters. Because even if it isn’t true, sometimes it’s just nice to see ridiculously happy, healthy, patriotic, successful people surrounded by grain and technological advancements. Also they lift up their arms.
Important Lesson of 2016. Saying really weird shit and attributing it to “Ghandi”, Maya Angelou or Africa in general makes you win most things except the racist ones I guess.
Things that didn't suck in 2016 isn’t an easy list to make. I mean…sure, there’s some cool stuff but it’s been drowned out by all the noise. Or so it seems. Still, one makes an attempt.
And one finds that if one is determined enough to ignore the fact that Leonard Cohen and David Bowie both died this year, one can easily say that their last albums were genius - and both were goodbyes.
Cohen’s You Want It Darker is sparse, poetic and graceful. The title song’s ‘I’m ready my lord’ lyric says it all. Bowie’s Blackstar is complex, frightening and so, so smart. Both albums are melancholic and beautiful.
We lost Prince this year too, something I still can’t write about. Luckily, there are other people who can, and Mobeen Azhar’s collection of stories about Prince, The Purple Underground was a fantastic respite - it’s filled with gorgeous pictures of Prince alongside intimate stories told by some of the people who closely worked with Prince over the years - engineers, musicians, dancers, singers. It has some really great insights into who Prince was to the other creatives around him, and so into the man himself.
Stranger Things was the TV I saw most lauded this year, though when I eventually got to it, it wasn’t as brilliant as everyone said so. Admittedly, everyone who had said so lived in the west, where they probably did grow up playing D&D and eating Eggo, so I didn’t really relate to it all that much or find it as incredible as everyone else seemed to. Still, it was fun, a scarier, weirder Goonies, if you will.
Zootopia was fun, and by "fun", I mean "hey, look a movie about the xenophobic world we live in, excellent, let’s laugh at our discomfort". No - it really was a good film though.
There’s been a bunch of really excellent pop music this year, no denying that. Straight up frothy fun pop that hits the spot. I think that may need its own post!
On a complete aside, here’s something I really enjoyed online: Genevieve Valentine’s Red Carpet Rundown, which made me start to question whether red carpet fashion, red carpet personalities, stories, celebrity were actually speculative fiction. The way Genevieve tells it, the fashion sure seems to be. She’s highly entertaining, smart and funny.
Best TV Show: The first half of Westworld. The original Westworld is not some obscure cult film but neither is it a household name. So the makers of the Westworld TV show didn’t have to make their opening episode the way that they did - i.e. by responding to the film, and using its remembered features to catch you off-guard. So it was a good sign they still did so.
A good sign too the way that the show then elaborated on the usual replicant angst stuff with the storytelling logics of video games. What if a MMPORG and all its characters came to life? Wouldn’t it be a kind of hell?
But then halfway during another cowboy orgy, you started to realise that the in-game quest stories were gothic-corny and boring but shot as if they mattered (like watching someone play Red Dead Redemption with an invincibility cheat), while up outside, the park management kept promoting Guy Ritchie. Turns out all this time the only thing you really wanted was Anthony Hopkins speaking quietly about robots.
Maybe it’s unfair to blame JJ Abrams when there’s a Nolan brother to hand, but the decisive turn in the story - Thandie Newton’s character Maeve making a human accomplice and so the first crack in the snow-globe - had all the hallmarks of an idea half-baked or over-cooked into bullshit, and an idea which didn't retrospectively work better when you found out later that it was all part of some plan. The Radiohead strings sequence that followed Maeve up the levels of theme-park hell was a show-stopper, but unfortunately it did just that. From then on, a confusion of index card plot points, mishandled drama, twists that loom like mesas, TV cliches, dropped balls, assorted feistiness.
Best horror: The Witch. A film about a girl suspected of witchcraft by her family in Puritan times; but not, as some people thought, a film about the ambiguity of witchcraft. The existence of the supernatural is admitted way early on.
Does that mean that the story can't work, can’t be suspenseful, and so doesn’t mean anything? Should a world where witchcraft is an obvious, real and active threat mean that you can’t have sympathy for humans confused about it?
This is as weird as arguing that a horror about a family wrongly suspecting their child as being brainwashed could only draw sympathy from the audience if we also knew from the story that cults weren’t real. Just because malevolent witches are real in the film doesn’t mean that paranoia about them is fair and well-founded. The tragedy of The Witch is that the family drive their daughter to the devil because they suspected her and not him first, because - why else? - she’s a girl.
If only more stories would abandon ‘Is it x or is it y?’ and instead work on a ‘yes and but also’ principle.
(Also, big screen northern accents! Even if one belongs to the presumably cursed ancestor of Chris Finch).
Rebecca West’s 1000+-page book sometimes gets called a travelogue, but you could argue that it’s proto-psychogeography. Because as well as travel literature with all its local affects, the book is also, and at least, an ethnographic study of the South Slavs, an anthology of architecture reviews, nature writing and Christian heresies, a history book (modern, Medieval, Byzantine, and Roman), and a journalistic report on the Balkans a few years before the Second World War.
Outlining the compendiousness of the book has always been standard; the risk though is that it makes the book sound.. educational. But Rebecca West’s writing is the best kind of prose - on any given page it synthesises so many ways of looking at the world (being one of the last of that era of books that could try to take life in its entirety). And considering the time it was written, the unease of the author and of the people she meets, it’s also a tragedy.
Speaking of that time, her writing also has plenty of - as the euphemism goes - old-fashioned attitudes (a lack of effeminate men and masculine women is how she judges the integrity of various peoples, plus she's forever reminding her Western European readers of the debt they owe those same peoples for saving them from The Turk).
Then again, the past is a foreign country etc. But don't just focus on the 'foreign' part. The past is huge and dense like a country, too. As the song goes, "All those people, all those lives. Where are they now?"
(Also ran / Best film not technically out in 2016: The Handmaiden. It’s a bad attitude that I could never rationally defend (it’s adolescent and fogeyish at the same time) but deep down I suspect that most artists can be divided into the phoney and the real deal.
Chan-wook Park is the real deal. Whatever you can say of his films, you can never say that he didn’t try. Adapted from a Sarah Waters historical novel, but modern in theme, his new film is... why list the adjectives? Just know that every character, line of dialogue, shot and scene is vivid, has a purpose, and as it turns out is doing several things at once. And because of this level of attention and complexity, it's extremely fun.)