Joe Manganiello in Magic Mike XXL.
Claudette Barius/Warner Brothers
Claudette Barius/Warner Brothers
Joe Manganiello in Magic Mike XXL.
Claudette Barius/Warner Brothers
More and more, I eschew end-of-year best-of lists for the simple reason that they’re arbitrary and imply a comprehensiveness on which they can never deliver. What works for me is to compile a list that reflects some of the enormous gratitude I feel for getting to enjoy other people’s work and art — one that doesn’t even pretend to define what is best, but simply to share some of the abundant good stuff I run into.
Keep in mind: these are cultural — mostly pop-cultural — things. These are not the best things in the world. Like yours, my actual list of wonderful things from the year, if I wrote it in a journal instead of for work, would be a list of people, of hugs, of dinners, of walks and experiences.
And finally: There are things I really love that aren’t here because I’m too close to the people involved. In some cases, I found things I liked so much that I went out and drafted the people who made them into my universe of pals by any means necessary. Sorry, pals.
Here we go.
1. The somewhat polarizing closing sequence of Trainwreck, the gender politics of which could be debated at length, but which ultimately was an effective summation of one of the things that movie is about: When you’re in love, you just have to do the best you can.
2. The final shots of Andrew Haigh’s deceptively quiet film 45 Years, as Charlotte Rampling, without speaking, demonstrates that while the story has seemed up to that point like it’s operating on an engine of wistful resilience, it has a sterner spine and a more complex view of the longevity of a marriage than it seemed to have only moments earlier.
3. The clever, self-aware sequence in Star Wars: The Force Awakens in which the film takes aim at the trope of men pointlessly grabbing women’s hands before taking off running. (Bonus: the cast singing the theme music with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots.)
4. The startlingly graceful flexible poles used as critical fighting apparatuses in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s true that the apocalyptic landscapes are gorgeous to look at, but throughout the film, new visual ideas appear by the minute, and it’s brilliant to offset the explosive, mechanical action of the vehicle chases with the smooth, rhythmic swaying of the poles.
5. The first musical number of the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which star Rachel Bloom warbles the ditty “West Covina.” It’s a confident, affable, wonderfully bent introduction.
6. Every scene between Melissa McCarthy and Allison Janney in Spy, a film that uses actor after actor (Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Peter Serafinowicz, Bobby Cannavale, Morena Baccarin) to do something that’s different from what they usually do but somehow utterly perfect for them.
7. Bokeem Woodbine’s star-making role (an overused term, but fitting here) as Mike Milligan in the brilliant second season of FX’s Fargo. There’s so much great work in that season (Patrick Wilson would have been a perfectly good choice for this list, or Jean Smart, or Kirsten Dunst), but Woodbine was menacing, creepy and still sympathetic enough that his dreams were enough to constitute the stakes for the end of his story.
8. The end of the first season of Lifetime’s wonderful unREAL, in which Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) lie exhausted on their backs — reflecting the pose in which Rachel started the season — trying to process all they’d been through together and the bizarre, dysfunctional closeness that they both relied on.
9. The moment in Inside Out when Riley is finally able to talk to her parents about her sadness and her longing for Minnesota. The adorable emotions were the stars, but it’s Riley who’s really at stake, and to be comforted by her parents was her victory.
10. Perhaps the greatest terrible trailer in the history of humanity: the uproariously ridiculous tease for the Jennifer Lopez film The Boy Next Door.
11. The spare dialogue given to Matt Damon in Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard’s stellar (har) adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian. Damon doesn’t say much, since there’s no one to say it to, but that means that when he says, for instance, “[Bleep] you, Mars,” you really hear it.
12. A scene from Hulu’s Casual in which freshly divorced Valerie (Michaela Watkins) finds herself on an elevator, contemplating a situation in which she never expected to end up. She glides through emotions in a way that transcends the usual comedic trope of laughing leading to crying, so that the questions are both independently interesting: why she’s laughing and why she’s crying.
13. The scene in Netflix’s Master Of None in which Dev, played by Aziz Ansari (who co-created with Alan Yang), first makes a serious approach to Rachel, the girl he likes, and learns that she has a boyfriend. There are a million ways to go with this conversation — he can be sad, rejected, angry, resentful, jealous, self-pitying — and they just went the really honest route of stressing how bummed he is and how much he wishes they were in a different situation. It feels unexpectedly frank and fair, and in a way far more romantic than anything else he could have done. “You’re so cool; there’s not a lot of cool people,” he says. Everybody’s been there, right?
14. The turn at the end of the fall finale of The Mindy Project, now living on Hulu. Mindy and Danny’s relationship didn’t suddenly get better when they had a baby and got engaged; it got more complicated. And as Mindy measured her young son’s crib (a gesture for which heavy-hearted context had already been provided), the show made an unexpected but not unwelcome turn toward considering whether this relationship was really a good idea — a surprising move for a show so rooted to Mindy Kaling’s love of romantic comedy.
15. The combined impact of Rami Malek’s face as gorgeously presented by creator Sam Esmail and a team of directors across the first season of USA’s weird, uneven, ultimately transfixing Mr. Robot.
16. The scenes in David Simon’s Show Me A Hero that capture with just the right kind of intensity the emotion and cacophony of local politics.
17. The scene in Straight Outta Compton (caution: language) in which Eazy-E learns to rap from Dr. Dre. Funny and surprising and providing a bit of balance to the image of the members of N.W.A. as supergeniuses, it has a gentle sense of humor and a humility that helps build the relationships between the characters.
18. The audaciously dorky but weirdly sexy convenience-store dance Richie performs in Magic Mike XXL. The film isn’t perfect, but it has a punchy, raunchy, sex-positive vibe that’s very hard to resist, nowhere more than in this in-your-facedly silly display that, like other items in the convenience store might advertise, is for her pleasure.
19. Sydney Lucas at the Tony Awards singing “Ring Of Keys” from Fun Home. The best moments at the Tonys happen when one performance can take a show from a niche product to a pop culture phenomenon, and Lucas helped Fun Home make that leap without breaking a sweat.
20. The way the final chapters of Mad Men lingered on Peggy Olson, creating indelible images of her — particularly on roller skates and walking in shades with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth — that honestly dwarf the images of Don from the closing episodes. It wasn’t immediately evident at the time, but Peggy became more unforgettable, more special, more relevant, just as Don became more frozen, more confused, more back on his heels.
21. The cameos in the basement riff-off in Pitch Perfect 2. It’s far from a perfect film, to say the least, but if you manage to make it to that riff-off without knowing whom to expect, the incongruous nature of some of the contestants makes it worth your time.
22. The opening sequence of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The entire show felt like something that only accidentally made it to viewers, and its weird, earwormy intro fit it perfectly.
23. The ESPN documentary I Hate Christian Laettner, which managed to make sense both to people who hated him and to people who loved him, and which shed a lot of light on what sports “hate” means and comes from.
24. Leslie Knope giving her friend Ron Swanson the ideal job at the end of Parks & Recreation. A lesser show would have forced Ron into growth more easily equated with change, where Parks was smart enough to know that the love that grew up between these very different people was based on their ability to accept each other as they were. “Your job would be to walk around the land alone. You’d live in the same town you’ve always lived in; you’d work outside; you’d talk to bears.” She did know him after all.
25. The podcast Switched On Pop, from which many episodes could be chosen, but I’ll go with one of the first I heard: the investigation of Hozier’s “Take Me To Church.” So good and sharp and fun.
26. Speaking of podcasts, the episode of Startup in which Gimlet Media investigated the issue of burnout in the company, which was not only great radio but public service for everyone who has ever thought you could ask people for infinite investment without expecting some fallout. (Also the episode on diversity. It was a year of introspection.)
27. You can’t make your whole list out of Vines, but give me one: this is the one Vine that, for me, explained why Vine is sometimes the technology we’ve needed all our lives.
28. The wonderful, confessional, angry, humble, grateful piece that Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach wrote about the show’s complicated legacy, its relationship with its incredibly demanding fans, and the fundamental fact that, as a project of humans, it was doomed to imperfection. It’s one of the best reality checks that have been written on the topic of fans who convince themselves they know how to write and make perfect television, if only someone would ask them.
29. Squeaking in at the end of the year: the New York Times review, sort of, of Senor Frog’s. There are times — as with an infamous review of all things Guy Fieri — when the Times‘ forays into the culture of the masses feel like condescending class commentary, but somehow, in reviewing the bonkers world of Senor Frog’s in Times Square, writer Pete Wells steers clear of sneering at tourists and keeps in mind that one goes to different restaurants for different reasons, and one does not go to Senor Frog’s for the high-end cuisine. Most of all, though, it’s a constantly surprising, gorgeously witty, sparklingly written piece of helpless, shrugged-shoulders limboing.
30. The episode of This American Life called “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say, Say It In All-Caps,” in which writer Lindy West tracks down a troll, Ira Glass busts vocal-fry-haters for selectively disliking it in women, and more.
31. The movie dance compilation — no, hear me out! — that demonstrates that there is an art to the YouTube collage. Look at the uses of Omar Sy and Brad Pitt, for instance: Work went into making sure those things worked flawlessly and seemed meant to be. There are a million videos that aspire to be this one, which makes it stand out all the more. (Seriously, there’s a lot going on: Dirty Dancing, Grease and Footloose all get important placements in the structure of the music — not an accident. The second use of West Side Story is genius, as is the Jon Cryer appearance.)
32. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, a show from HBO that has figured out how to be hilarious but not glib while providing long, deeply researched segments on nonsexy topics like food waste and ones that have faded from headlines like TV preachers. For me this year, there was nothing more consistently satisfying and entertaining, not just on late night, but on television.
33. Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance, written with sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Particularly if you get your hands on the audiobook, it’s an intriguing mix of comedy and thoughtfulness and research, and while it’s mostly not earthshaking, it’s intriguing.
34. The Mystery Show episode “Belt Buckle.” You think you know how much punch the resolution is going to have, and then it has so much more than that.
35. The Another Round episode with Hillary Clinton. Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu ask Clinton questions that don’t typically get asked in ways that encourage other outlets to think about what they do and don’t ask, and why.
36. This stupid, irresistible YouTube video from the wonder that is Ikea.
37. The unexpected punch (sorry) of Creed, a film that could so easily have been lazy and obligatory and is instead vital, fun and often moving.
38. Maris Kreizman’s generous, thoughtful, provocative book Slaughterhouse 90210, a project based on a Tumblr with a deceptively simple structure and a great deal to say.
39. The strong sophomore seasons currently in play from ABC’s family comedies Fresh Off The Boat and Black-ish. Yes, both are part of some increased diversity in family shows, but even were that not the case, they’d be great to behold based solely on how reliably funny and confident both have become.
40. Viola Davis’ brilliant speech upon winning her Emmy, which came close to justifying the existence of award shows.
41. Effie Brown of HBO’s Project Greenlight, a producer who gave voice to so many frustrations about impossible, puffed-up creatives that she needs her own podcast, preferably called “Whatever, Bore-sese.”
42. The tremendous piece Joe Posnanski and Michael Schur wrote after a particularly bizarre American League Championship Series game. Even for non-baseball fans, a delight.
43. Catastrophe, a U.K. romantic comedy brought to U.S. viewers by Amazon, starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan as a couple whose path is most unexpected. Funny, odd, dirty, honest — just about all you can ask for from such a story.
44. Lily Tomlin’s performance in Grandma, as well as her sneakers. Highlights of an impeccably cast movie across the board.
45. Parul Sehgal’s essay for The New York Times Magazine about the word “flawless.”
46. The HBO series The Jinx — not for its more widely discussed bathroom mutterings, but for the discovery of the spelling error that, for me, is the actual moment the whole thing breaks open.
47. Ava DuVernay’s Barbie doll and all the user-submitted photos thereof.
48. What makes the podcast Judge John Hodgman so satisfying is that it’s really funny, but it’s also always really wise and really humane. In May, Hodgman took the case of a family where the father doesn’t want his young daughter to have birthday celebrations. As strange as that sounds, the judge found a lot to say about what was driving the father’s anxiety, what he owed to his family, and what he could and couldn’t expect from parenting.
49. As fashion and cultural commentary, Jazmine Hughes’ Cosmopolitan piece on dressing like Cookie from Empire for a week made me smile.
50. My favorite parody account in the history of Twitter, Emo Kylo Ren, created by The Washington Post‘s Alexandra Petri. (Contains intermittent Star Wars spoilers. Hilarious spoilers.)
I have to tack on one quick thing that wasn’t from this year but that I found this year, which is a YouTube video in which user Bunan Tsokolatte paid gorgeous musical tribute to “Sparks, Nevada,” a segment from The Thrilling Adventure Hour. For a bunch of reasons — how loving and clever and charming it is, how it salutes a great project that moved into new chapters this year, how unexpected it is — this was one of my real highlights, and I just couldn’t bear to leave it out for calendar reasons alone.
And let me close with a few personal things that I enjoyed doing or working on in 2015: talking to Trevor Noah; talking to Judy Blume; hearing Audie Cornish talk to Shonda Rhimes; Chris Klimek’s review of San Andreas, which was a delight to edit; multiple live shows; and more words about Cinderella than I ever thought I’d get to write. Thank you for listening and reading, and happy 2016.