These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things – 2016 Edition

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I didn’t think we’d make it, but 2016 is almost in the rearview mirror. This has been a weird year in a lot of ways, including the world of pop culture. While there were definitely things that I really loved this year, I feel like overall this was an off year for the entertainment industry in general and the film industry in particular. I didn’t go to the movies nearly as much this year as I have in the past, partially because the offerings were not that great. Of course, I’m just embarking on the end of the year movie binge when a lot of the best films are released, but overall there were a lot of clunkers. Television shined more brightly again this year, a trend that I hope continues. I went to fewer concerts in 2016, partially because of a reallocation of financial resources, but also because at this point I’ve seen almost everyone that I really want to see. I had an uptick in going to the theater in 2016 and I traveled more, perhaps a prolonged effect of having spent the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 cooped up at home with a broken ankle and its recovery.

So without further ado, here are my favorite pop culture items from 2016. As always, they come with the caveat that these aren’t necessarily the best selections for the year; even I can’t see/listen to/read everything, so my selections are limited to those things that I’ve actually experienced and enjoyed.

Television

Atlanta

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I wasn’t even going to do an end of the year roundup this year since I felt like this was an off year, but I felt compelled to do so simply to tell people how freaking great FX’s new series Atlanta was. This show, my friends, is the real deal and deserves all the accolades that critics have heaped upon it. The series is the brainchild of Donald Glover and while I certainly knew that he was talented thanks to his role on Community and his musical career as Childish Gambino, I had no idea that he was capable of a show like this. Atlanta is a breath of fresh air and perfectly balances being both thoughtful and absurd. The show follows Earn (Glover) as he attempts to help his cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry) cash in on his minor success in the Atlanta rap world. This cast is so ridiculously talented that while Glover is probably the well-known cast member, the show is confident enough to focus entire episodes on the supporting characters, including Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and Alfred’s wonderfully weird pal Darius (Keith Stanfield). This is one of the few series that deals with the realities of living paycheck to paycheck and I appreciate the diverse viewpoint; some of the ideas on Atlanta have been addressed on other shows, but Glover and company provide a new perspective. I was in on this show from the pilot, but what completely sold me was an early episode where in this universe Justin Bieber is a young black man. This is presented without overt comment or explanation and while it is silly, it is silly it is also thought provoking. I love, love, love this show and can’t wait until its second season.

 

O.J.: Made In America

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The biggest debate over this five part ESPN mini-series is whether this should be considered a television event or a movie. Otherwise it is generally accepted that this look at the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial and the context for its controversial verdict is riveting and exceptional. I wrote about it at length when it debuted, but if you haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, I strong recommend it. Really good stuff.

 

American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

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Further proof that 2016 was an odd year is the fact that O.J. Simpson has something of a moment this year. Not only was his trial examined in depth in the mini-series O.J.: Made In America, but it was also the subject of Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series American Crime Story. The acting in American Crime Story is off the charts fantastic; there is a reason that they cleaned up at the Emmy Awards this year. Even though I lived through the O.J. Simpson trial, American Crime Story was must-see TV for me this year and is a wonderful companion to O.J.: Made in America. Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson become Chris Darden and Marcia Clark, respectively.

 

Westworld

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 I will admit that I am not quite as enamored with this show as a lot of people that I know, but it makes the list because it was fun to have a watercooler show that let the viewer at home hypothesize on what was going to happen next. I hadn’t realized that I missed the fan theory aspect of shows like Lost until Westworld returned and while I definitely think that the show has some flaws (like focusing too much on the mysteries over character or plot development), it was nice to know that this was a show that was going to spark discussions. You can read more about my thoughts on the Westworld pilot here.

 

The Night Of

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HBO’s long gestating crime drama finally debuted in 2016 and it was instantly captivating. You couldn’t look away from the talented performances of John Turturro and Riz Ahmed and while there were some narrative missteps – especially related to the character of Chandra – I was excited to tune in every Sunday night at see how the story would unfold. I’m not sure that The Night Of totally broke through the cultural zeitgeist as I predicted, but it certainly made for some interesting viewing.

 

Horace and Pete

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Louis CK is always full of interesting surprises and his out-of-nowhere debut of Horace and Pete was no exception. Closer to a stage show than a TV series, Louis CK brought together a dream cast to tell the heartbreaking and hilarious story of Horace, Pete, and their family bar. This is so well done from beginning to end and it worth watching just for Laurie Metcalf’s mesmerizing performance in episode 3. She is a gift to us all. I wrote about the series previously here. The series is now available on Hulu, so you have no excuse for not watching.

 

Stranger Things

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Like the rest of the world, I was completely charmed by this wonderful Netflix series. It doesn’t hurt that it channels plenty of nostalgia for the movies of my childhood, but Stranger Things works even if you don’t have the same 80s point of reference. The casting director deserves some sort of medal for assembling such a stellar cast of young actors; it’s hard enough to get one good kid in a movie, let alone a whole bunch of them. I’m both excited and a little trepidatious for the second season; the first season was great but it was also an unknown quality. I’ll be interested to see how the series fares under the pressure of expectations. Read my thought about the series here.

Honorable mention to returning shows Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which all had great seasons.

Movies

The Nice Guys

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This was an unexpected treat; you don’t necessarily think that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are going to be a great comedic team, but here we are. Not enough people saw this movie so sadly I don’t think it will get a sequel, but it was an enjoyable ride. Check out my full review here.

 

Captain America: Civil War

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I’m always a sucker for a Marvel movie and the Captain America films are among the best that Marvel has done. Civil War did a nice job of both giving loyal viewers payoff from watching all the previous films as well as a relatively seamless introduction of a bunch of new characters; I am now way more excited about the forthcoming Black Panther and Spider-Man reboot than I was previously. Read my full review here.

 

Deadpool

This is the movie that won me back over to liking Ryan Reynolds again. It’s nice to have a fun superhero movie again; I knew basically nothing about Deadpool prior to the movie, but this was a delightful and dirty trip. Finally a rated-R superhero film. It’s about time. This is probably the most fun that I had at the theater in 2016. My full review can be found here.

 

The Hateful Eight

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Yeah, technically this movie was released in 2015, but I reviewed in 2016 so I’m counting it. It’s always a good year when Quentin Tarantino has a new movie. Violent and challenging, The Hateful Eight is a welcome addition to the Tarantino canon. My full review can be found here.

 

La La Land

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Look for a full review next week

 

Music

Lemonade – Beyoncé

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This is easily my album of the year, not just because it is full of phenomenal songs and has a compelling visual component, but because no other album dominated the culture quite like Lemonade. In the weeks after its release, everyone was talking about Lemonade; I walked down the streets of NYC and every outdoor café I passed, people were analyzing the songs and debating who “Becky with the good hair” might actually be. In my mind, Beyoncé can do no wrong, but Lemonade may be her most triumphant work yet. Socially aware, raw, and damn catchy – Lemonade has it all.

This pretty much sums up 2016

This pretty much sums up 2016

 

Adele – Madison Square Garden

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I turned 40 this year, which sucked on many levels, not the least because while I spent the last three years celebrating other people’s 40th birthdays, no one planned much of anything for mine. But if one thing can soften the blow of not getting a party, it’s seeing Adele live and in concert. Seeing Adele wasn’t even on my bucket list because I didn’t even know if the opportunity to see her would ever arise. I dared not to dream that big. But thanks to my friend Kristin, it happened. And it totally lived up to expectations. It was a magical evening. She doesn’t plan to tour again any time soon, but if the chance to see Adele presents itself, you must take it. Read my post about the concert here.

 

Garth Brooks – DCU Center

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I’ve wanted to see Garth Brooks forever; despite being a casual country music fan at best, I’ve always like Garth Brooks’ songs and have long heard that he’s great in concert. I missed in him 2015, but managed to make it happen in 2016. He was great and the show was a lot of fun. No one can quite crank out the hits like Garth. Read my post about the concert here.

Odds and Ends

In the Dark podcast

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My true crime obsession showed no signs of letting up in 2016 and one of my better finds to scratch that particular itch was the podcast In the Dark. What I particularly liked about the case that was examined in the podcast was that it wasn’t unsolved; instead of focusing on trying who committed a crime or in exonerating a person who was wrongfully imprisoned, In the Dark could instead focus on the process and why it took so long for the case to finally be closed. What they uncover is disturbing and probably all too common – failure to follow basic police procedure and tunnel vision. Well researched and thoughtful, I looked forward to each weekly installment. Read my post about the podcast here.

 

Hamilton

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I was lucky enough to see Hamilton for a second time this year and it was just as good the second time around. Read my review here.

 

Museum of Ice Cream

I don’t know what people were more of jealous of me for this year – seeing Hamilton again, seeing Adele, or visiting the museum of ice cream. It was a fun day that didn’t totally live up to the hype, but swimming in a pool of sprinkles is easily a highlight of the year. Read about the trip here.

 

Biden Memes

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The 2016 election seemed to last forever and showed just how divided our country has become. But one of the best things to come out of the election was the proliferation of memes celebrating the friendship of Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama. Regardless of your political affiliation, these memes were funny. “Uncle Joe” has always been a source of comedic relief, but never have we needed that so badly as we did this year.

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Now it’s your turn – what were your favorite pop culture things in 2016? Share with the class in the comments section. Happy New Year!

The Nice Guys – A Review

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Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in a slapstick film noir that takes place in the 70s? That doesn’t sound like a movie; that sounds like a Mad Lib that is so ludicrous that it isn’t even funny. And yet those are the keywords that best describe the new film The Nice Guys that is co-written and directed by Shane Black. And as improbable as it is, The Nice Guys mostly works thanks to the chemistry of the two stars and their willingness to go all in on this project. The Nice Guys has a few problems, but it’s still a movie that is worth the occasional bump in the road.

Director Shane Black is no stranger to the odd couple, action/comedy genre, having cut his teeth in the industry on films like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. For The Nice Guys, he places the story in 1970s Los Angeles; Holland March (Gosling) is a two-bit alcoholic private investigator who tries, but mostly fails to be a good father to his 13 year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) and Jackson Healy (Crowe) is a guy who beats people up for a living and longs to have some sort of purpose in this world. An investigation of the death of a porn star and the disappearance of a young girl brings these two men into collision and they wind up teaming up together to try to unravel the many layers of the case. Kim Basinger and Matt Bomer also appear.

Now, The Nice Guys had two things going for it from my perspective right out of the gate. I am a sucker for movies set in the 1970s; I have no idea why, but this particular time period I find aesthetically pleasing when depicted on film. This is kind of odd since while I did live through some portion of the seventies, I was too young to really remember any of it. So if it is some semblance of nostalgia, it is misplaced or faux. All I know is that if you have a soundtrack that is heavy on the hits of the 70s and some ridiculous clothing and hairstyles, I’m ready to meet you half way. I’m also a big fan of when filmmakers see the comedic potential of Ryan Gosling. That dude is a funny guy, but he is too rarely given the chance to flex his comedic muscles. Perhaps it is because he is also aesthetically pleasing that people assume that he doesn’t also possess good comedy timing, like that would somehow be an embarrassment of riches (see also Jon Hamm). In The Nice Guys, Gosling gets his chance to prove what he can do and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s better at absurd humor than most people give him credit for; he pulls off scenes in this movie that reminds me of what Lou Costello would do.

Gosling’s comedy game is only elevated by his pairing with Crowe, as the two play beautifully off each other. Crowe/Gosling is not a duo that I would have organically come up with, but their chemistry is just off the charts. Crowe really takes to the role of Healy and it’s perhaps his most likable performance in recent memory. While I had some inkling that Gosling could pull off some of the more slapstick-y aspects of The Nice Guys, I was completely unaware of what Crowe was capable of. He’s mostly known for his dramatic roles and the last time he strayed from that (the musical Les Miserables) it wasn’t exactly a home run. Apparently Crowe has been hiding his sense of humor, since his performance works just as well as Gosling’s and performs a nice counterbalance. Newcomer Angourie Rice makes her role as Gosling’s precocious daughter much more than it could have been and serves as the moral center of the film as well as a method for softening up the tough guy antics of Crowe and, to a lesser degree, Gosling. The trio make for an unconventional but amusing team.

The Nice Guys doesn’t skimp on the violence and mayhem; there are plenty of car chases, gun fights and explosions to more than hold up the action component of the action/comedy mashup. The action sequences are entertaining, but they also help to mask one of the issues with The Nice Guys – the plot. The deeper that they get into the investigation, the more muddled and confusing it all becomes. There are definitely some leaps of faith that have to be made on the part of the audience and The Nice Guys works best if you can think of their case as one giant McGuffin. The less that you think about it, the more enjoyable the film is. The pacing is also a little off, as things are chugging along just fine until the final act, where they try to cram too much story into a short amount of time.  There are also some occasional moments that drag, where jokes don’t quite land or last a beat too long.

Some other random thoughts….

  • Gosling’s mustache in this film is an endless source of amusement for me.

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  • This exchange also was particularly funny to me:

Holland: Look on the bright side. Nobody got hurt.

Healy: People got hurt.

Holland: I’m saying, I think they died quickly. So I don’t think they got hurt.

 

  • Considering that the porn industry is a plot point in the film, there is less sex and nudity than you would expect in The Nice Guys. But it is there (especially in the opening scene), if that is a concern.
  • I’ll be interested to see what else young Angourie Rice does in the future. She steals a lot of scenes.
  • Warner Brothers released this cute animated short for the film:

 

  • Gosling and Crowe have been on quite the publicity tour for this movie, which is usually a red flag for me. However, it appears that the blitz for The Nice Guys is the exception to that rule. Perhaps they just like spending time together.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from The Nice Guys, but it wound up being a pleasant surprise. My mileage with absurd and slapstick humor is probably lower than the average viewer, but I still found a lot to like about the film. Gosling and Crowe are an unpredictably strong comedic pairing and they each serve to bring out the best in their co-star. There’s a lot of silliness and plenty of action; don’t think too much about the complexities of the case and The Nice Guys is a fun night at the cinema.

The Nice Guys opens nationwide today.