Well, folks, it’s that time of year once again. What did I read this year? What did I watch? What was good, and what was bad? Read on for my recommendations, reviews, and the coveted trophies of badness.
Best Fiction of 2016
Top prize goes to The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. I make a habit of picking up books by authors I haven’t read before, and in this case I’m sure glad I did. Udall paints a sophisticated and detailed portrait of the complicated lives entwined in a polygamous Mormon family. The book has a very rich cast of characters and a solid overarching plot, all spun together with tight and effective prose. This was the first book I read this year, and still it managed to take the top spot. Highly recommended.
- Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. This is a wonderful book. It revolves around a terrible play for children and each chapter follows a different character: actors in the production, audience members, and so on. A former instructor of mine said that a novel should be a world, and Prose’s book is a shining example of that approach. Each chapter is almost a standalone short story, and yet they still all fit together like the gears of a clock. I loved it.
- Honorable Mentions: Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Worst Fiction of 2016
The trophy of badness goes to The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin. Why did I even finish this book? It annoyed me at all turns. Well, I guess I finished it because it did manage to raise some interesting narrative questions that I wanted to know the answers to, but I don’t recall the answers being particularly satisfying. The book revolves around a radio storyteller who receives fan mail from a boy who’s dying of AIDS. He begins corresponding with the boy, but soon questions begin to arise about whether or not the boy actually exists. It sounds like a good premise, I know. It’s all in the execution, and something about this book grated on me. Maybe someone else might like it, but it’s not for me.
- The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle. This is a thoroughly mediocre novel. It occupies a few hundred pages of shelf space to tell a story that entertains decently without being remotely memorable. I know Boyle can do better than this, so the book was a bit of a disappointment.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry. A classic of children’s literature perhaps, but I found the ending to be so implausible that it does harm to the book overall. Sorry. Fun fact: I met Lois Lowry in person once. She said she didn’t trust me.
Best Non-Fiction of 2016
My favorite non-fiction book this year was The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. This book recounts the complete history of Star Trek as told by the people who created it: actors, producers, writers, and so on. It was, to quote Spock, “fascinating.” Really looking forward to reading Volume II.
- Words Without Music by Philip Glass. The life of one of my favorite contemporary composers in his own words. What more needs be said?
Worst Non-Fiction of 2016
I didn’t read a huge amount of non-fiction this year, and of what I read nothing was particularly bad. The trophy of badness is therefore withheld.
Best Comics of 2016
This year I read through volume five of Saga, the long-running series by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Saga is the story of two warring races, people with horns vs. people with wings. That’s a bit silly, but everything about Saga is a bit silly. It’s filled with colorful characters and whimsical creatures. There’s a rocket ship that grows from a tree and a little seal guy who wears overalls. There are robots and ghosts. Something for everyone! What really makes the story work, though, is the strength of its characters. It centers around an unlikely couple, one with horns, one with wings, and their high-flying adventures as they evade the forces that seek to destroy their child. The artwork wonderfully surrealistic, the perfect match for the writing. Excellent stuff.
- The Complete Eightball by Daniel Clowes. Fantagraphics has done us a great service by publishing Clowes’s early comics in this handsome two-volume edition. You get Ghost World and Like a Velvet Glove… in their entirety, plus a host of other great stuff. I particularly recommend the short story “Immortal, Invisible.”
- Trashed by Derf Backderf. Based on Backderf’s actual experience working as a garbageman, this fictionalized account brings the “crap job of all crap jobs” vividly to life with humor and insight. Add on a healthy amount of facts about the waste industry and you’ve got yourself a classic: entertaining and informative.
- Honorable Mentions: Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Tomboy by Liz Prince. Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja.
Worst Comics of 2016
I didn’t get much out of The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen et al. The premise is that ancient gods possess the bodies of teenagers and make them celebrities for a few years, and then they die. The story focuses on a girl who admires the gods but isn’t one herself, though she would like to be. The art is good, but the story just didn’t engage me. I wouldn’t discourage you from checking it out if it sounds interesting to you, but as for me, I didn’t feel any inclination to continue past the first volume.
Best Movies of 2016
The grand prize this year goes, unexpectedly, to a relatively obscure Mexican film called El Infierno. (Apparently it is sometimes alternatively titled El Narco.) This is the story of a man who returns to his hometown in Mexico after a failed attempt to emigrate to the United States. He finds that his home is now under the thumb of the drug cartels and decides to start working for them. The film follows his tragic misadventures as he rises to wealth and power only to have it stripped away again in bouts of savage violence. A thread of black comedy runs throughout to complete the effect. As of this writing it’s available on Netflix, so I highly recommend you check it out.
- The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson scores another hit with this tale of an eccentric family trying to gain an understanding of itself once the children are all grown to adulthood. It glides impressively between goofy comedy and heartfelt pathos throughout. One of Anderson’s best films.
- Honorable Mentions: In The Mood for Love. American Beauty. Nightcrawler. Monster. Zootopia.
Worst Movies of 2016
After I watched Blue is the Warmest Color, I was angry. I was angry at having had over two hours of my life wasted by this dreadful, pretentious piece of schlock. Many months later my memory is no longer fresh, but a lingering resentment still boils. I recall horrible, unlikeable characters. I recall self-indulgent directorial choices. I recall multiple boring and uncomfortably voyeuristic shots of the characters sleeping. I recall it being over two hours long without having much in the way of redeeming value. Blue is the Warmest Color is a cold, mean-spirited film that hates you and wants you to be unhappy. Stay away.
- The Dark Knight Rises. A long and mostly-tedious film that pales in comparison to its predecessor. What drags it from being merely mediocre into being downright bad is its depiction of human nature as essentially evil, and its apparent defense of class division. All three of Nolan’s Batman films deal with the darker side of human nature, but this one in lacked any glimmer of hope. I didn’t go into it expecting something heartwarming, but this was just grim.
- The Room. Of course The Room is bad, that’s what it’s known for. But I was not prepared for how unpleasant it actually is to watch it start to finish. Watching clips of it on YouTube is a far more entertaining way to experience the film. Not to put too fine a point on it: watching it for real requires you to suffer through its embarrassing and interminable sex scenes, which are akin to torture.
- Udall, Brady: The Lonely Polygamist (Jan. 30)
- Murakami, Haruki: After the Quake (Feb. 16)
- Lowry, Lois: The Giver (Mar 23)
- Boyle, TC: The Harder They Come
- Palahniuk, Chuck: Lullaby (Apr 25)
- Clarke, Arthur C.: Songs of Distant Earth (May 25)
- Koch, Herman: Summer House With Swimming Pool
- Perotta, Tom: The Leftovers (July 4)
- Tremblay, Paul: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (July 13)
- Hill, Joe: NOS4A2 (Aug 6)
- Maupin, Armistead: The Night Listener (Aug 13)
- Grossman, Lev: The Magicians (Oct 8)
- Jin, Ha: A Map of Betrayal
- Homes, AM: This Book Will Save Your Life (Oct. 24)
- Coville, Bruce: Aliens Ate My Homework (Nov. 2)
- Gaiman, Neil: American Gods (Nov 17)
- McCloskey, Robert: Homer Price.
- Toutonghi, Steve: Join.
- Eugenides, Jeffrey: The Virgin Suicides. (Dec. 10)
- Prose, Francine: Mister Monkey (Dec. 17)
- Salinger, JD: Franny and Zooey (Dec. 22)
- Glass, Philip. Words Without Music.(Mar. 17)
- Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. (August)
- Gross, Edward and Mark A. Altman. The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years. (September 23).
- Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. (October 19)
- Krakauer, Jon. Missoula. (October 31)
- Lynch, David. Catching the Big Fish. (November 5)
- McCartney, Scott. Eniac. (November 22)
- Clowes, Daniel. The Complete Eightball.
- Gillen, Kieron et al. The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1
- Ross, Edward. Filmish (May 27)
- Vaughan, Brian K and Fiona Staples.Saga, vols. 1-5
- Vaughan, Brian K. Paper Girls vol. 1
- Miller, Frank and David Mazzuchelli. Batman: Year One. (Aug. 7)
- Drawn and Quarterly 25th Anniversary Anthology
- Carroll, Emily. Through the Woods. (Aug 23)
- Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian. This One Summer (Aug 27)
- Fraction, Matt and David Aja. Hawkeye Vols. 1 & 2
- Schraig, Ariel, ed. Stuck in the Middle
- Backderf, Derf. Trashed. (Nov. 25)
- Brosh, Allie. Hyperbole and a Half (Dec. 10)
- Clowes, Daniel. Patience (Dec. 11)
- Telgemeier, Raina. Smile (Dec. 26)
- Prince, Liz. Tomboy (Dec. 27)
- Blue Ruin (Jan. 1)
- Evangelion 1.11
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Jan. 12)
- Evangelion 2.22 (Jan 16)
- Blue is the Warmest Color (Jan 18)
- Pulp Fiction (Jan 24)
- Heavenly Creatures (Jan 25)
- In the Mood for Love (Jan 30)
- El Infierno (Feb 7)
- Koyaanisqatsi (Feb 13)
- The Witch
- The Room (Apr 23)
- American Beauty (May 1)
- Lost Highway (May 4)
- Wild at Heart (May 30)
- Trainwreck (June 4)
- Evangelion 3.33 (June 24)
- The Retrieval (July 2)
- Heathers (July 15)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (July 24)
- Psycho-Pass: The Movie (July 30)
- Brazil (August 13)
- Reservoir Dogs (September 4)
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (September 10)
- Inside Out (September 11)
- Monster (October 7)
- American History X (October 22)
- The Dark Knight (October 28)
- The Dark Knight Rises (Nov. 10)
- Corpse Bride (Nov. 11)
- The Royal Tenenbaums (Nov. 18)
- Zootopia (Nov. 20)
- Rushmore (Nov. 23)
- The Incredibles (Dec. 2)
- Zodiac (Dec. 3)
- The Prestige (Dec. 17)
- Rogue One (Dec. 30)
- Lolita (Dec. 31)