War, terrorist attacks, refugee crises, celebrity deaths, political scandals, minorities oppressed, the dark underbelly of the American psyche revealed—while that litany of calamities could describe most year in the last century, these past twelve months have seemed significant for the sheer volume and intensity of those common calamities. I was never an acolyte of David Bowie or Prince, but knew and loved many of their tunes, so understood a little bit of the devotion (and grief) of their fans. The American election was alternately fascinating and repulsive, and I followed it according to those alternating moods, which is to say both dutifully and not at all. There was much to be disappointed by: the decline of reason and rationality, the rise of fascism, the ceaselessness of it all (and I’m not just talking about Batman v Superman—zing!). But there was much to love, too. There were great films, great music, great books, great moments, great performances. And while individually they might seem inconsequential, the sum of them perhaps represents an antidote to all the horrible stuff we've had to (and will continue to) endure.
So, anyways, here are a few things that brought me joy during the course of 2016.
Ludwig Goransson’s score for Creed
This one is a cheat, because Creed – the quasi-sequel to the Rocky franchise – technically came out in 2015, but I spent much of early 2016 listening to this album on repeat. It does exactly what the film does: takes the core elements of something classic – in this case, Bill Conti’s familiar disco fanfare – and uses them to create something completely new and modern. There’s a bit of that driving, speaker-rattling bass that is so common in contemporary movie music, but the orchestration is solid, the theme is terrific – there are even little leitmotifs throughout, which, if you know anything about modern film scoring, are increasingly rare – and the whole thing is articulated with a distinctive hip-hop sound. I’ll likely be listening to this a lot in the coming January, when I’m back at the gym and in desperate need of motivation as I burn off the layers of egg nog-fat I’ve accumulated over the holidays.
Slade House by David Mitchell
Books aren’t like movies; there aren’t boisterous global communities of gossipers forecasting release dates and speculating on storylines; there are no massive marketing departments dropping teasers and trailers months in advance of a book’s publication. So it happens, every so often, that one of your very favourite writers in the whole world suddenly has a new book out, and you encounter it for the first time while browsing the aisles at the bookstore. Which was how I discovered David Mitchell’s newest book. It’s not quite a sequel to his novel from the previous year, The Bone Clocks, but it exists within the same universe (as all of Mitchell’s books seem to). Like the best of Mitchell’s books, it has an ingenious structure that is engrossing and urgent despite the fact that you’re meeting new characters and learning new rules every forty pages or so. At its core, it’s a killer ghost story.
I’m not sure what more can I say about this movie. It was my favorite of the year, and not just because it feels like a mash-up of a Michael Crichton techno-thriller and a Terrence Mallick film. Having seen it a second time, I can confidently decry all criticisms about the plot being difficult to untangle; if you’ve seen it and don’t get it, go see it again: the “twist” is given away in the first three minutes of the film. The pleasure I felt in watching the whole thing unfold, knowing full well where it was going, was akin to the experiences of the characters in the film that I felt even more deeply connected to the movie than I did the first time.
Considering that it has become nearly impossible to get a weekday lunchtime seating, I suppose I can say, somewhat authoritatively, that The Riviera is Ottawa’s favourite new restaurant. The interior design evokes the spirit of Grand Central Station in the 1940s, the service is focused and efficient, the food is terrific, and it boasts the best cocktail menu in the country (and possibly the continent). While any restaurant with Steve Flood behind the bar can rightfully claim the title of best restaurant in the city, but Riviera is worth going to even when he’s not there. I never in a million years would have thought my favourite dish in the entire city would be mushrooms on toast, but, well, that’s the magic of this place. Best part: the prices are far more reasonable than the exquisite atmosphere and service might lead you believe.
Black Mirror: Season 3
Much has been made of how the show unpacks and plays with our contemporary concerns re: technology and human interconnectivity – and in that manner it truly is the modern era’s Twilight Zone – but what I love most about the show, particularly this season, is the ingenious way it tells its cautionary tales. Charlie Brooker has mastered a certain style of narrative sleight-of-hand—he’s keeping your eyes focused on one part of the screen, daring you to guess the next twist, then turns the tables in a completely unexpected way. For me, Black Mirror bats 1.000. This season is no different. And while everyone seems to be gaga over “San Junipero,” the nostalgia-tripping adventure between a couple of lovestruck party girls, my favorite moment was perhaps the most depressing: the denouement of “Shut Up And Dance,” in which our sympathies aren’t just reversed, but totally obliterated.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if Christopher Nolan guest-directed an episode of Downton Abbey, look no further than this Netflix original series, which documents the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, and features John Lithgow wolfing down the scenery as an aged and incontinent Winston Churchill. Claire Foy, as the rookie monarch, does more with just her eyes than many actors do with their entire bodies, and Matt Smith makes gangly old Prince Philip one of the most endearingly dopey characters on television. The mood is crisp and grey and subdued and stoic and scored by a marching, Hans Zimmer-style drone (which makes sense, since he actually composed the show’s main theme).
Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys
I like anything that Shane Black does (even Iron Man 3), and his return to the underworld of Los Angeles in The Nice Guys was maybe the movie I was anticipating most this year. Despite my impossibly high expectations, I thought the movie was great, but I’m going to give extra points to Gosling on this one, because I find it astounding that the actor who played the charming, fast-talking, pratfalling private eye in this movie is the same actor who exerted such supernatural stillness and self-control in movies like Drive and The Place Beyond The Pines. He really has range. His performances all feel new, somehow. Unlike other movies stars like Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, it never seems like he’s forcing himself into the world of the movie, rather like he’s a product of it. Is that totally pretentious thing to say? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that it’s not just the ladies who love Baby Goose.
I still haven’t decided if it was the subjective viewing experience or the objective genius of this documentary that so entranced me, but watching De Palma at the VanCity Theatre in Vancouver was the most sublime two hours I spent at the movies this year. I drank a cold IPA, ate some licorice, and watched one of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic filmmakers talk about his equally enigmatic career. If it wasn’t for Arrival, this would be (as I so boldly but prematurely predicted) my very favourite movie of the year.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
Funny to think that the two most essential voices of dissent during the recent American election were not, in fact, American: Englishman John Oliver continued to preach his sermon of common sense and Samantha Bee, originally from Toronto, did a very un-Canadian thing and became the leading spokesperson for a certain type of liberal intellectual outrage that had lost its figurehead when Jon Stewart retired. In a year when everyone was playing straight-man/woman to current events so outrageous that bewilderment was a totally appropriate punchline for most jokes, Sam Bee and her writing staff were fearless in their quest to hold those in power accountable—a job which seems, now, more necessary than ever.
Dan Golding’s Video Essay on Hans Zimmer
A whole bunch of terrific YouTube videos about film soundtracks came out this year. Tony Nyugen’s analysis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s musical banality, from his excellent series Every Frame a Painting, reveals something fundamentally flawed about how movies are produced in the current age. Dan Golding’s response, in which he extrapolates, corrects, and reinforces many of Nyugen’s arguments, was also terrific. But it was Golding’s follow-up to his follow-up that really excited me. His note-by-note dissection of how Zimmer composes his scores was fascinating, particularly when it demonstrates how his thundering soundscapes are built with pieces from – and therefore pay tribute to – the melodic scores of the past.
David Cross: Making America Great Again Live
Cross’s gig here in Ottawa was supposedly that last of his tour (though he played Just for Laughs in Montreal the next night), and it was quite possibly the best hour of live comedy I’ve ever seen. His Netflix special, which was shot mid-tour, doesn’t quite capture the complex mechanics of his set; Cross meanders, stutters, seems to get turned around within his own bits, but then doubles back and reveals that he’s been playing you the entire time. For a guy who seems to be riffing off the top of his head, he has a precision for timing and structure that is unparalleled. And unlike many of his contemporaries, his edge hasn’t dulled as he’s grown older; his new material is unflinching and intelligent and, like his first album Shut Up You Fucking Baby, just as likely to draw shocked gasps as is to elicit laughter. In these weird, incoherent political times, David Cross increasingly seems to be the comedian American needs.
The Tragically Hip, Live Across Canada
Other than the fact that I’m Canadian and have somehow learned, through osmosis, all the lyrics to their most popular songs, I don’t think I’d quite describe myself as a fan of The Tragically Hip (my favorite Hip song is “Ahead By A Century,” which I think speaks to my amateur status as an admirer. There was something magical, though, about their tour this summer; something that transcended subjective taste. Gord Downie, facing the imminence of his own mortality, prancing around onstage with nothing to lose was divine—but the fact that this occurred during a national-televised concert, and that this moment was shared by millions of people simultaneously (the way moments so rarely are in this era of on-demand content and echo-chamber news feeds) felt even more significant than the fact that “Canada’s Band” had played their final notes.
George Saunders on Trump Supporters in The New Yorker
Noting this year renewed my faith in the written word more than this essay in The New Yorker, in which George Saunders follows the Trump campaign through several of its infamous rallies and observes, sometimes empathetically, sometimes critically, the people who are drawn to the Cheeto-dusted demigod. And while he does this, he reconciles his own prejudices, and makes a prescient realization that much of the news media is just beginning to realize: what constitutes “fact” has become a fluid concept; what people believe to be true is the new truth. It’s not a showy piece, It doesn’t aspire to be the sort of grand, vital, bellwether document of modern times that it nonetheless is. His prose is simple and straightforward and yet seems utterly unique and impossible to mistake as anything but the work of George Saunders. Twenty years from now, when the world is looking back and wondering “what the hell happened in 2016?” this will be the piece that they look to for answers.
But What If We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman
I’d never read Chuck Klosterman before, but caught him talking about this book on the Filmspotting podcast, and was intrigued by the premise: how will we talk about today’s world a hundred years from now? He approaches this thesis from several interesting angles, the most notable of which (I thought) was the strange philosophical notion that if a computer-simulated reality is possible than the only logical conclusion is that we are currently living in one. Which sounds complex and abstruse, but, when explained in Klosterman’s eloquent, easygoing voice, makes perfect (and terrifying) sense. Of all the books I read this year, this was the one I devoured the fastest; it has the urgency and surprise of a well-paced thriller.
This Pretty Good Book By That Super-Smart, Handsome Author Who Everyone Loves
More than anything else, 2016 was the year that I came face-to-face with the uncomfortable truth that, in order to share your work with the world, you must find a way to talk about yourself that is (a) not too self-deprecating, (b) not too self-aggrandizing. It's a difficult balance, and one that I'm not sure I've figured out. The inclusion of my debut novel, Into The Current, on this list, tempered by the facetious headline, is an attempt to achieve that balance.