I On the Arts' Favorite Arts and Culture of 2016

With the end of a calendar year comes the inevitable deluge of best of/worst of lists, where critics and popular culture fans alike take a look back at the previous twelve months of content. This year, I On the Arts is not doing ranked best/worst list like last year. Instead, this post will contain my favorite "things" in various categories of art and popular culture. In a year with so much disappointment and turmoil, I've decided that I will focus on the positive things that came out of 2016, so there will be no accompanying "least favorite" list.

With no further ado: enjoy!

Favorite Movie: Arrival

Runner-up: Zootopia

You can read my review of Arrival here for my full thoughts, but at the end of a year of seeing over twenty movies in theaters, the cathartic, dazzling Arrival takes the cake. Even more than Gravity and The Martian, the two movies that preceded Arrival's status as awards-caliber sci-fi, Arrival has no shortage of humanity, compassion, and empathy, while still impressing with its performances and intellectual, curious approach to the classic sci-fi problem of how to deal with an alien landing.

Favorite Movie Performance: Tom Bennett, Love and Friendship

Runner-up: Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool

Meet the man who makes Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Collins look suave and savvy. Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship was the first movie I saw in theaters back in Los Angeles this summer, and it was a delight from top to bottom--though, as a Jane Austen fan, I might have been predisposed to enjoy. Yet the best moments of this witty, breezy comedy came from Tom Bennett's hapless, oblivious Sir James Martin, a man who embodies the quality of "more money than sense". While Mr. Collins' social awkwardness manifests as toxically obsequious social-climbing behavior, Sir James Martin whirls into the narrative of Love and Friendship wearing a dopey smile that inspires pity and delight, eager to please and to be loved in a much more sincere, hilarious way.

Favorite Album: The Lonely Island, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

To be fair, I didn't end up listening to a lot of new music in 2016. But since I am a huge Andy Samberg fan and enjoyed classic Lonely Island song/sketches such as "I'm on a Boat," "The Golden Rule," and "Like a Boss," the accompanying soundtrack to the little-seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was what I played on repeat all summer long. Popstar was released into theaters in June and promptly exited them after failing to recoup its budget. I never understood why this movie wasn't a hit: it was an homage to the fake-music documentary tomfoolery of the classic This is Spinal Tap combined with endless ribbing of American pop music landscape.

While the movie itself provided plenty of laughs, the real gem is its soundtrack, which provides everything Lonely Island fans loved about their earlier songs but with impressively tight, catchy songwriting. Highlights include the Macklemore send-up "Equal Rights," in which the self-absorbed main character, played by Andy Samberg, declares his support for equal LGBT rights while he insists on his heterosexuality in the same breath; "Mona Lisa," the song that says what everyone is secretly thinking when they look at the most famous painting in the world; and "Finest Girl," which details a tryst between Samberg's character and a girl whose idea of lovemaking has just a little too much in common with the activities of Seal Team 6.

Favorite Song: Troye Sivan, "WILD (feat. Alessia Cara)"

Runner-up: Beyoncé, "Daddy Lessons (feat. Dixie Chicks)"

I believe I first caught this song on the radio sometime early in the summer of 2016. I knew of Alessia Cara from her song "Here," which expresses an introversion and social awkwardness with which I identify, but I didn't know much about Troye Sivan. Yet "WILD," with its cool, crisp production and melancholy, sexy vocal performances from both musicians, was probably one of my most-played songs of the year. It's not performatively sexual like Nick Jonas and Tove Lo's "Close," and features a wonderfully equally matched duo, unlike gnash's and Olivia O'Brien's "i hate u, i love u"--to compare "WILD" to name just a few of the other love duets that hogged the airwaves in the summer of 2016. The lyrics are simple and evocative, and the song as a whole conjures imagery of late-night aimless drives, wind-swept sunrises at chilly beaches, and the gentle, tentative feeling of falling in love.

Favorite Television Show: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

I was born in 1994. O.J. Simpson's murder trial, which took place in my hometown of Los Angeles, took place from 1994-1995, so for me, O.J. Simpson was always "that guy from the murder case" whenever I heard about him growing up. I never had any conception of O.J. Simpson as an athlete, as an actor, and certainly not as a celebrity whose brilliance surely blinded many related to the case. I grew up hearing his name mentioned jokingly in Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song," along with phrases like "if the glove don't fit, you must acquit!"--not the actual quote, by the way--but for me personally, it seemed like something that had happened so long ago that I never really thought about it.

So seeing the city in which I grew up dressed up in nineties drabness, with actors I'd seen before reenacting a lightly fictionalized version of this famous trial, was something of an oddity to me. Yet The People vs. O.J. Simpson, the majority of which I watched with my family during a school break, made for incredibly suspenseful, well-acted, and dramatic television, even though we all knew how it was going to end. Seeing actors like David Schwimmer, Nathan Lane, Cuba Gooding Jr., and John Travolta, who had all been in projects I was familiar with, playing these real-life people whose stories had so affected the life of my home city, as well as that of the nation as a whole, was startling and a little surreal. The way that The People vs. O.J. Simpson examines so many intricate aspects of the case and their intersections, such as racism, gender roles, celebrity culture, toxic masculinity, and problems with the justice system, was undoubtedly the pinnacle of 2016 television. Admittedly, 2016 was a year in which I didn't find myself watching much new television (I soon gave up on Pitch and Westworld because of their weak writing and overly-confusing metanarrative, respectively), but I'm certainly glad I watched The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

Favorite Art Experience: Museum of Applied Arts, MAK Laboratory

Runner-up: Philadelphia Museum of Art, International Pop


Vienna is undoubtedly one of the best cities for art in the world, with an incredible collection of museums such as the Kunsthistorisches, Belvedere, Mumok, and a robust assortment of galleries of all stripes: commercial, artist-run, state-run, location- or medium-specific. Yet several months into my Fulbright year in Vienna, I have to say that my visit to the Museum of Applied Arts--and, specifically, its basement design lab--was the most impressive and thought-provoking. Combining installations and discussions of issues like production, consumerism, the role of fashion, typography and advertising, the semiotics of the kitchen space, and the art of collecting, this lab is exactly what museums need as we move into the twenty-first century art world: engaging, savvy exhibitions that reframe what we know in innovative and exciting ways as well as providing new information, and plenty of opportunities for audience engagement and feedback.

Favorite Book: Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

I waited a while to be able to take in Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, the much-anticipated autobiography from the musician whose songs are practically etched into the walls of my childhood home. Namely, I wanted to be able to consume it in audiobook form, because I knew that hearing the Boss himself tell his own story would feel like a conversation--intimate, surprising, and thoroughly engaging, like the best of his songs. Unsurprisingly, Springsteen's writing is incredibly adept and finely-honed, especially in the chapters where he discusses his childhood and his early brushes with fame. 

As Vulture pointed out, Born to Run is mercifully free of the kind of rockstar misogyny that characterizes the lyrics of many classic greats; Springsteen's love for the women in his life is palpable and real, and even his skirt-chasing habits are presented thoughtfully, maturely, and almost ruefully, rather than as a series of juicy "boys will be boys" anecdotes. I've listened to Bruce Springsteen since I was born--some of my earliest memories involve sitting with my dad, the biggest Bruce fan I know, and listening to songs like "Sherry Darling," and "Thundercrack," the latter of which I loved because of the line "she's got the heart of a ballerina." Born to Run colors in between the lines of his musical output, allowing us to have a richer and fuller understanding of the Boss.

Favorite Prose: Emma Cline, The Girls


Graduating from college ideally provides plenty of time to catch up on reading for fun, and when I got home in summer 2016, I immediately devoured The Girls, Emma Cline's debut novel, which presents a fictionalized portrait of a Manson Family-esque cult and a girl, Evie Boyd, that it lures in and spits back out. While the plot of the novel loses energy towards the end, lacking what feels like a sense of resolution and catharsis (there's no recounting of any trial, for example), Cline's writing is some of the most affecting and poetic I've read in a while. She uses oblique yet impressionistically accurate language and imagery to describe growing up as a young girl, learning how to approach themselves and the mysterious world and behaviors of boys. For example, take the following passage:
So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes. 
The writing is thoughtful and elegant, and the thoughts behind them accurate and sharp, as if Cline is molding the pain of personal experience into something beautiful and honest. Of course, this kind of painterly syntax risks coming off as affected and overwritten, but for me, it presented a refreshing middle ground between the overly-abstracted Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies (2015), whose prose is frustratingly impossible to pin down and shape into meaning, as if it is fascinated by itself for its own sake; and the awkward plainness of Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (2015) both of which I also read in 2016.


  1. Popstar! LOL! I love when you provide these picks. Your insightful feedback is why I read your reviews...well also because well, yeah....thank you for your thoughtful commentary!

    I have some music and books to get to apparently...


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