It’s been… well, it’s been a year. More than ever, we’ve looked to pop culture and art—in some cases as escapism and coping mechanisms, but just as often as celebrations, as reminders that the necessary stories are still being told. As we prepare to say good riddance to 2017, we’re channeling Marie Kondo and looking back on what sparked joy: the delightfully wacky Marvel movies, but also Charlize Theron and Jordan Peele kicking ass; books that made it off our TBR stacks and into our hearts; the specific moments across the board that gave us hope.
Silence and Spider-Man: Homecoming
My two favorite movies this year both starred Peter Parker! I was one of the 8 people who saw Martin Scorsese’s Silence in the theater, and I thought it was brilliant. An extraordinary, nuanced look at “faith” that actually asks the question of what the word “faith” means, whether one type of faith—in this case, Catholicism—can be transplanted to a new country, or whether it’s practice will necessarily be changed by interaction with new cultures. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are both mesmerizing as a pair of Jesuits who want to minister to a group of secret Christians at a point when Christianity has been banned in Japan. Things get complicated, and there are no easy answers, but fear not: Garfield’s hair remains stunning.
Meanwhile, the movie that sent me home grinning ear-to-ear was Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tom Holland is the perfect Peter Parker, Michael Keaton is the perfect complicated villain, and this is the first time in any of the MCU films that I’ve really felt like Marvel’s heroes are home in New York City. I want to live in this movie. —Leah
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
One of those books that I meant to read when I first heard the premise (theatre troupe performs Shakespeare in the post-apocalypse), but put off until what wound up being the perfect time: on my Amtrak Residency. Riding across the country, working on a feminist time travel play, I was uplifted by the notion of art surviving past even physical and figurative blackouts. But what has most stuck with me was the much more humbling reality that this post-electric generation doesn’t know what a lot of the art actually means, and have to either rely on strangers to explain or come up with their own interpretations. It takes the work out of the artists’ hands and demands a trust in audiences to construct some meaning out of it, even if it doesn’t reflect the original intention. —Natalie
American Gods, “Git Gone”
I love this episode of television so much that when an acquaintance said he hated it, I genuinely thought he was trolling me. Laura Moon is a factor in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but her book presence is nothing compared to the angry, aimless, vibrant person Emily Browning plays in Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s TV series. (God, is it back yet? Yet? NOW?) Some people think she’s an asshole, an opinion neither she nor I have any time for. Is she nice? No. Is she sour and angry and directionless? Yes. Is she a powerful presence who rejects what death offers her, realizing—maybe too late—that her life meant something after all? Yes, yes, so much yes. Laura’s a mess with an attitude, but she’s also a strange, decaying embodiment of hope: you can still love, you can still feel, you can still care. You can turn this bus (or taxi or ice cream truck) around. —Molly
Not exactly SFF, though the imagery tips that way—but nevertheless the movie that brought me so much joy I saw it twice within a week. It has flaws (Sofia Boutella is great, but the screenplay fails her character), but the soundtrack is perfection and so is Charlize Theron and her entire wardrobe. The way she stalks through the world is … aspirational. Remember that time Theron explained how to walk like a queen? This is that, in full-length movie form. Add in James McAvoy in his best ruffian mode, glorious fight choreography, and all the black and white and neon your eyes can handle, and it’s the popcorn movie of my dreams. —Molly
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This book didn’t so much “spark joy” as much as it “made me weep a freaking waterfall.” Short story master George Saunders uses his first novel to look at a real incident in the life of Abraham Lincoln: when Lincoln’s young son Willie succumbed to a fever, the boy had to be buried in a borrowed tomb. Reportedly, hours after the funeral Lincoln returned to the cemetery to hold his boy one last time. From this tiny kernel of a story, Saunders creates vibrant, bustling afterlife (loosely based on the “Bardo” of Buddhism) in which ghosts try to help Willie Lincoln move on to another plane of existence. While this highly personal drama unfolds, Saunders dips into and out of the consciousnesses of characters living and dead to show us the larger story of a society ripped apart by Civil War, a nation that has to choose its future, and a depressive, grief-shattered man who has to try to save his country at a moment when his own life feels meaningless. This is, easily, one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it may be the most important thing a person can read at this point in US history. —Leah
Sitting in the movie theater, it was so much more than the typical horror movie shared experience: the gasps and “oh shit!”s and exhilarated whooping, but all of those highs were tempered by the awe at just what we were watching. Jordan Peele’s commentary on being black in America, presented through the lens of horror movie tropes, is audacious for how truthful it is. Walking home, my husband and I exhaustively went over every single minute, so impressed with the complexity and brilliance of Peele’s tale. Intellectually, as a liberal white ally, this was completely my kind of movie. But it’s also a deeply humbling reminder that as much as I can laugh knowingly at putting a black man in the white suburbs as horror-movie fare, I will never live that experience. That important movies like this are getting made, and are doing gangbusters at the box office, gives me hope. —Natalie
Legends of Tomorrow, “Camelot/3000”
When Legends accepted its inherent silliness, it got so much better. It also made me cry, and more than once, which is ridiculous—but the fact that a silly superhero show makes me cry just makes me so happy. Mick Rory’s speech in “Turncoat” is goosebump-worthy, the George Lucas-centric “Raiders of the Lost Art” is an hour of sheer delight, but when I think back over season two, it’s “Camelot/3000” that makes me grin like a fool. Badass Guinevere! Stargirl Merlin! Sara Lance making out with badass Guinevere! And then, because no one could resist the pun, badass Guinevere expressing her enjoyment of meeting the Waverider‘s amazing new captain … well, here, it works better as a picture:
Just look at that face. Sara’s as happy about this as I am. —Molly
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
I’m a sucker for mashups, so of course I couldn’t resist comic-book heroines—and girlfriends, and unfortunate recipients of retconning and/or superheroes’ needs for “character growth”—channeling Eve Ensler in the underworld. But what I didn’t count on was just how much Valente makes these stories, many of them the stuff of comics infamy, resonate on a new frequency. While lesser writers could have filed off the serial numbers and gotten by on winks and nudges, Valente creates new personas from scratch, weaving in more whimsy and grounding them in the modern world better than dozens of reboots have managed to do. These women—artists, wives, liars, mothers, dreamers—didn’t deserve to be victims of men’s plot arcs, but here, at least, they get the last word. —Natalie
Though Spider-Man: Homecoming was everything I wanted and more, my heart was holding out for Thor: Ragnarok, and it did not disappoint in any sense. The ad-libs, the family drama, the costuming, the dozens of little minute references to the MCU and comics and more. This wing of the Marvel universe has always been one of my favorites, and now there is so much more to wrap my arms around. It would be easy to isolate any aspect of this film and just live inside of it. There’s a texture to it that no Marvel movie has ever really reached before, and peeling back its layers is all I feel like doing at the moment. Speaking of layers…. —Emily
Valkyrie’s Love of Drinking
Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is tough and brave and loves to drink and loves to fight and loves to drink some more after she fights. When Thor tries to lecture her about her booze intake she just scoffs at him and keeps on chugging, and the movie never makes an issue out of it again. I want her in every Marvel movie going forward. —Leah
American Gods, The Romance of Salim and the Jinn
I loved just about every frame of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s take on American Gods, but my extra-special-favorite moment was the love scene between Salim, a young salesman from Oman, and the cab-driving Jinn he meets in New York. In Neil Gaiman’s novel the scene is a very quick hook-up, but here the show gives the two men space and time to connect. You get the sense that this is the first time either of them has felt loved in a long time, and the scene achieves a startling depth and poignancy…in addition to being super hot. —Leah
My Favorite Murder and Gilmore Guys
I’ve listened to over 300 podcast episodes this year, which amounts to probably twice as many hours, as the backdrop for my commutes, showers, cooking, chores, and walks to and from cardio. For all that I love SFF audio dramas like Homecoming, Limetown, and Steal the Stars, there’s something so cozily comforting about podcasts that are just friends shooting the shit over shared loves.
But Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff didn’t know they shared a macabre fascination with serial killers until they struck up a conversation at a party; Kevin T. Porter didn’t know he’d find a new friend who took Gilmore Girls as seriously as him until he tweeted looking for a podcast partner and Demi Adejuyigbe decided, sure, he’d watch this show for the first time. It has been a joy listening to these duos build up their relationships through brilliant raps about Stars Hollow inside jokes or coining such enduring catchphrases as “stay out of the forest” and “stay sexy, don’t get murdered.” When Kevin and Demi actually cried telling each other “I love you, man” after two years of podcasting together, I cried.
There’s also the fact that these podcasts have made me laugh out loud delightedly, which earns weird looks from fellow commuters but has lifted my spirits on more than one much-needed occasion. —Natalie
Appreciations of Newt Scamander
I really enjoyed most of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and one of the things that made me happiest this year was the groundswell of exploration of the film’s take on masculinity. Newt Scamander, as played by Eddie Redmayne, gives us a very different take on what it means to be a wizard, and a fantasy hero, than Harry Potter and his buddies. My favorite discussion of the film is this one from Pop Culture Detective, which breaks down many of Redmayne’s acting choices, and specifically contrasts scenes from the film with other films in the Potter series, The Matrix, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy. —Leah
The Bond Between Michael Burnham and Captain Philippa Georgiou
It can be hard to find the sort of strong ties and abiding love between female characters in fiction that women find in their everyday lives. Maternal figures are often abusive, friendship is nowhere to be found, sisterhood is a fleeting concept that belongs elsewhere. And while we don’t get anywhere near enough of her, the clear admiration and adoration that Michael Burnham has for Captain Georgiou was like a salve for a wound I had been perpetually ignoring. To find that a returning Star Trek series—something that had also been missed—made it even better. Hopefully there will be more of them via flashbacks in the show, or something, because it’s needed. Between the two of them, and the excitement of finally seeing a queer relationship on a Trek show (between Stamets and Dr. Culber), I have had far too many feelings about Discovery. —Emily