Restricting the content of best-of lists to things produced or released during a single year is, in many ways, fairly arbitrary. Books, movies, or TV shows don't cease to be relevant as soon as the calendar changes. So we put together a selection of some of the things we particularly enjoyed in 2017. Here's hoping they bring you joy, make you think, and entertain you in 2018.
During an often sad and unrelentingly turbulent year, I tried to channel my energies into exploring unfamiliar terrain through stories, narratives, and commentaries that took me outside my frame of experience and offered new perspective on the lives of others.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
History is records: By prohibiting literacy among slaves, slave owners virtually erased the chronicle of this barbaric chapter of American history. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad supplements his study of existing slave narratives with a dose of magical realism. The result is a harrowing and unsparing tale of life under slavery that resonates with lyricism, humanity, and power.
British journalists continue to eclipse their American counterparts through their steadfast devotion to objectivity, clarity, and unbiased curiosity. The coverage of American politics and society found in The Guardian rivals the best of our domestic media outlets. It’s journalism worth reading – and worth supporting with a paid subscription.
The Women of Twitter
As political developments consumed and convulsed us during 2017, I relied on women like these to help me stay informed, interrogate the status quo, and maintain a sense of (snarky) humor:
- Maggie Haberman (@maggienyt) – The leading in-house expert on all things Trump at The New York Times
- Roxane Gay (@rgay) – The author of the bestselling memoir Hunger and a world-class slayer of trolls
- J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) – The wildly successful author spins verbal gold every time she tweets
- Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) – A brilliant, courageous, and hugely insightful political reporter
- Shauna (@goldengateblond) – An inexhaustible supply of razor-sharp wit reinforces her status as, quite possibly, one of the funniest people in the Twittersphere
The Idiot, by Elif Batuman
Almost nothing of consequence actually happens in this book, and yet I simply couldn’t put it down. The story, set at Harvard in 1995, charts the freshman protagonist’s infatuation with an entirely undeserving upperclassman. She goes to class, to Hungary, to a nightclub. But it’s not about any of that at all. She reads and reads and reads. She observes the world and tries to make sense of it. She’s hilarious, in the driest way possible. It is about those things, in little ways.
Would I have actually finished this book if I hadn’t been pinned into an airplane seat by a sleeping toddler? Would I have persevered had I not been a fan of Batuman’s writing from The New Yorker? Probably, yes. And rightly so. Because despite lack of action, I was entranced by the prose, which is made up almost entirely of small, insightful, somewhat caustic observations that kept me in thrall and at moments (more than one!) provoked an out-loud guffaw. A rare thing indeed.
Feed The Resistance, by Julia Turshen
Julia Turshen has found a way to take what she loves and does so well – feeding people and writing about the importance of good food – and transform it into a manual for the newly activated and long-time resistors alike. A mix of recipes (for those who are too busy resisting to cook, for those feeding a crowd, etc.) and essays (framed as recipes for understanding and fueling activism), this book reminds us that food is politics: “To think deeply about food is to also think deeply about the environment, the economy, immigration, education, community, culture, families, race, gender, and identity. Food is about people, all people.” As if that weren’t enough, all proceeds go directly to the ACLU. Win-win.
Joshua Tree National Park
I’ve been to my fair share of National Parks, but this one – with its wacky moonscape and Dr. Seuss trees – was by far one of my favorites. The jackrabbits who scattered in the early morning and the coyotes who darted in front of our car at night, the imposing boulders and stunning sunsets – it’s all there, reminding visitors of the imperative of preserving national lands, of getting out into the world, of the fact that nature can change the way you see, live, breathe.
Everybody Knows, by Stills & Collins
Reunion albums usually suck—too much time has passed for the chemistry to return. But this album is different because it’s a different type of reunion. Stephen Stills and Judy Collins were never bandmates, they were lovers. In fact, Collins served as the muse and subject of some of Stills’ best songs, most notably Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird.” On this album, they blend older and newer songs by each, along with tunes by such fellow folk illuminati as Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen, and Sandy Denny. It’s unlikely that Stills will be getting back together with Crosby or Nash anytime soon, but this album proves that he and Collins can still make beautiful music together.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
This is a novel I would like to have written, if I were able to. Basing his story on a historical reality – the death of Abraham Lincoln’s third son, Willie, at age 11, a little more than a year after the Lincoln family left Springfield for Washington, DC – Saunders fashions a complex collage of voices and sources (some actual, some invented) that takes the reader to a Wonderland-type purgatory where Willie’s spirit is threatened while awaiting rebirth. It’s a unique form of narrative but it fits the supernatural theme perfectly and gives the reader the sense of existing in that otherworldly state, rather than merely being an observer perched in his own historical reality.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This film is commonly described as a dark comedy; there is, however, so much pain and tragedy and gruesomeness that the laughs, and there are a goodly number of them, fade from memory by movie’s end. Frances McDormand stars as a desperate heroine trying to get the law to act on her daughter’s murder but soon ends up a tortured outlaw hell-bent on revenge. In fact, everyone in the movie is so flawed that terms like “hero” and “villain” don’t apply. The film is replete with close-ups of the characters’ faces, revealing pain, shame, guilt, cruelty, and vacuity. In a sense, these faces are billboards in themselves, delivering provocative messages throughout this captivating movie.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
This brilliant short story collection features a diverse array of wonderfully imaginative works that are by turns tragic and thrilling, thought provoking and moving. Combining magical realism, science fiction, and moments of fantasy, Liu tells delicate tales that invoke deeply human themes. In “The Paper Menagerie,” an origami tiger is magically brought to life by a mother’s love, but this serves as a foundation upon which to tell an intimate story of self-identity, cultural assimilation, and empathy. By contrast, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” takes a broader, sociological view. By imagining a technology that enables the past to be relived, he forces his characters – and readers – to square with the dark and disturbing things humans are capable of doing. And, perhaps more relevant to the world we inhabit today, the things they collectively seek to sanitize or forget.
Blade Runner 2049
This movie was simultaneously my most anticipated and most feared release of the year. It’s hard to overstate the influence that the original Blade Runner had on science fiction, and so it was hard to imagine that this sequel would live up to the hype. Somehow, incredibly, it did. Blade Runner established a universe and a sense of style, but only touched on a few of the philosophical themes from the Philip K. Dick source novel. Picking up 30 years after the original, 2049 dives much deeper, and demonstrates an incredible (and unfortunately uncommon) respect for its audience’s intelligence, as it poses questions related to the nature of humanity, reality, compassion, and memory.
Don’t let the fact that its star is an animated horse fool you: BoJack is probably the best show on Netflix. It has great animation, a stellar voice cast, and incredible attention to detail. But what really holds it all together is the strength of the writing. Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his team balance tragedy and humor on a knife-edge. Poignant moments of loss and self-loathing integrate seamlessly with surrealistic animal puns as the show tackles issues as diverse and distressing as mass shootings, abortion, depression, alcoholism, and fracking. Yes, there’s a lot of heavy subject matter, and yes, it can get pretty intense. But BoJack handles these topics with sensitivity and grace, and its emotional highs are all the more exhilarating for the depths of its lows.
Let’s cut right to the chase: This Netflix series is a mockumentary that attempts to determine who spray-painted crude images of male genitalia onto the teachers’ cars at a California high school. Yes, some of the humor is unavoidably sophomoric, but American Vandal is a brilliant send-up of popular true crime investigations such as Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer. Like any good satire, the series lovingly skewers the tropes and patterns of the genre, but it also presents a shockingly well-realized and rich high school culture and has some unexpectedly poignant statements to make about the nature of guilt and the implications of our societal obsession with digging for truth.
Marlena, by Julie Buntin
Occasionally humorous but consistently touching and thought-provoking, Buntin’s debut novel centers on a northern Michigan community living on the edge of poverty and addiction, and the bond formed between two teenage girls that continues to haunt the narrator’s life years after the titular character’s tragic death. The story taps into some of the universal anxieties of being a teenager, but sets them against a backdrop of experience that will most likely be wholly unfamiliar – and yet strangely recognizable – to most readers.
The Good Place
If your idea of a sitcom still resembles the mind-numbingly formulaic, canned-laughter style of perennial duds like The Big Bang Theory, then you need to wake up. Bold, original shows that take creative risks and push the boundaries of the medium can now be found even on network television. From the creative team behind Parks and Recreation, this irreverent, genre-bending show – featuring Kristen Bell and the inimitable Ted Danson – follows a recently deceased woman who has accidentally ended up in the Good Place despite the thoroughly selfish, rude, and unredeemable life she led on Earth. The show’s unusually complex plot and diverse, hilarious cast – along with the truly shocking twist in the first season’s finale – make it a comedy for the ages.
Freedom Highway, by Rhiannon Giddens
My parents and I attended the Newport Jazz Festival for my mother’s birthday this August, and arrived as Rhiannon Giddens opened her set on the main stage. The festive, sun-dressed crowd grew respectfully somber when she played the haunting opening song from Freedom Highway: “At the Purchaser’s Option”, whose title was taken from a 1700’s slave advertisement. A week after Giddens’s performance, white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, and the Pops Staple-penned lyric “What’s wrong with the United States?” from the album’s eponymous track (originally written in response to the murder of Emmett Till) begged a question both old and new.
Not for the faint of heart, this surreal animated Netflix series brought back the painful hilarity of my middle-school years, with some moments of unexpected poignancy. An impressive cast of voice actors and a creative writing team lets you revisit the humor and confusion of growing up – while simultaneously shuddering at just how awkward and weird it all was.
"My President Was Black," by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Atlantic’s first cover story of 2017 set a high mark in nonfiction writing for the rest of the year. Coates offers an intimate, critical, and beautifully written perspective on the Obama White House, and it becomes more and more gut-wrenching to revisit as the current administration unfolds.
The Working Songwriter
A homegrown project from musician and national treasure Joe Pug (I highly recommend his debut EP, Nation of Heat), this podcast explores the songwriting process and the ups and downs of making a living in music. Featuring a deeply passionate host and an eclectic guest list, the wide-ranging interviews and genuine treatment of the songwriting craft will interest musicians and non-musicians alike. One episode featuring Anaïs Mitchell – the creative force behind the off-Broadway musical Hadestown – includes a fascinating discussion on her satirical song “Why We Build the Wall”, an eerily prescient masterpiece composed ten years ago.