In June, I made a list of the top ten things of 2019 so far. It included two films, but was also a chance to spotlight some of the other media I had been enjoying. That was fun, so here is another list of ten things that I’ve enjoyed that have come out since June. I think being well-versed with pop culture and exposed to many different forms of media and worldviews is all a part of being a movie critic, and a discerning viewer. Exploring music, books, podcasts, and videos all contribute to a cultural education.
Atlas: Enneagram by Sleeping at Last
Atlas: Enneagram album was a project completed this year by musician Ryan O’Neal. As a newly indoctrinated Enneagram believer, this album really helped me understand it more. But even if you don’t care about the Enneagram personality system, there’s no doubt that this album is beautifully crafted. As an Enneagram One, I always get emotional at that first song, but “Eight” is my other favorite. O’Neal also made a podcast (“Sleeping at Last Podcast”) chronicling how he made each song. It’s astounding the amount of detail and effort put into each song, from the ways the musical composition reflects characteristics of the Enneagram to how he had the musicians who played on each song be the same Enneagram as the song. It gives a beautiful insight into crafting an album.
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”- Randy Newman
Best original song of the year. There are a lot of best original song contenders this year, from Jasmine’s new song in Aladdin, “Speechless”, to Taylor Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts” for Cats and Beyonce’s Spirit for The Lion King. But my personal favorite original song is this one from Toy Story 4, which works both on a hilariously literal level in the film and also as a fun, anti-suicide bop! Runner up, “I Punched Keanu Reeves,” from Always Be My Maybe.
Lover– Taylor Swift
I’m tired of hiding it! I like Taylor Swift! Her music is consistently great! She’s a great writer! She’s a savvy businesswoman! She stood up against sexual assault and won! She embodies all the contradictions of modern pop stardom and it’s fun to read think pieces about her, while still recognizing that she is a real person separate from her celebrity image. I hope she and Joe Alwyn are happy!
Lover showcases all of Swift’s strengths and staples while also displaying maturity. While not all the risks she takes pan out (lead single “Me!”’s silliness never elevates itself to true camp) and some of the “risks” feel too calculated (such as “You Need to Calm Down”), there is an underlying yearning for peace that shows that Swift may have moved past some of her past feuds and drama (or, at least, decided to pick her enemies more carefully). “Cruel Summer” is pop-perfection and “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” is the best political song in recent memory. It doesn’t speak as directly as “You Need to Calm Down” or some of her contemporaries’s political works, but that’s why it succeeds. By using high school metaphors, so common in her own earlier work, she crafts a song that is subversive about its commentary and feels all the paranoia, exhaustion, and fear that the recent political climate has built. It seems the artist of the decade won’t be going anywhere this upcoming decade.
Hosts Jamie Golden and Knox McCoy have crackling chemistry in this podcast about pop culture and “delightful idiocy,” and I laugh every episode. My favorite episode from the second half of this year is “Tom-ageddon: Picking the Worst Tom of 2019” (October 16th) but I also recommend the first episode I ever listened to, which was “Potential Pop Culture Antichrists” (May 13, 2019). From spicy hot takes to green lights on the best movies and books of the week, The Popcast can keep you in the loop.
Dolly Parton’s America
I didn’t grow up listening to Dolly Parton. I don’t even listen to country music, so it’s a real credit to Jad Appenrod and WNYC Studios for creating a podcast miniseries about Dolly that has sucked me in completely. The podcast, using a variety of sources, including interviews with Dolly herself, examine why Dolly is so beloved, and what her fame and career reveal about the contradictions within America itself.
I particularly recommend episodes 5 and 6, which can be listened to as standalone episodes. #5 “Dolitics” explores how Dolly is able to be the most political-nonpolitical entertainer out there and how she handles the current expectation for entertainers to be activists. #6 “Jolene” is, well, all about her hit “Jolene.” The first part is a fascinating breakdown of how the song is a complete subversion of the “Other Woman” song subgenre. The second part is a queer reading of the song. If that doesn’t interest you though, at skip to 31:13 to hear a jaw-dropping story that finds “Jolene” in a South African prison during Apartheid. This podcast was one of the most interesting, toe-tapping 36 minutes of my year.
Be Kind Rewind is a channel full of academic, long-form video essays that breaks down each of the best actress wins in Oscar history. Each video essay is well researched, edited, narrated, and overall excellent quality while being entertaining and informative. I think they are accessible for both experts in film history and newbies.
There’s been a lot of talk about women in Hollywood and inequality, and these discussions and boycotts have been important. But the modest goal of this channel to bring light to unknown stories and reframing film history through the lens of these actresses is just as important and radical a part of fighting inequality.
I particularly enjoyed “Nicole Kidman and the Weinstein Nominees: 2003” and “Casting Scarlett O’Hara & Vivien Leigh’s Oscar: 1939”.
I’ve been getting more into music criticism lately (although don’t expect any full-length album reviews on this blog). Music is an area I enjoy but don’t know much about. My eclectic taste has been the dismay of many of my more music-learned friends. This channel, like Be Kind Rewind, produces professional and engaging video essays, here over different musical subjects.
After listening to Jesus is King and generally just hearing a lot more about Kanye West recently, I particularly enjoyed the channel’s video on him and how he’s shaped the 2010s.
“The Real Problem With Paula Dean”, by Lauren Michele Jackson
Like music criticism, food criticism is something I’m interested in but don’t have experience in, outside of watching multiple seasons of Masterchef and Chopped. This article, similar to the Dolly Parton podcast, looks at a beloved figure (or previously beloved figure) who exemplifies elements of American society. In Paula Dean’s case, America’s contradicting ideas about race, food, obesity and health, and fame. Even if you’re not invested in Paula Dean or her food empire or whether or not she said the N-word, I think this article is well written enough to be worthy of your time. Reading outside of one’s interests is a great way to be exposed to new ideas and the world you’d never know about otherwise. In this case, it’s the world of butter, bacon, and mayo.
“Introducing the Dad Movie Hall of Fame” by The Ringer Staff
This is one of the funniest things I have ever read. The Ringer Staff gives guidelines and a set of starter movies for the new subgenre of Dad Movie- a genre you’ve probably felt, but not quite been able to express. There are plenty of poignant insights, both into a handful of films and also into the psychology of dads. After reading this, you’ll find yourself thinking, “is this a Dad Movie?” And if it is a period place, with a beloved actor slightly out of his prime, and is “about work, managing, or team building in some form or fashion,” and has some Europe but not too much Europe, then you’ve got a Dad movie™.
She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
She Said tells the behind the scenes story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning expose the New York Times did in 2017 over Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and assault. The piece opened the floodgates on #MeToo and the career-ending allegations of dozens of powerful men in entertainment coming forward. The book starts from the piece’s inception all the way to the Kavanaugh hearing with Christine Blesy Ford. It pulls back the curtain to all the behind the scenes drama and work that went into the headlines. If you’ve ever wondered why women are hesitant to come forward with allegations, or how people like Harvey Weinstein are able to stay in power for so long, or any other questions that have come up with this recent movement, She Said probably has an insightful answer. While the prose is sometimes clunky, it’s a gripping read. We don’t know where the #MeToo movement is going, but the fact that it even got started can give us hope.