As part of the Patreon bonus content, we’ve been writing monthly recs. Having brought that to an end at pretty much the midpoint of the year, it seemed like a good time to recap our very favourite things (and write-ups) from the first six months of 2019.
1. Booksmart [FILM]
Tim: Booksmart has been been compared to Superbad, in that both feature relatively ‘uncool’ teenagers attempting to take part in one night of wild partying before heading off to college (a comparison helped by the fact that Beanie Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s sister). While this works fine, especially if you’re trying to sell someone on the idea of seeing it, I think it’s closer to Dazed and Confused.
For one thing, Olivia Wilde’s direction is far more assured and creative than Greg Mottola’s, which follows the ‘point a camera at it and improvise’ school of filmmaking. Wilde’s impressive command of shot composure and her ability to create striking images makes Booksmart stand out among modern comedies, which often feel like several long SNL sketches chained together.
More importantly for the sake of my comparison, Booksmart is a film without an antagonist. Like Dazed and Confused, it paints an authentic portrait of teenagers where there are no real bad guys*, just differing levels of self-absorbtion and insecurity. As much as Booksmart focuses on the friendship between Amy and Molly, the supporting cast feels well-rounded and given a level of thought you don’t normally see in a film with such a high joke hit-rate.
Given that Dazed and Confused consistently ranks as my favourite film, consider this a glowing recommendation.
(*Except for Ben Affleck’s character in D&C. Fuck that guy.)
2. Jane the Virgin [TV SHOW]
Alex: 2019 is the official year of things Alex loves coming to an end. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The Wicked + The Divine. The MCU’s Infinity Saga. Orange is the New Black. Very possibly, life on Earth in general.
I’m just glad that, before we all succumb to entropy, I got to see how Jane the Virgin closed its hundredth and final chapter. It’s always been a fun, vibrant show fronted by three Latina women of different generations – which is, y’know, certainly not nothin’ – but this season you could really feel its five-season plan locking into place.
Like CW stablemate CXGF, it’s a story about taking tropey storylines (the secret twins, surprise babies, amnesia, murder plots and faked deaths of Spanish-language soap operas) and finding the real human cost of living them. This season began with the most ludicrous twist yet, and managed to weave it into something that could make me cry on a weekly basis.
3. The Perfect PokéRap [VIDEO]
Tim: Within the Internet circles that I currently inhabit, the prospect of Brian David Gilbert delivering a live version of his Unravelled series (previously recommended in this very feature) was already enough to get us salivating. When it turned out that would be a “perfected” version of the PokéRap, featuring all 812 of Nintendo’s current batch of pocket monsters, that anticipation rose to fever pitch.
When the video finally appeared, it seemed like the only thing my Twitter feed was talking about for 24 hours, and with good reason. BDG manages to take the idea of the PokéRap and, in the space of just under 35 minutes, use it to explore Wagner’s concept of the gesamtkunstwerk, the opioid crisis and the nature of how we play games.
The song itself, which clocks in at just over nine minutes, spans four different genres (including dance) and ends with an emotional crescendo that is actually affecting. A true masterwork.
4. Martha – Love Keeps Kicking [ALBUM]
Alex: Once upon a time, more than a decade ago, I fell in love with a band called Los Campesinos! I remember saying at the time that they felt like the last band I’d ever love that way – the kind of love where you scribble their lyrics in the margins and scour dodgy corners of the internet for demos and bootlegs. Which proved to be more or less true, for the record.
Until I discovered Martha, a couple of years back, and experienced that first heady rush all over again. They’ve got a lot in common with LC! – the same scrappy energy, the same passing of vocal duties between band members and, most of all, the same headlong tumble of lyrics so sharply phrased you want to carve them into a school desk or a toilet stall or a spare patch of arm. Check out the title track, with its verses loaded with couplet-length short stories and the way the “love keeps kicking” chorus eventually blossoms into “kicking the shit out of me” – then give the album a couple of spins before diving into their back catalogue. You might just fall in love too.
(Researching for this blurb, I’ve found out that that Los Campesinos! rate Martha as the best band in the country, which feels a bit like an ex texting to say your new girlfriend is dead fit. But, like, in a good way.)
5. SparkNotes [TWITTER ACCOUNT]
Tim: Remember SparkNotes? Those books that would summarise themes and stuff for your GCSE and A-level English texts? Well, in an extremely 2019 twist, it turns out the official SparkNotes Twitter account is great at memes.
They clearly have a social media team that is both very online and has been given licence to just go buck wild, because it’s non-stop Spongebobs, GIFs and Distracted Boyfriends, all applied to texts like Julius Caesar, Pride and Prejudice, and Lord of the Flies.
Praising a corporate Twitter account feels like I’m about three steps away from letting the corporate boot stamp on my face forever, but you know what? I genuinely think it’s a good way to engage with teenagers and parse what can be very dry texts into a modern form. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to sit on this backwards chair and work on my adaptation of Macbeth. We’re setting it in gangland Chicago.
6. Jenny Lewis – “Red Bull & Hennessy” [TRACK]
Alex: Energy drinks and brandy sounds like a pretty awful combination. Then again, on paper I’m not sure the recipe for this song would sound too appealing either. It’s basically every decent song from the oldies radio station of my childhood, stuck into a blender and whizzed together.
The most obvious touchpoint is Fleetwood Mac: Lewis is doing her best Stevie Nicks impression throughout, although honestly I can hear a little of the Corrs cover of “Dreams” in there too.
About three minutes in, Lewis turns on the full Kate Bush falsetto, blasting the song into another dimension. It should be too much, too many influences worn right on the surface. But it works, and as soon as it’s over – the song fading away with a wobble effect that feels like winding down the windows while the car radio plays – I want another. What more can you ask for from any cocktail?
7. Waitress [MUSICAL]
Tim: Dear reader, would you like to know a little-known fact about me? As much as comics have shaped my life, as much as I think about TV constantly and love to soundtrack every moment with pop music, nothing has as direct a route to my heart as musical theatre. I don’t really consider myself well-versed in the genre, and there’s dozens of the ‘canon’ musicals that I’ve never seen, let alone the more obscure ones, but boy, catch me at the right time and a musical can affect me in a way no other media can.
I went into the London production of Waitress not knowing a huge amount. I’d seen the film about 10 years ago, but I hadn’t heard any songs from the musical adaptation, and barely even knew the work of Sara Bareilles, the singer/songwriter who had written the music and lyrics. I was already hugely enjoying the show, which is filled with great songs and sweet humour, and then Katherine McPhee launched into “She Used to Be Mine”, the final solo song that forms the crux of the second act.
Dear reader, that shit fucked me up.
8. The Occupation [GAME]
Alex: The North of England in the late 1980s is a pretty unusual setting for a videogame. But then, The Occupation is a pretty unusual game. It rejects the sword entirely, opting instead for the famously mightier pen: you play a journalist, investigating an employee of a government-backed tech firm who might have been framed for a terrorist act.
You sneak around a number of beautifully-realised office buildings, evading the one security guard (his name’s Steve, he wants to be an actor) and collecting evidence, while a one-hour timer counts down. Then you turn up to your schedule interview and hit them with questions based on what you’ve found. It’s an experience unlike any other game I’ve played – unfortunately, that ambition overwhelms the small team that developed The Occupation, resulting in a painfully buggy game. But when it does work, it makes for the single most exciting gaming experience I’ve had this year.
9. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse [FILM]
[Yes, we’re fully aware this movie came out in 2018, but Tim wrote the below in 2019. Consider it an ode to the home release.]
Tim: Dozens of think-pieces have already been written about the wonder that is Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. The flawless characterisation of Miles Morales and Peter B. Parker. The way it is able to successfully juggle dozens of plot threads and character arcs. The astonishing, groundbreaking animation that draws on its comic-book roots in ways we’ve never seen before. I could easily go on and on, but I want to focus in on a couple of things.
The first is the enormous respect it shows for its audience. As an animated film, it’s presumably targeting a slightly younger age group than other superhero blockbusters, but it far surpasses them in terms of dropping you into its world and expecting you to keep up.
The second is how it conveys the pure joy of superpowers. Too often, films are so focused on putting characters through the wringer that they forget to allow them to revel in their abilities. Those scenes are important, though. They tap into a level of wonder that the best superhero fiction does, and they position our protagonists as aspirational figures that we want to emulate. Spider-Man is the perfect hero for these kind of scenes – there’s a reason why so much of the criticism for the new PS4 game focused on whether or not the swinging felt good – and Spider-Verse more than delivers. Whether it’s big moments like the ‘Leap of Faith’ or just watching the gaggle of Spider-folk all swing over to Fisk Tower, Spider-Verse knows that being a superhero should be awesome.
10. Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt [COMIC]
Alex: Kieron Gillen is having a remarkable year. WicDiv ended beautifully, DIE is off to a fascinating start [and, since I originally wrote this, he’s launched the also-excellent Once & Future]. And then there’s Thunderbolt, a miniseries at Dynamite picking up an all-but-forgotten ‘60s superhero character.
Unsurprisingly, given it’s Gillen, the comic is clearly the result of a big think about the state of superhero comics, and how they’ve evolved – or not – over the past thirty years. Also unsurprisingly, given his artistic collaborator is Caspar Wijngaard, it’s utterly gorgeous, dancing between cartoon plasticity and rigid formalism.
But here’s the thing I didn’t expect: this might be the most fun I’ve ever seen Gillen having on the comics page. The first issue just about manages to keep a straight face up until its ending – one of the ballsiest twists in recent memory, a “come at me, bro” issued straight at another comics publisher – then immediately breaks into a fit of giggles. Practically every page of the second issue is a wink at the reader and an elbow in the ribs.
It’s definitely a comic that rewards longtime comics fans, ones who are conversant in the full comics canon, but in a way that’s so charming and loopy I’d struggle to hold that against it.
11. Earworm S2 [VIDEO]
Tim: Earworm’s back, baby! Vox’s exceedingly detailed video series that picks apart music has returned for a second season, with episodes already up on heavy metal’s role in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, and how New York’s disco scene led to longer records and a whole new recording format.
Estelle Caswell, the reporter behind the series, seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music ephemera, and her curiosity and enthusiasm keep the videos lively and varied. They are also beautifully designed, conveying information using a combination of archive footage, interviews and graphics.
Earworm is like the video equivalent of podcasts like Song Exploder or Switched On Pop, and essential viewing for anyone interested in how pop music continues to evolve.
12. The Lego Movie 2 [FILM]
Alex: I can’t remember how I felt going into the first Lego Movie, but I came out as a fully paid-up member of the Lord & Miller Fan Club. Sitting down to watch the sequel, I was apprehensive. The first felt like lightning captured in a bottle – a visually inventive thesis on the importance of play – and the thing about lightning is, it doesn’t tend to strike twice.
And okay, the jokes in The Second Part aren’t quite as good, and there are no breakout characters like Will Arnett’s Batman… but it makes even better use of the twin-reality structure, where every action in the animated Lego world has a parallel in the live-action family home, and continues the argument of the first movie in some fascinating ways.
I came out ready to write essays on how the movie discusses its own sequelitis, how it extends the original’s themes of lost innocence, and its skewering of the divide between funny ‘light’ stories and serious ‘dark’ ones – and if any of you want to post me a cheque, I still might.
But really, all you need to know is: this one is also a musical.