Last year I started what I hope will be an annual tradition, and posted reviews of my favorite things I read and watched in 2021. It's time again, so here are my favorites from 2022!
(Please note, the categories are somewhat different this year, and might be different again next year, depending on what particularly interests me each time around.)
The Best Things I Read
Black Water Lilies is a murder mystery set in the French village of Giverny, where Monet lived and painted for the latter part of his life. Police quickly determine that the murdered man was interested in acquiring Monet paintings by deceiving owners who didn't know the value of what they had, that he had numerous affairs, and that he might have a child. Three women emerge as suspects within the narrative - an old woman who secretly owns a Monet painting that is only rumored to even exist, a schoolteacher who has been seen with the dead man and might have had an affair with him, and a little girl who wants to be a painter and might be the right age to be the dead man's daughter. The police focus on the teacher and her husband, but that might be because the lead detective has fallen in love with her.
The investigation turns up a lot of information, but seemingly no conclusions, until the very end. The end of the story is perfect, and makes everything you've read so far even better in retrospect. I found myself immediately flipping back through to consider it all again. The art is also a absolutely gorgeous, which I think you can tell from the cover. The pastel colors, the profusion of flowers and large panels that show off the landscape - reading this book is like investigating a mystery set inside a Monet painting. The text and art work really well together, with the beautiful surroundings contrasting with the darkness of the story.
My runners up are Berlin by Jason Lutes, and Giantess by JC Deveny and Nuria Tamarit, which was published by the same press as Black Water Lilies. Berlin is an absolute masterpiece, with a large cast of characters who embody the major events of Germany in the 1930s and black and white art that resembles the striking graphics of posters of that era, and of course Lutes' name should be familiar to RPG fans. Giantess is a fantasy comic about a giant girl who is adopted by humans, then sets out to find her way in the world, along the way encountering politics, war, dogmatism, asceticism, witchcraft, and feminism, all while trying to decide what sort of person she wants to be.
I'm always a bit nervous to read fiction about trans people, having been burned a bit by some of the novels by non-trans authors I read when I was first coming out. But I'm very glad I read Detransition, Baby, which is by a trans author, and filled with the sort of true-to-life details that let you know she really knows what she's talking about. I recognized myself in this, was reminded of other trans women I've known, and felt like I maybe learned some things about the community that I hadn't known before. Peters treats all her characters with empathy; she understands them and expresses their sometimes difficult-to-explain interior states with deceptive ease. Consider, for a moment, the beautiful ambiguity of the title. Is it a loving request, a bullying taunt, or simply an ordered list?
Detransition, Baby follows a trio of characters. Ames is currently living as a man, but he used to live as a trans woman, and may choose to again, sometime in the future, beyond the end of the book. Reese is Ames's ex-girlfriend, and another trans woman. Katrina is Ames's boss and current girlfriend, and she is accidentally pregnant with Ames's child. Ames suggests an unconventional arrangement - that the three of them co-parent the child together. As this plot unfolds in the present day, we get flashbacks to Ames's and Reese's closeted girlhoods, the early days of their transitions, how they met, and why their relationship ended. Ultimately, the three of them will have to decide whether to commit to Ames's plan or not, but the novel doesn't end with a decision; it ends when they have each finally confronted enough of their past mistakes to actually make a real decision.
My runner up is Temporary by Hillary Leichter, although The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman probably deserves a shout-out as well. Temporary follows a member of the precariat through a series of temporary jobs, where she deals with loneliness, low-pay, mistreatment by her coworkers, and the moral injury of being asked to do someone else's dirty work, all while longing for "the steadiness" of a job of her own. What's unique here is that her temporary positions are all fanciful and surreal - a pirate, a barnacle, a ghost, a hitman's assistant, a witch's assistant, a temporary mom. The Very Nice Box is a subversive romance novel that follows a queer woman working for an IKEA stand-in, designing the titular object for her company, and maybe re-opening her heart to a bro-ish young man whose affable masculinity is a little more toxic than it initially appears.
Genre Fiction - Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
Senlin Ascends is a fantasy novel, set in a world that resembles rural England, or maybe New England, with the Tower standing in for London or New York. Thomas Senlin, a small-town school teacher and latter day Ichabod Crane figure, takes his new wife to the Tower for their honeymoon and immediately gets separated from her. We follow him as he searches, gradually working his way up the levels of the interior. The bottom floors of the Tower are tourist attractions, gaining expense and exclusivity as they rise. Senlin is a flawed protagonist, at once too fussy and too certain of himself, but he survives to continue his search because he grows and learns from his mistakes.
Although the idea of the Tower, and its early displays of steampunk technology, are indeed fantastical, Bancroft grounds his story in a great deal more social realism than you might expect. He's especially attuned to issues of class and gender. The Tower is a machine, and it runs on the exploitation of labor. Where I think Bancroft excels is, at each stage of his story, recognizing what's the most obvious thing that could happen next, and then trying to outdo himself. By the time I reached the final set-piece, where a half dozen factions and conflicts all exploded into one another, I was seriously impressed by his skill. Senlin is the first book of a quartet. It stands alone well enough if you're not sure you want to commit to the series, but I'm glad I kept going.
My runner up is Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. Harkaway gives us a James Bond type spy villain with a doomsday device and a plan to freeze the world in a state of perpetual quantum certainty, an aging lady spy forced out of retirement to stop him one last time, and a hapless watchmaker, son of a famous dead gangster, who assembles the greatest underworld vigilante team this side of M to pull one last heist and save the world from a state unbearable epistemic oversaturation. The whole caper is an awful lot of fun, at least as rollicking, madcap, and sexy as it is philosophical, but the elevated stakes, and the ideas behind them, only added to my enjoyment.
The Best Things I Listened To
Pop Music - "Expert in a Dying Field" by the Beths
With lyrics that seem to simultaneously describe the feeling of loving vintage and retro things, the grief of a failing relationship, and the pervasive anxiety of working in academia in time of budget cuts and shrinking college-age populations, guitars that progressively shift from pop to rock, and a video that was seemingly decorated by someone who wanted to make me sick with jealousy, the Beths score a very easy win here.
For my runners up, I recommend "I'm Not Where You Are" by Marika Hackman and "None of My Friends" by Liz Lawrence, which are both about wanting to be alone, in their own ways, and both have excellent videos.
Rock Music - "Hertz" by Amyl & the Sniffers
Amyl and her band are an honest-to-god punk rock phenomenon, with fast guitars, punchy lyrics, firecracker energy that rages without ever seeming to run out, and a name that genuinely offends at least half the people I try to recommend them to. (Just what are they sniffing, everyone seems to wonder. Is it glue, or the only other obvious alternative?) Here, she sings about wanting to go on a beach holiday, and I find her mood irresistibly infectious.
My runner up is "Chaise Lounge" by Wet Leg, which got much more attention this year. Despite their equally salacious name and even-more-explicit lyrics, no one ever seems as put out by this duo as they do by the Sniffers. The guitars here are probably a bit more danceable for most folks too.
The Best Things I Watched
Television - Dirty Pair
I never saw Dirty Pair when it was originally on in the 1980s - in fact, I only found it because of a recent CBR article praising it shortly after it reappeared on Crunchyroll - but I'd like to think that if I'd had a cool older sister, this is the sort of show she'd have taken me under her wing and forced me to watch with her for my own benefit.
Dirty Pair follows a couple of teenage girl heroes-for-hire as they solve problems and restore justice in the most chaotic ways possible across a wild and dangerous scifi future. The girls feel like real teenagers. They quarrel with each other constantly. They'd rather go on dates with cute boys that save the world, but they will, though they'd like bonus pay or extra vacation days if they have to go above and beyond their original contract. In a galaxy where there seemingly is no "letter of the law" to follow, they consistently try to do the right thing and to stand up for people with less power who're being oppressed, no matter who's doing it.
And yes, their costumes are basically just fancy swimsuits. Yes, we sometimes see them wrapped in towels after showering at their apartment. But unlike more recent anime, we don't get any leering fanservice close-ups of their bodies. Their outfits just seem like an expression of self-confidence; their time "backstage" is shown naturalistically. The camera treats the audience as a peer rather than a voyeur. This is a series that was made for girls first and foremost.
Plus, listen to that theme song! It's immediately jumped to the top of my favorites list, right beside "Cruel Angel's Thesis".
Honestly this was a good year for animation, and I watched a lot of it, but my runner-up is Andor, which would be first place in its own category if I was splitting television any further this year. It's a show about a Rebellion and an Empire that is thematically all about, you know, the ideas of rebellion and empire. Other reviews of the show tend to emphasize the price we see the rebels paying; I want to draw attention to Andor's representation of imperialism. All the cops we meet are bastards, the prison we see deserves to be abolished, and one of the most powerful scenes asks us to cheer for rioters throwing bricks at the police. (You might be briefly tempted, as I was, to feel some empathy for the girlboss character, until you're reminded that, oh right, she works for a government that tortures and kills with impunity, and the more competent she is at her job, the worse things are for the people she's targeting.) Andor is by far the most anti-authoritarian show I've watched recently. It also has excellent pacing into 3-episode arcs that inevitably culminate in perfectly choreographed action scenes, actors who are good at acting, and really excellent attention to detail in terms of the sets, costumes, and music.
Arthouse Films - Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn
Bad Luck Banging tells the story of a teacher who made a short porn video with her husband, and has to attend a meeting with the school's principal and a group of concerned parents to determine whether or not she'll be allowed to keep her job. In the first act, she crosses Bucharest on foot, walking from her apartment to the school, with a couple errands along the way. The movie was filmed in spring or summer 2020, so the masks, and the weird tension that suffused every face-to-face encounter during that time, are presented as a matter-of-fact part of the story. There's an interlude where the director criticizes what he sees as the sexual hypocrisy and growing fascism of Romanian society. His complaints about his country sound a lot like my complaints about mine; the differences are matters of degree, not kind.
In the second act, the teacher attends the meeting, outdoors, because of the pandemic. If the first part was her Gethsemane, this is her Golgotha. The crowd of parents all want her fired. They insist on screening the porn video. (It was taken down from the internet, but one mother "helpfully" downloaded a copy for the meeting.) The parents all watch the video while the fathers make lewd comments. And the teacher does not flinch. She doesn't apologize. She doesn't offer to resign. She defends her right to exist as a human outside of her job, and she defends her ability to do her job well. I was in awe of her, transfixed by her courage and her strength. I only hope I can be half as brave if a conservative mob ever comes after me.
One thing I sometimes think about when watching or reading, is whether the depiction of sexuality is appropriate - was it necessary? was it authentic to the characters? should there have been less of it? or more? The show My Dress-Up Darling stands out to me for its inauthentic portrayal - when Marin looks at Gojo, we see him through her eyes, and understand what she feels, but when Gojo looks at Marin, we get generic anime fanservice, not a faithful representation of why he's so flustered by his sexy friend. The City in the Middle of the Night, which I otherwise really enjoyed, is notable for having characters who, seriously, should have just fucked at some point, where it feels false that literally none of them did, ever.
Bad Luck Banging absolutely passes this test. If a point of this film is that the teacher and her husband had the right to make a porn video, that she did nothing wrong either in her actions or by filming them, then yes, I really think the movie really does need to show you that video. It's not just acceptable; it's necessary. It would be self-defeating for the film to insist that this was completely fine but also refuse to allow the audience to glimpse it. And the film makes it clear, she hasn't done anything immoral - the people who keep re-uploading the video after it's taken down, and the people who watch it when she asks them not to, have.
My runner up is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which again, is probably the more famous of the two on my list. It's kind of a slow burn of a movie, but not only did it keep growing on me as I watched it, but I found my enjoyment of it increasing even more in retrospect after I finished. It's a historical lesbian romance that does right a lot of things that other films in that niche are often criticized for doing wrong. And as a bit of storytelling technique, I especially appreciate the character of the maid and her problem, which forces the two main women to get out of their own heads, interact with other people, and help someone who needs it. Her being younger also emphasizes the lead characters' relative maturity. It's a very well-made film.
Genre Films - Everything Everywhere All At Once
Speaking of well-made movies, can we talk about just how good Everything Everywhere All at Once is? At a time when multiverse movies are all the rage, it is easily the best multiverse movie, and likely to stay that way for awhile. We get a quick, understandable explanation for how the multiverse works, and how people can contact their multiversal variants, and the payoff from visiting the multiverse isn't just cool costumes, incredible fight scenes, and an excuse for each actor to play multiple roles - though we get all those things too. The payoff is a surprisingly moving discussion of the regret we all sometimes feel over the decisions we didn't make, expressed by characters who are not idealized or perfect, but are realistically, at times frustratingly, flawed, imperfect, human.
And as I said, it's a really well-made film. From Chekov's Gun in drama to a whole host of ideas about the role of repetition in comedy, we know that there are times in any work to bring something back from earlier rather than introduce something new. And part of the beauty of EEAAO is that everything comes back, usually two or three times. Nothing is one-off, nothing is just for effect. Everything comes back, and gains humor and poignancy from its reuse.
The film editing also deserves a special shout-out here. Most of the time, I feel like awards for editing are mostly a way to lavish even more praise onto already successful films, or to ensure that a particular prestige pic doesn't get completely boxed out by someone else's winning streak - but seriously, EEAAO is a well-edited film. From the cuts between realities, to the super-rapid flashbacks, to the main villain's mutating mulitversal costumes and weaponry, to the really touching scene where two unmoving rocks talk to each other with the help the best shot-countershot since Alligator Loki, this is a movie that simply would not work if it weren't edited so well, and among the many things worth noticing as you watch it, that's definitely one.
My runner up is Netflix's Kate, featuring Mary Kate Winstead on a furious and doomed mission to get revenge on the people who poisoned her before the poison finishes its job. Absolutely brutal fight scenes, plot and dialogue that manage to not romanticize her remorseless killing spree, and the kind of neon-drenched visuals that I'm always excited to see more of. Watching Kate back-to-back with Gunpowder Milkshake made the latter seem even more garbo by comparison than it would have if I'd watched it alone. I'm ready for a change of pace from the formula of making your anti-heroic character more sympathetic by giving them a kid to defend, but considering that the radiation-poisoned protagonist goes back at least to D.O.A., it's not originality that matters here, but how well the film uses the pieces it's assembled from.