The following list showcases the popular culture I most appreciated in 2019, regardless of whether it actually came out in 2019. Consider it a gift to you, capable of instilling in you the taste you so severely lack.
Boon Joon-ho’s genre-defying film Parasite is a must-see, even for those usually put off by subtitles. It’s funny, thrilling and relatable, goading the audience to root for a family whose increasingly selfish behavior threatens to transform them from clever capitalists into full-blown criminals. Impeccably written and full of well-timed surprises, Parasite is the high-water mark for exceptional modern filmmaking.
While not as terrifying as Hereditary, Ari Aster’s brightly-colored follow-up film is still roaring with dread. Anchored by an evocative performance from Florence Pugh, Midsommar tells the story of a woman attempting to process grief while on a trip to a remote village in Sweden. She and her travel companions participate in the village’s midsummer festival, only to discover that beneath the floral crowns and maypole dances something sinister lurks. Midsommar’s visuals alternate between idyllic and horrific, underscoring the movie’s tumultuous central relationship and echoing Pugh’s inner turmoil.
Though it looks more regal than Downton Abbey, The Favourite’s dialogue is as biting and raunchy as Veep. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for Queen Anne’s favor with darkly funny, occasionally tragic results. The film’s juxtaposition of dazzlingly ornate architecture and foul-mouthed malcontents results in one of the most creative and engaging dramas ever conceived. Olivia Colman won the Oscar for her visceral portrayal of Queen Anne, but all three of the leading ladies deliver career-best performances.
For those not in-the-know, HBO’s Succession is a witty and gripping drama about a Murdoch-esque family whose penchant for power struggles is fairly Shakespearean. Quotable and clever, Succession delivers as both social commentary and binge-able obsession. Its cast is filled with skilled actors spitting witticisms. Brian Cox leads the ensemble as a cantankerous media mogul in search of an heir. Though it feels a bit icky to care about the people behind a Fox News-style propaganda machine, it’s a testament to the writing and the performances that I can’t wait to root for the Roy family next season.
PEN15 is a brilliantly funny, deeply personal look at what it’s like to be a middle-schooler. Adult actresses and writers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 7th grade girls, while all their classmates are played by child actors. Though the stars don’t always look like little kids, their line-delivery and mannerisms are so pitch-perfect it’s easy to forget. The adults-playing-kids schtick amplifies the inherent awkwardness of puberty. The 7th graders are desperate to seem cool and mature, while still exhibiting the inherent innocence of kids. More than just a nostalgia trip, PEN15 is a portal through time to embarrassing moments adults have either repressed or forgotten.
Disney’s first foray into big-budget Star Wars TV is a genuine hit. Much has been written about the show’s scene-stealing cutie, Baby Yoda, but The Mandalorian’s greatest accomplishment is proving that a Star Wars spin-off doesn’t have to focus on revising or explaining the events from the movies. Like the best of the expanded universe stories, The Mandalorian digs into unexplored lore, introduces compelling new characters, and lets viewers explore new corners of the Star Wars universe without marrying everything to a Skywalker. Though the first season suffers from some awkward plotting, it ultimately sticks the landing and sets up some exciting stakes for season two.
An inspiring tour of Joan Jett’s musical career, Bad Reputation is a feel-good documentary that made me want to thrash and blast her songs like the young person I no longer am. Though it tends to keep things positive and not dwell too much on the hardships, the core story about a young musician finding her persona onstage and defying people’s prudish expectations was fun and uplifting. One part biography and one part pro-Joan propaganda, Bad Reputation makes up for its lack of twists and turns by being a world-class delivery system for Joan’s music and the fiery spirit of feminism.
Fyre is schadenfreude in a bottle. It’s the story of a failed business venture, one that resulted in a bunch of rich concert-goers stranded on an island without access to the luxurious accommodations they’d been promised. It all started when professional douche Billy McFarland sold a brand new music festival to the rich and well-connected. Like Captain Ahab, McFarland sails toward disaster, obsessed with accomplishing his goal even as his crew warns him to turn back. The result is tragic for the concert-goers but deeply satisfying for viewers who enjoy seeing bad things happen to rich people.
Leaving Neverland provides viewers with the most damning testimony available regarding Michael Jackson’s child molestation. The documentary focuses on two men who were molested by Jackson when they were kids, then supplements their accounts with photos, faxes, and other corroborating evidence. Though stomach-turning, the picture that Neverland paints is clear, revealing the systematic way in which Jackson sought out, raped, and discarded young boys. In spite of the trauma, Jackson’s victims try to stay strong and live healthy adult lives, providing inspiration for anyone suffering similarly.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Three Houses is an addictive strategy game about a Hogwarts-esque academy where you can bond with your fellow teachers and students, thereby improving their strength in battle. The game offers enough customization to make it replayable multiple times, resulting in a good amount of bang for your buck. Though it sometimes lacks the graphical flair of its contemporaries, Three Houses makes up for any shortcomings with loads of quality combat, charm, and romance.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Lucas Pope is one of the most creative game designers of all time. You might recall his previous game, Papers, Please, in which you play as an immigration officer under an authoritarian regime. In Obra Dinn, you play as an investigator tasked with explaining the mysterious deaths of the crew aboard a vessel straight out of Moby Dick. The game’s visuals are monochrome yet vivid, and its music is intoxicating. Using a magical compass you can view the exact moment of each crewman’s death, but it’s up to you to determine how and why these tragic events took place. Obra Dinn is a truly unique game sure to please anyone who enjoys seafaring tales, murder mysteries, and puzzle-solving.
Pokémon Sword & Shield
Despite the controversy surrounding the designers’ decision to omit a slew of Pokémon from the game, Pokémon Shield succeeds because of the series’ latest gimmick, a large open area where changing weather determines which Pokémon will appear. My childhood dream was a game that combined the open world freedom of World of Warcraft with the world of Pokémon, and Shield is one step closer to making that dream a reality. Another added bonus is the game’s setting, a loving parody of modern day England. This means classic Pokémon have updated forms to fit the new region, including a Weezing that looks like industrial smokestacks and a fighting-type Farfetch’d with a leafy blade.