14 movies, TV episodes, songs and more that mattered in 2016
The year's end is a time for offering up takes. Which movie was the best of the year? Which artists crafted the best bops? Which TV episodes will stand the test of time? Yes, it's best-of list season, and the lists are plentiful.
As we did last year, however, we're interested in the personal passions. What moment on TV meant the most to someone this year? Which YouTube video kept us up late more than a few nights watching over and over again? Which farewell albums gave us every feeling in the book?
This list is a compilation of what mattered to a handful of Mic staffers in 2016. Take this not as a "best-of" list in the traditional sense; for many of these staffers, their choice is not what they thought was the ultimate in a particular field, but what resonated with them most. When we look back at 2016, these are the pop cultural events, performances and works we'll think about most.
(Editor's note: Spoilers will follow for the works and performances discussed.)
American Psycho the Musical
The musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' satire American Psycho is set in New York City circa 1987, yet in many ways, it felt like the Broadway musical of the future. Everything about it was unconventional — and everything about it was brilliant.
Patrick Bateman's overt narcissism has never been more relevant than in the social media age; in fact, the entire cast would fit in with the Rich Kids of Instagram set. A kaleidoscope for the senses, the production featured EDM beats by Duncan Sheik, nightclub-style lighting and a visual buffet of constant carnage and chiseled abs.
Ultimately it feels right that this short run was commemorated by a titillating photo shoot rather than an official Broadway cast recording. Yet I can't wait for a revival. Rest in peace, American Psycho. — Alaina Henry
In its debut season, FX's Atlanta firmly established itself as the homemade, singular vision of its creator/star Donald Glover. Through its audacious storytelling, comedic gags with spectacular viral potential, cultural commentary and troupe of oddball characters, Atlanta delivered a lived-in portrait of black life in the South with true intimacy.
In the series' seventh episode, "B.A.N.," Atlanta flexes its muscle. The bottle episode finds its principal character, dealer-turned-rapper Paper Boi, as a guest on the talk show Montague on the hilariously named Black American Network. Surrounding this central showdown are commercial parodies critiquing police brutality and racialized marketing techniques, plus a news segment profiling a "trans-racial" black man who self-identifies as a middle-aged white guy named Harrison.
"B.A.N." is a brilliant half-hour of television, one that recalls the legacy of Chappelle's Show. It showcases the rich world-building and originality that makes Atlanta one of the best new arrivals of 2016. – Taylor Jones
Bates Motel's season four finale
Bates Motel delivered a memorable season four finale with a plot line that didn't come as a surprise to any Psycho fans. Yes, we all knew that Norma Bates was going to die. However, the A&E prequel series still managed to make it an emotional ordeal thanks to the addition of Nestor Carbonell's Sheriff Romero.
Viewers felt the same pain as Romero as he failed to resuscitate his estranged wife. But that pain quickly turned into a desire for revenge, which is what's going to drive the show in its fifth and final season. I can't wait to see how dark Romero goes as Norman continues his downward spiral. — Amanda Buckle
Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande's first album, Yours Truly, was a pure exercise in vocal prowess. Her second album, My Everything, transformed Grande into an undeniable pop force. But only on Grande's third record, Dangerous Woman, has she been able to successfully blend the two and push the limits of her own artistry.
The era saw Grande drop her come-hither coyness and transition into bunny-mask-wearing dominatrix without sacrificing the whistle tones and key changes that we've come to love her for. Grande furthered the Mariah Carey-fication of her career by blending R&B stylings, rapper cameos and vocal flirtation into the year's best pop album. On songs like "Be Alright," "Side to Side" and "Into You" Grande announces that she came to slay, regardless of genre. – Mathew Rodriguez
The farewell album, from Blackstar to You Want it Darker
By the end of 2016, tragedy felt commonplace. The amount of musical talent that quit our planet's surface this year was mind-numbing — David Bowie, Phife Dawg, Prince, Maurice White, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen — all irreplaceable voices who stayed creating until nearly their last breath. Yet, this year also introduced listeners to a new means of processing grief: the farewell album.
No releases felt more urgent, in every sense of the word, than Bowie's necromantic Blackstar, Cohen's prayerful searching of You Want It Darker or the political warning of A Tribe Called Quest's We've Got It From Here... Thank You for Your Service. They served as exclamation point endings on life stories already impeccably written, recontextualizing moments of great tragedy into opportunities to teach and comfort. They helped death feel less horrific and more of a passing inevitability in a year we needed to feel that truth.
Hopefully every artist from 2017 on is afforded a similar degree of foresight, so they can say goodbye on their own terms. – Tom Barnes
There's plenty of pop culture in 2016 that will be intrinsically linked to Donald Trump, whether intentional or not; good or bad. But the best film of the year, The Handmaiden, doesn't allude itself to any Trumpian comparisons. It's just a damn good, utterly compelling pseudo-romance-heist-thriller, complete with — we shit you not — tentacle porn.
To say much more than that would spoil the experience, but The Handmaiden's core cast: A widow with a large inheritance, her lecherous uncle who wants to marry her and claim her fortune, a con-man who's doing the same, and his accomplice, the widow's newest handmaiden, comes with plenty of twists and perverse indulgence. Forget the horrors of 2016, and get lost in the entertaining chaos of 1930s, Japanese-occupied Korea. – Miles Surrey
Holy Ghost, Modern Baseball
New York City kicked my ass from the start. Between a break-up and bed bugs and a (slightly) broken ankle, I played Modern Baseball's Holy Ghost on repeat. The album dropped the same May weekend I moved into my Brooklyn apartment, lending familiarity when I mostly felt unsettled or depressed.
The Philadelphia-based band's third LP showcases the unbridled, honest lyricism that's become a MoBo hallmark. Holy Ghost tackles deeply emotional experiences, such as grief after the death of a grandparent and mental illness and substance abuse that nearly led to suicide, with droning vocals and catchy instrumentals. But through its 28-minute ride, it never gives up hope.
Seven months post-release and post-move in — almost to the day — Modern Baseball headlined a sold-out fest at Webster Hall. I felt at peace hearing Holy Ghost live. It was a stark contrast to the feelings that had enveloped me when I first put the record on, after unpacking a car-load of cardboard boxes. I haven't given up hope. — Ali Killian
Legally Blonde the Musical: Junior Edition, a metaphor for 2016
There's nothing quite as compelling as a train wreck. No matter how much great art I consume, I'm fondly drawn to those works that fail spectacularly and loudly — Collateral Beauty, for instance, or Tiffany Pollard on Celebrity Big Brother.
Few things this year delighted me as much as a preview for a 2012 Vancouver youth production of Legally Blonde the Musical. The clip, featuring the young ensemble performing the opening song "Omigod You Guys." surfaced on Twitter in musical theater-loving communities in 2016. It became something of a cult favorite — not for its quality, but for its brazenly poor production value (why does the dress at four minutes in keep changing colors?) and awkward young performers. I've watched it upwards of 50 times.
Theater kids remember what it's like to be off-key and off your mark; it's why this video is so endearing. Consider the shop manager at 4:40. Her performance is all wrong, but she is putting every inch of her heart into it. "Courtney, take your break!" she shouts with delirious enthusiasm. She twirls her arms with equal parts passion and lack of direction.
If this video is 2016 — a train wreck that starts disastrous and only gets worse — that girl is all of us, just putting our best foot forward no matter how futile our attempts may be. She's an inspiration, and after a year as deeply terrible as this one, I need all the inspiration I can get. — Kevin O'Keeffe
At the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, #OscarsSoWhite and even #GayMediaSoWhite is a call for black life and the black experienced to be validated and reflected in American culture. Moonlight answered that call, delivering the year's finest film at the same time.
Structured as a triptych in the life of main character Chiron, the film is a quiet and searing reflection on the dangers that impair young black men from flourishing: poverty, toxic masculinity, anti-blackness, homophobia, etc. It's also a reminder of what happens when queer black people are denied the intimacy that has always saved lives in the face of great adversity. – Mathew Rodriguez
Nick Viall's Bachelor redemption tour
The award for creepiest Bachelorette contestant long rested with Nick Viall, the two-time runner up who publicly asked Andi Dorfman why she "made love to" him if she didn't love him.
But after watching Viall's redemption tour on Bachelor in Paradise — where he appeared mature compared to the show's, um, less respectable contestants — I was, to my surprise, delighted by his appointment as ABC's next Bachelor. I never thought I'd say it about Nick "Creepy" Viall, man of a thousand scarves and seemingly even more siblings. Yet I'm excited to watch his journey to find love — or, at least, a superficial reality TV relationship that crashes and burns two weeks after shooting wraps. — Jordyn Taylor
The very first scene of Other People actually takes place at the end of the story's timeline, so there's never any question about how it will end: The main character's mom, Joanne, will die of cancer.
This inevitability gives Other People the freedom to be much funnier than it might otherwise have a right to be — due in no small part to writer/director Chris Kelly of Saturday Night Live and Broad City. Yet it also makes the slow deterioration of Joanne's health so much more devastating to witness. You know it's not going to get better.
Molly Shannon, who plays Joanne, delivers one of my favorite performances of the year. Her character has the magnetism and theatricality of a cool aunt, but she's sensitive enough to know what her kids are thinking before they do. There's never any question that she's the anchor of the household, so watching her acknowledge she'll have to abdicate the throne at some point was enough to make me ugly cry no less than three times throughout the course of the movie. — Tim Mulkerin
Puberty 2, Mitski
During the week of the election, it felt like the walls were closing in, that empathy for people who need it the most had gone out the window, that the world had turned cold. But then I remembered: Mitski. She gets it.
Singer-songwriter Mitski released her sophomore album Puberty 2 in June to much critical acclaim. It reduced many of us to teenage versions of ourselves, accessing old heartbreak and some nostalgia blurring the genres of Fiona Apple and Weezer in a way that exposes our vulnerability, some voice screaming inside wanting to be heard.
This is how I came to revisit the album in early November — in particular the heart-wrenching single "Your Best American Girl," a song that speaks not only to Mitski's cross-cultural experience as a Japanese-American, but also to anyone who's felt alienated by their upbringing or circumstances — which made it perfect to listen to on repeat post-election night. In addition to her soothing vocals, Mitski's helped keep me sane with her thoughtful tweets. "I used to rebel by destroying myself, but realized that's awfully convenient to the world," she tweeted on Dec. 2. "For some of us, our best revolt is self-preservation." – Ingrid Ostby
"Slumber Party," Britney Spears featuring Tinashe
What could have been a better gift 10 days after the election than Britney Spears' music video for "Slumber Party"? The video — visually grabbing without being affected, full of girl power — was pure escapism. Much like Harry Potter, my generation has grown up with Spears' career — but despite her constant reinventions, she's retained a comfortable familiarity, like a favorite childhood dinner.
Her voice never strays from its seductive, auto-tuned cadence. It's an average voice, but that doesn't matter. Britney doesn't want to be anyone besides Britney. Here she is throwing off her fur coat, ascending through stairs of a mansion in a red dress looking just as sexy (sexier, even) as in the videos of her early career. The song is catchy, but it's Britney's phoenix-like rebirth that stays with you. – Andrew Mitchell
"Ultralight Beam," Kanye West
I came to New York City on a whim. I had no job with only $35 to my name. A few months in, I headed home from a not-so-great media job interview in the Financial District. I wiped the tears off my cheek. I isolated myself from the world with my music in my ears.
I felt disillusioned with myself. I was at my low-point and I was ready to give up on my lifelong dream of becoming a journalist. I wanted to pray and ask God for help, but I haven't prayed for a long time. I didn't think I deserved His love.
Then "Ultralight Beam" started playing. At this point, I noticed I missed my subway stop and somehow ended up in Queens. As I exited out of the station, I walked up the dirty and dark staircase. In big bold lettering, a billboard sign greeted me with one message: "Don't Panic."
But it was Kirk Franklin's words that really spoke to me at that moment:
Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they're not good enough
I prayed for the first time in years that night. Several weeks later, I got my first full-time reporting job. Life has been rewarding ever since. Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam" gave me back something I never knew I was missing: faith in God, but also faith in myself. – Sarah Harvard