Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is an oldie but a goodie:
If you were Santa and you could gift everyone in the world with just one book, film, comic, TV series, album, or what-have-you from 2015, with the implicit understanding that they’d definitely read/watch/listen to it, what would you give them? In other words, what personal favorite of yours would you like to foist on to everyone else?
To paraphrase Steve Martin, if I could have just two wishes, they would be for all the kids in the world to join hands and sing in peace and harmony, followed by $30 million a month to me, tax-free, in a Swiss bank account. But failing that, I think I’d like to gift everyone in the world with their very own copy of this online debate between two bodybuilders arguing about how many days there are in a week. For most of us, a good extended laugh is one of the more treasured things we can achieve, and I probably laughed longer and harder than at any other time this year over this angry exchange between two gentlemen who simply couldn’t agree on the number of days contained in a Gregorian calendar week—or month, for that matter—and nearly came to the online equivalent of blows over their disagreement. So let me rephrase my initial wish and say that I hope all the children of the world can come together in peace and harmony over their shared appreciation of one of my all-time favorite internet arguments.
It’s been an outstanding year for dance scenes in movies. From Alison Brie’s birthday-party shimmy in Sleeping With Other People to Joe Manganiello’s gas station striptease in Magic Mike XXL (interestingly, both characters are on MDMA in said scenes), there’s been no shortage of beautiful people dancing to fun pop music in 2015. However, there’s one specific instance of cinematic rump-shaking I’d like to share with the world this holiday season, and it features one of my favorite actors in one of my favorite movies: Oscar Isaac’s choreographed routine in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. It’s an almost unsettling moment of levity just as the sci-fi indie begins unveiling its darker ambitions, but taken on its own, it’s a gleeful little bit of disco-grooving moves from one of the best actors working today. The charming and talented Isaac is about to be everywhere thanks to his role in The Force Awakens, so the short clip is a simple, timely gift that should put a smile on everyone’s face this year.
My favorite thing I wrote this year is also the one that made me cry the hardest, and I guess that’s just about a perfect summation of why Inside Out rocked my own inner world. The Pixar movie’s simple but revolutionary message—it’s okay, even necessary, to be sad sometimes—not only opened up emotional doors for children, but for the adults who took them to the movies. I wasn’t expecting much (really, anything) based on the trailers, and then the stellar reviews started trickling in. Walking out of the movie theater myself, I was a believer. Yes, the vocal work was exemplary, and the travels through various psyches like Imagination Land and the Dream Productions studio beyond imaginative, but it’s the resounding message that Sad is just as important as Joy that will stay with you. (It’s even inspiring further study of the various emotional landscapes in the inner workings of the mind.) My 2015 advice to the world: If you haven’t seen this amazing movie, remedy this oversight as quickly as possible, kids or no kids.
If L. Ron Hubbard hadn’t actually existed, Andy Daly would’ve made him up: The star of Comedy Central’s Review has built a comedic niche by playing delusional maniacs whose depravity often digs to the despicable depths set by the Battlefield Earth author turned sham religion founder. So when Daly appeared on the Paul F. Tompkins-hosted Dead Authors Podcast in the guise of L. Ron Hubbard, character and actor went together like a body thetan and an unwitting human host. The match was so ideal, the conversation between Daly’s dissembling Hubbard and Tompkins’ bewildered H.G. Wells stretched beyond Dead Authors’ usual 60-minute runtime, mutating into a double-barreled blast of outlandish proclamations (“I was the first commander of McDonald’s, by the way”) and biographical exaggerations that only slightly embellish things the real Hubbard said or believed. The Hubbard installments of Dead Authors are gifts that keep on giving, marathons of sustained comedic surprise where performers and audience are equally astonished by the fresh tangents, new insanities, and unusual occupations unearthed by Daly’s conception of Hubbard. At the end of part one, Tompkins sounds positively giddy about getting to take the whole crazy ride all over again. His enthusiasm is infectious and warranted; part two of The Dead Authors Podcast with L. Ron Hubbard is the rare sequel that outdoes its predecessor. You know, like Scientology did as the follow-up to Dianetics.
This year, I would like to give the world the gift of Noah Baumbach, which comes with not one but two A.A. Dowd-approved films—While We’re Young and Mistress America. The former was able to poke fun at millennials in an accurate and humorous way—a feat that’s often attempted but is rarely successful—as older couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) befriend younger couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) and learn what it means to be hip again. (This includes the realization that all the material items they ditched long ago—movies on VHS for example—are back in vogue.) The latter is a bit of the same, but with a flipped script that features Baumbach regular Greta Gerwig playing the older, experienced, and almost unbearably hip New Yorker Brooke to Lola Kirke’s budding college freshman Tracy. Both films contain warmth and wit balanced with quotable youth satire, while Mistress America has the added bonus of a spectacularly uplifting soundtrack from Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips.
I’m going to stay along the same lines as Erik and say every single appearance John Mulaney and Nick Kroll made as George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon. Lord, how those Oh, Hello hosts slay me. Every single time they popped up this year—from appearances on Comedy Bang! Bang! to their night at New York’s 92nd Street Y—I generally ended up crying with laughter for weeks after. Kroll Show fans will be familiar with the pairing, but it’s remarkable how the characters are so much more than just pranking (“prahnking”) tuna-lovers with a general disdain for society. Kroll and Mulaney really know these characters, and are both so in their heads and so good at improv that they’re able to make jokes out of the tiniest bits of insignificant data, and it’s so smart and so funny. In the duo’s most recent appearance on CBB, for instance, the two talk about how they’re not really on social media, though, as Mulaney’s St. Geegland notes, his first wife’s family holds the Twitter handle @JusticeForDiane. It’s that kind of morbid absurdity that I eat right up, and—Alan Alda willing—I hope to be able to consume for years to come. (And for the record, yes, I’m fucking furious I didn’t get to see the pair’s off-Broadway New York show.)
When forcing a gift on the planet, the key is to maximize delight while also choosing something people might resist checking out on their own. To that end, please enjoy this mandatory gift of The Adventure Zone, Justin, Clint, Travis, and Griffin McElroy’s brilliantly funny podcast about hanging out and making jokes with each other while Dungeons & Dragons happens in the background. It’s not just that the McElroy brothers—whose My Brother, My Brother, And Me you can consider a secondary enforced stocking stuffer if you aren’t already listening—and their dad (Clint) are funny, charming dudes; they’re also great storytellers. That goes double for DM Griffin, who’s put together a surprisingly rich world for his brothers and dad to bumble around in. The only podcast that I’m actively angry doesn’t come out more often, The Adventure Zone contains all the best aspects of tabletop gaming—laughing with your friends, telling dumb jokes, getting up to surprisingly epic shenanigans involving spectral horses and rocket-powered sleds—while minimizing the parts where people sit around arguing about dice.
You’ve been good this year, world, and that’s why I’m giving you something you’re probably already aware of but haven’t yet realized its inherent greatness: Carly Rae Jepson’s outstanding Emotion. I’m guessing there’s a subsection of you that ignored/overlooked this masterpiece due to its overly saccharine lead single, “I Really Like You,” but I assure you that’s just a classic example of a pop album’s single being the worst representation of its sonic trajectory. From the distant saxophone wails that kick off album opener (and best song of 2015), “Run Away With Me,” to mid-album earworm “Boy Problems,” a track co-written with Sia, to the closing paean to self-actualization, “When I Needed You,” Emotion is pop perfection. And all this coming from a version of Santa whose second favorite album of the year was Deafheaven’s New Bermuda.
If I could bequeath but a single gift upon every man, woman, and child in the entire universe, it would be the podcast The Flop House. Granted, I am uniquely primed to enjoy a podcast about terrible movies hosted by professional wisenheimers, seeing as I have a more than casual interest in the topic. But no pop-culture entity proves as consistently hilarious or as filled with cantankerous joy as this glorious excavation of the worst of film from The Daily Show writer Dan McCoy, former Daily Show head writer Elliott Kalan, and the eminently delightful Stuart Wellington, and I am a man who loves comedy podcasts. I would love if it were a weekly endeavor instead of a twice-monthly treat, so if I might give myself a gift while I’m gifting this podcast to the universe, it would be to wish a weekly Flop House into being.
I’m willing to concede that I was predisposed to like it because I spent the second half of my teens seeing way too much of myself in one of his most famous film roles, but I’d give the world a copy of Jon Cryer’s So That Happened: A Memoir. The world at large was introduced to the book via a sneak preview of the somewhat salacious material about Cryer’s friendship and working relationship with Charlie Sheen. It’s hard to argue with that decision, given how many copies it probably helped sell, but the Sheen stuff really only occupies a small percentage of the book. So That Happened allows Cryer to cover, in detail, his entire career—both the peaks and the valleys—and also offers a look into his personal life. It’s often self-deprecating, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen or read an interview with Cryer over the years, but in addition to the inevitable laughs, there are also serious moments that Cryer delivers just as successfully. Unfortunately, a lot of people who’d probably enjoy the book haven’t given it a shot because they’re not fans of Two And A Half Men or Pretty In Pink or whatever.
This one is easy for me: Everyone’s getting the soundtrack for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Not only are the music and performances great and the story compelling, Miranda’s concept of the American Revolution as a story ideally told via hip-hop and rap, and featuring a cast of persons of color, is the kind of groundbreaking idea that seems obvious the moment you hear it. The challenge is getting people to sit down and actually listen to the show. Yes, it’s a hit on Broadway and with theater lovers, but it’s made much less headway with people outside those circles. Hamilton works best as long-form entertainment, rather than as individual, excerpted songs, which can make the time commitment seem like too much for some. For others, the notion of getting Broadway in their hip-hop, or vice versa, is not the delectable chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter enticement it is to converts like me. Hamilton is a masterful achievement, a moving, entertaining, and memorable addition to the stage that deserves to break through and live a long and healthy life, and if I can help with that by forcing the world to set aside time to give it a fair shake, I’m happy to do so.
While my first instinct is to commit an act of shameless self-promotion and say that everyone should buy a copy of Slappy’s Revenge—the Goosebumps book I wrote for Scholastic this year—heaven forfend I should stoop so low. So instead, I’d rather benevolently stuff Signal To Noise down the world’s throats during this holiday season. The debut novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal To Noise takes place primarily in 1988 in Mexico City, where 15-year-old Meche is a troubled, mixtape-obsessed girl who stumbles across a way to conjure magic through the ritual of playing records on turntables. It’s a vivid, poignant, understated take on urban fantasy, and the setting teems with texture and life. But it’s also a family drama, one whose tragic overtones are heightened by the supernatural elements in play throughout the story. It’s one of my favorite novels of the year, and one that doesn’t necessarily take a genre geek like myself to appreciate. (Oh, and the retro cover is just awesome.)
While I know plenty of people who would find “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” 2015’s best holiday gift, we’re shopping for everyone here, and I’m not sure I want to give Mom the gift of Paul Giamatti banging a dildo on the table, no matter how on point the movie reference or satirical message. But if there’s one thing absolutely everyone on your shopping list can enjoy, it’s great actors spouting terrific dialogue as tension mounts all around them. Nowhere in 2015 does that come in a better package than the second season of Fargo, where Bokeem Woodbine’s chatty hitman, Kirsten Dunst’s “a little touched” hairdresser, Ted Danson’s folksy sheriff, and Jesse Plemons’ in-over-his-head butcher manage the impossible task of living up to the Coen brothers’ legacy on a weekly basis. And while to an avid A.V. Club reader this may seem like a gift everyone already has, Fargo only gets about 2.5 million viewers (by comparison, Danson’s other crime show had 10 times that at its peak), and it’s a show that deserves roughly the same viewership as the moon.
Since I’ve been listening to The Read, Kid Fury and Crissle have skipped one show, and I was actually upset with them, as if it were a personal affront. I love everything about The Read, from Kid Fury’s heavy sighs that lead into caustic, wonderful burns, to Crissle going from zero to 60 on a well-argued rant you never saw coming. But my favorite thing is the hypothetical lives Kid Fury and Crissle make up for celebrity children. Everyone should experience the joy of listening to Kid Fury-as-Blue Ivy Carter demand that Beyoncé’s backup dancers get their shit together, or North West act more maturely than her parents, or Louis Bullock coolly ask mom Sandra for a baby sister. It never fails to make me laugh, and I can’t convey it as well as Kid Fury and Crissle can, so I hope everyone gets to hear it so that they can laugh right along with me.
I was immensely disappointed that the absolutely batshit crazy film Jupiter Ascending barely made a blip on the cinematic radar this year. So I’m going to make sure that everyone gets to experience the glorious, disastrous wonder that is the Wachowskis’ latest attempt to launch another sci-fi franchise. It’s truly impossible to fully anticipate the weirdness in store: Channing Tatum plays a human-wolf hybrid who skates over Chicago on jet boots. Mila Kunis is a secret space princess who spends the entire film being dressed up in gorgeous gowns and falling off tall buildings. In one scene, she gets talked into marrying a man who is the son of her genetic doppelgänger. In another, she uses a maxi pad to patch up Tatum’s injuries. Oh, and did I mention that Sean Bean plays a half-human, half-bee named—wait for it—Stinger? You also get to watch Eddie Redmayne follow up his Oscar-winning turn in The Theory Of Everything with one of the most miscalculated performances ever captured on film. Plus, figuring out how a movie this insane is also kind of boring becomes its own compelling exercise. Basically, terms like “good” and “bad” don’t really apply to Jupiter Ascending, and I think that’s the kind of cinematic experience everyone deserves to share this holiday season.
I don’t have a single specific 2015 movie I want to foist on the world, so I’ll break my preference for movies over TV and give everyone “LCD Soundsystem.” Not the band (overrated!) but the standout episode of You’re The Worst, which I myself only got into this year. I had seen some other episodes before this one, but “LCD Soundsystem” was the one that really sold me and hooked me on the show—although I’m not even attempting to use it as a gateway gift, hoping to convert fans. It might happen anyway (and rightfully so), but I want to give everyone “LCD Soundsystem,” in which Gretchen (Aya Cash) deals with her latest bout of clinical depression by peering into the more domesticated lives of a couple she doesn’t know, specifically because it doesn’t necessarily require background knowledge of the show to enjoy it. It’s more resonant with the characters’ backgrounds, but it also works beautifully as a stand-alone episode of television—something I’d love to see more of, as opposed to the ultra-serialized, 13-hour-movie model. So it’s still a selfish gift; I’m trying to convert more people to my good-TV-can-be-episodic cause.
While I am extremely tempted to bestow the music video for Hakeem Lyon’s inspired “Drip Drop” upon the entire world, I will spare the few innocent souls who aren’t regularly haunted by Empire’s greatest song to date. Instead, I’d like to keep gifting UnREAL’s first season to the world. I’ve seen the first season five times now, rewatching it over and over as I convince friends and family to watch with me. I’m thoroughly unconvinced that enough people watch this wonderful show, given the fact that every time I ramble about Quinn and Rachel (often), people still think I’m talking about Glee. And if thrusting an entire season upon people is too much (come on, there are only 10 episodes, and only one is a real misstep, but the show bounces back immediately), then I’ll settle for everyone just watching the scene where Quinn is grabbing Rachel’s face while explaining to her that her whole life is a wreck. It’s quintessential UnREAL.
While the logistics would be a pain in the ass, I’d love to give everyone a chance to play Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker for the Wii U. A level designer that allows players to build their own Mario levels, as well as play the levels others have designed, it’s the sort of game-toy that the company excels at making: something that’s playful and easy enough to grasp, while still offering a surprising (if sometimes frustratingly limited) amount of depth. While most of us (myself included) may not get much further than sticking a few goombas on a screen and realizing this is a lot harder than it looks, the simple feeling of having all those tools to play with is intoxicating in and of itself, and the ability to play other fan-made levels offers a great chance to see Mario in ways he was probably never meant to be seen (including trapped in a room with dozens of giant enemies, because some creators are insane sadists). It’s the sense of the possibility that really makes this worth trying, even if that possibility doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to; it reminds you that in the wake of all the nonsense that’s surrounded the medium over the past few years, video games are still more than capable of being fun.
Happy holidays! You’re all getting a copy of Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s loud, satirical, musical melodrama based on Lysistrata and fortified with the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and others. The main story follows a Chicago gang leader’s girlfriend (Teyonah Parris) leading a sex strike until the men on both sides lay down their arms, but it’s a wild ride, complete with dance numbers, a sermon, and narration interludes courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes, all told in rhyming couplets. That’s what got me first. It’s an exciting movie. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That’s because it’s also a tasteless one. In another context, the pair of after-school special scenes would bore, but they’re right at home in Lee’s earnest cri de coeur. It’s so utopian (in some ways myopic) that it doesn’t just dramatize the problem. “This is what a solution looks like,” Dolmedes says at the end. He’s referring to a photo op, but the point of the scene is to take personal responsibility. Not that it’s the only way to spread peace, or even a just one—individual nonviolence risks a lot in the face of an armed group—but it’s meaningful on a personal level and powerful en masse. Not everyone will like it, but too many negative reviews are knocking Chi-Raq for everything that makes it stand out. Don’t let that stop you. Just maybe wait to show your kids until they’re older.