FemFreq Fave Five: Carolyn’s Picks for 2016

The books, films, games and television shows that spoke to me most in 2016 are linked by questions of identity: who we are in isolation and who we are in connection, how society pressures some of us to conceal our truest selves, and how brave and radical an act it can be for some of us to challenge those cultural expectations and reveal our true selves to each other. Here, in no particular order, are the works that I’ll cherish most:

1. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

In this astonishing book, writer Olivia Laing unexpectedly finds herself both alone and lonely in New York City, and embarks on an exploration of the nature of loneliness and the toll it can take on us. This exploration leads her to consider the works of artists who were themselves deeply concerned with (or were products of) urban isolation; she dives deeply into their lives and their creations to see what meaning or value, if any, we can find in the experience of loneliness.

As someone who knows very well the ways in which cities can isolate us as well as connect us, the entire book was extraordinary to me, but I was especially intrigued by the sections about David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist whose work directly confronted the cultural violence of the Reagan administration’s deadly silence and inaction during the early days of the AIDS crisis, and the experience of being part of a shunned, shamed, and ignored community. Both Wojnarowicz’s work and Laing’s book as a whole are powerful reminders that loneliness and isolation aren’t just individual issues, but often systemic cultural ones as well.

2. The Americans, Season Four

2016 was a banner year for shows set in the 1980s, with Netflix’s Stranger Things feeling like a Spielbergian childhood dream and AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire having its strongest season yet as Donna and Cameron finally got the level of prominence that they deserve. (Read our review of this season of Halt.) But it was the fourth season of the FX drama The Americans that I loved most.

The Americans is a spy show, but when it’s at its best, it’s not really a show about all the spy business, as much as it’s about the lives of its characters and the intense emotional and psychological complications that come with the work they do. The villains on the show usually aren’t people, but rather the systems in which the characters find themselves, systems which force those characters to live without integrity, to compromise or destroy parts of themselves, to isolate themselves and deceive others. In its fourth season, the show made the lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) the stuff of almost-uncomfortable suspense, while simultaneously being that rare portrait of a couple who actually deeply trust each other and rely on each other, despite the difficulties that sometimes arise between them.

As their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) tells Philip at one point, “Not everyone’s as lucky as you two,” and it’s true; the imperfect trust, closeness and devotion they share contrast sharply with the fear and solitude that overshadow the lives of other characters. In season four, some characters are deeply damaged by loneliness; others risk everything for love and connection, and pay a terrible price. While The Lonely City was the best and most fascinating nonfiction exploration of loneliness I’ve ever read, season four of The Americans ranks as one of the best fictional explorations of the theme in the history of television.

3. Quadrilateral Cowboy

Blendo Games’ previous release, Thirty Flights of Loving, was a bold narrative punch to the gut, an exhilarating snapshot of three master criminals whose alliance falls apart in a storm of betrayal and violence. Quadrilateral Cowboy also concerns a trio of skilled colleagues engaged in an enterprise of dubious legality, but that’s where the similarities end. Where Thirty Flights is a rapid-fire game of bonds splintering and trust being broken, Quadrilateral Cowboy takes its time to give us an experience of connections that endure.

The puzzly, gadgety heists you plot are often terrifically enjoyable, but it’s the moments in-between jobs that give the game its soul; mundane moments like picking up a coworker to carpool to the workshop in the morning, as well as playful moments like a game of badminton on the roof during a few stolen minutes while the sun is setting. The sorts of moments that bind us, and that, if we’re lucky, ultimately add up to something resembling a life.

4. Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV

Thank goodness for Kentucky Route Zero. It is not an overstatement for me to say that I am legitimately grateful for this episodic game at this particular moment in time. As racism, misogyny, belligerence and fascism have claimed a political victory, Kentucky Route Zero reminds me of the America that I love. It’s a game just overflowing with humanity and with compassion for its characters, characters who are struggling with debt, with displacement, with corporations that are wiping out their livelihoods and leaving them lost. While so many games show people being driven apart in times of strife, here is a game in which people come together to share the burden and make each other’s journey just a little bit easier. Act IV is the series’ most gentle, and most heartbreaking, entry yet.

5. Moonlight

I can’t stop thinking about Barry Jenkins’ hauntingly beautiful film Moonlight. The imagery and cinematography remain alive in my mind, so vibrant and immediate that I can almost feel the breeze blowing in from the Miami coastline. And the film’s depiction of the life of its central character, Chiron, is so incisive that I feel I know him as I know few other film characters; I see how he is so trapped by cultural expectations around black masculinity, how he learns that he needs to be so guarded, to perform so much in order to protect himself, yet he yearns so deeply, as any of us would, for a genuine connection.

Moonlight is so intimate that you feel deeply connected to the individual life of Chiron, but by illuminating this character’s life with such precision, it also speaks about larger systems that leave so many of us feeling trapped, systems that some of us liberate ourselves from and some of us can’t. The film understands how the world renders some people painfully invisible, and how, as Brian Tallerico writes in his review of the film, “it is human connection that forms us, that changes our trajectory and makes us who we are.”

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