Read Watch Listen 2018
It’s a struggle for me to narrow down my list of favorites because I can always find something to appreciate, and I recognize the subjectivity of taste. I liked almost everything I read, watched and listened to this year but I chose to only write about the ones that affected me most. It’s been the best year of reading I’ve had in awhile (thanks to Austin Kleon’s tips for reading more), a solid year for movies (though I’m desperate to scratch my science fiction itch), and the best year of live music I’ve ever had (I need a new concert bucket list now). Not bad, 2018.
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
My first read of the year, Good Morning, Midnight strikes the exact tone I look for in the books and movies I consume. It’s a sparse, meditative science fiction story brimming with gentle and poignant emotions about the end of one’s life and the uncertain beginnings of love.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation is by far the most astonishing book I read this year. It’s categorized as science fiction, with four female specialists exploring the mysterious “Area X”, but it reads more like an ominous ancient prophecy. The imagery is highly original and frankly terrifying. I couldn’t stop reading.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I’m so grateful for this book and highly recommend it for anyone curious about the Black Lives Matter movement. The Hate U Give cleverly introduced me to the nuanced experiences and tensions of the black community, as well as what it’s like as a black person to move within white spaces. I know I will never fully understand, but this story at least gave me a framework. While the subject matter is heavy, the protagonist and her family warmed my heart and made me laugh a lot!
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
John Green’s stories are always brave but this one is especially personal because, like his protagonist, he is diagnosed with OCD. The first person storytelling gives brutal insight into the intrusive thought patterns that can become so crippling. It reminded me of Patrick Ness’ OCD character in The Rest of Us Just Live Here, too. I love both of these stories because they speak healing words of affirmation to console the familiar fear of being a burden to your friends.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
The title of this poetry collection sent a static shock straight through me. I knew I had to read it. I’ve been on the search for Southeast Asian poets as a way of rediscovering my childhood corner of the world, so learning that the writer was Vietnamese-American was an added bonus. All year long, I’ve been returning to his poem, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”, and crying every time.
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
I started reading through the late Siobhan Dowd’s books last year, and I think I’ve found my favorite of her work. I’m still uncovering all that Bog Child means to me but I believe it comes down to the strange comfort of knowing that every young person is born into troubling times, whether it’s 1980s Northern Ireland or the 2010s. I grapple with the same tension the protagonist experiences, between putting my head down to do what’s expected of me and wondering if there’s something I could possibly do to change the world’s direction. The book ends in relief: that time moves on, history moves forward and I have my whole life ahead of me to see that change.
And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
Patrick Ness’ release this year is a return to his lyrical, illustrated style that I first encountered in A Monster Calls. He described the seed of the story as “Moby Dick from the whale’s perspective” and delivers a harsh but ultimately hopeful parable about the pointless pursuit of war. His haunting words are complemented perfectly by the dark, gauzy art of Rovina Cai.
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
If you’re disheartened by the Fantastic Beasts film series and worried J.K. Rowling might have lost her touch, you need to jump to her thriving detective fiction series under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Her brilliant pairing of protagonists drives the series, with a delicate tension simmering between the Mad-Eye Moody-esque private detective and his street-smart, web-savvy junior partner. Each case benefits from her precise explorations of London’s subtle hierarchies and subcultures, and her signature setups and complex storytelling serve her especially well in the mystery genre. She dropped a massive reveal in her third book and after a long wait (she joked that her fourth books are always the thickest), she has raised the bar again. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi
This one caught me by surprise and was probably the most fun I had reading this year! It’s an endearing college-age romance that takes place primarily over text message. Set in my city of Austin, I found it hilariously perceptive, from the ubiquitous Texas film bro love interest to the powerful crush washing over the witty, anxiety-ridden Asian American protagonist. I love! <3 (Side note: I found out later that Mary H.K. Choi is the author of the New York Times article on the social media lives of teenagers that I found so fascinating a few years ago!)
There There by Tommy Orange
I friend of mine randomly handed me this book after church one day, and I’m so glad he did. Tommy Orange’s potent debut novel is about Native Americans living in urban areas like Oakland - in cities built on their ancestors’ land from long ago - and the complicated and tenuous relationship they have with their cultural heritage. I had to put this book down more than once, to breathe and cry and let his affecting words sink in for a moment.
Dune by Frank Herbert
I’m not one for dense tomes touted by pretentious fanboys (sorry) but with one of my favorite directors helming the upcoming adaptation, I finally felt compelled to read the sci-fi classic, Dune. I found it surprisingly digestible, although it fatigued me several times and I still have a few chapters left. I appreciate the theme of female diplomacy and emotional intelligence as a superpower, and the commentary on the dangers of underestimating an indigenous people with the secrets to survive their harsh desert planet. I look forward to Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of this fascinating world and its characters. I know it will be beautiful and full of emotion.
I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction, but I’ve read a few this year that I’ve loved. So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo is a challenging but perfect primer for approaching the topic of racism. I read Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey over several months with a friend of mine, and it helped me come to terms with my complicated relationship with my faith, the church and God himself. My study of the enneagram continues to surprise me, and The Sacred Enneagram by Chris Heuertz gave me several major aha moments as it took me deeper into the subject. Finally, I loved having an artistic spiritual companion this year in the illustrated devotional, Prayer: Forty Days of Practice by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson.
COmics & Chapbooks
I had the pleasure of reading a smattering of poetry chapbooks courtesy of my subscription to Rattle (the only poetry magazine I read). I also caught up on the celebrated comic, Saga, and started the writer’s other series about time-traveling middle school girls, Paper Girls.
Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s story made some significant departures from the book but nailed its ancient dreamlike dread and even refined its themes. Annihilation felt like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from, nor could I tear my gaze away from the terrifying, mesmerizing, unworldly visual effects. Casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as the deeply unsettling psychologist was an act of brilliance. This is by far my favorite science fiction film of 2018.
Minding the Gap
I’ve never been much of a documentary person, but Minding the Gap converted me this year. It’s a tender and at times painful journey into the young lives and uncertain futures of the director’s childhood skater friends. I’m convinced that filmmakers who interview their parents about childhood wounds are the most courageous people alive. Director Bing Liu is one of them.
While I don’t like the ending, First Reformed is the most honest representation of faith I’ve seen in a long time. I relate to the protagonist’s cosmic anxiety, and the anger and cynicism he experiences when the church dismisses his convictions. I’m personally disturbed at the evangelical church’s apparent lack of concern for the environment despite the scientific consensus on climate change. The view is bleak but I found this story incredibly validating. You can read my full review here.
It’s been awhile since a movie has had me on the edge of my seat like Searching did. This thriller is unique because it takes place exclusively on screens, launching an investigation across email, text messages, obscure social media sites and even the payment app, Venmo. It’s also encouraging to see a genre movie quietly featuring an Asian American family and #StarringJohnCho.
Crazy Rich Asians
I wasn’t a huge fan of the book (much too cynical for my taste), so I was relieved when the highly-anticipated adaptation opted for a more heartwarming tone. Crazy Rich Asians has all the elements of a classic romantic comedy, from the “meet the parents” plot and hyper best friend (played by rapper Awkwafina) to Rachel Chu’s dejected Cinderella moment with gauzy gown trailing and shoes in hand, and its own twist on the “grand gesture” airport scene as Nick Young politely fights his way down the aisle of economy class. The wedding scene was pure magic and brought tears to my eyes, recreating the moment in every ceremony where I ponder the sweetness of love and sacredness of marriage. Beyond being a delightful romantic comedy, the movie was a win for Asian American representation with a glamorous cast and talented crew. Finally, I will always be indebted to this movie for introducing me to the precious leading man, Henry Golding.
Nothing has my respect quite like filmmakers who choose to portray the lives of marginalized people - not to judge or evoke pity but as an affirmation of human dignity. In that way, Shoplifters reminds me of films like Moonlight and The Florida Project. In each of those stories, we see with clarity and complexity the challenges facing people who are deemed troublesome and undesirable by the rest of society. We have yet to disentangle the false correlation between morality and socioeconomic status. The beauty of this film is seeing the full spectrum of their lives: their bitterness and love, their deception and words of healing, their selfishness and their sacrifices. We need more movies like this until it finally sinks in that the poor are just as valuable and contradictory as the rest of us.
I’ve always found the mysterious expanse of space to be a rich canvas for exploring faith and fear and wonder and love. I can't wait to watch Clara again, because sci-fi romance truly is my favorite genre - a marriage (ha) of the intimate and the cosmic. It's through the protagonists’ interactions that we explore the key theme of the film: the tension between cold objectivity (which sometimes masks hopelessness) and spiritual intuition (often dismissed outright). Since watching this, I've teared up a few times thinking about the pain of wanting to believe but past hurt pushing us to pessimism. Themes and gushy stuff aside, I also enjoyed the film’s focus on the tedious process of sifting through data to detect habitable planets that might just be home to intelligent life.
Critics have been raving about Lee Chang-dong’s psychological drama ever since its premiere at Cannes Film Festival in the spring. The film is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami and brought to life by the acclaimed Yoo Ah‑in, the mesmerizing Jeon Jong‑seo, and a particularly unsettling performance from Steven Yeun. Burning is rich in subtext and marked by delicious ambiguity, so it’s one of those films that deepens through discussion. I found Steven Yeun’s conversation on the Dave Chang show particularly illuminating.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man will forever be my favorite superhero so I’m usually up for any iteration (I grew up with Tobey, yes, but all Spideys are Good™). But Into the Spider-Verse is in a league all its own. Beyond the exciting storytelling and moving character development, the animation was a real treat for my eyeballs. Critics and audiences alike are already calling it the first of its kind and (hopefully) a new standard for comic book superhero movies. It’s so good I need it on Blu-ray immediately. The intricacy and depth of the story and the stunning visuals certainly demand multiple viewings. I could see this entering my essential collection. Welcome to the family, Miles.
Roma drew me in completely, from the first image of sudsy water washing across tile (holding me there until I fully relaxed my mind and body) to the final image of a young woman ascending stairs into a soft white sky. Roma is a quiet, domestic film punctured by painful tragedy and cold cruelty in uncertain times. It brought to mind the anxiety I had reading Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith, a similar story of young, naive people I felt helpless to protect. Like the protagonist, Cleo, I try my best to brush off the bad omens but hope is hard when the worst comes to pass. I thank God for this film, because the scene on the beach reminds me of all the subtle nudges of grace in my life which, looking back, were the moments when the tides began to turn. I left the theater knowing I had just seen my favorite movie of the year. Watch Roma, friends, and remember the power of tenderness, for “perfect love casts out fear”.
Here’s a list of a few more movies I enjoyed this year (or at least appreciated). I have a few scattered thoughts on some of these up on Letterboxd.
Rom-Coms: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Set It Up, Destination Wedding, Sierra Burgess is a Loser (a bit underrated, in my opinion)
Blockbusters: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Incredibles 2, Deadpool 2 (so proud of Julian Dennison), Mary Poppins Returns (Emily Blunt & Lin!!!)
Adaptations: The Hate U Give, Ready Player One
Thrillers: A Quiet Place, Widows, A Simple Favor (because Henry Golding)
Indies: Phantom Thread, The Rider, BlackKklansman, Blindspotting, Eighth Grade (a social anxiety nightmare), Madeline’s Madeline (still processing this one), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (the 55-minute 3D sequence at the end left me with the distinct impression of an atmospheric video game), Sorry To Bother You (hated the ending but I am here for Tessa Thompson’s aesthetic and Steven freaking Yeun)
Documentaries: Faces Places, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Origin Story (also on the list of courageous filmmakers who interview their parents on-camera)
Movies I haven’t seen yet but will probably love: If Beale Street Could Talk, Bumblebee
Austin Film Festival
In case you missed it, I reviewed all the films and a few of the shorts I watched at AFF.
SERIES & Specials
Cary Fukunaga’s Netflix series, Maniac, satisfied my craving for moody sci-fi in an otherwise sparse year, featuring a grieving AI guiding Jonah Hill and Emma Stone on a risky pharmaceutical drug trip into their darkest traumas. (Also, I will watch Sonoya Mizuno in anything.) Queer Eye is the most healing show in America right now. The Fab Five are the bravest people I know to walk into conservative spaces (with great hesitation at times) and pour out love on people they have every right to avoid. Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special, Nanette, proves to be the opposite of comedy because she refuses to let the audience release the tension of her very real trauma by laughing about it. She calls BS on the harsh tendencies of the comedy world, of the patriarchy and bigotry of all kinds. Her vulnerability is beautiful. She also throws in a fascinating mini art history lesson. Hasan Minhaj (hot damn) launched his new Netflix political comedy show, Patriot Act, and I’ve already learned so much about topics ranging from Saudi Arabia shady ties to the suffering in Yemen to the overpriced street style brand, Supreme.
No Guilty Pleasures
When I’m not watching depressing indies and need to defuse my doomsday brain for awhile, I turn to cooking shows (The Great British Bake Off, Chef’s Table, Ugly Delicious), wholesome sitcoms (Kim’s Convenience, Fresh Off the Boat, Brooklyn 99), and comforting YouTube content (Mike in the Morning, Worth It, Sims 4 with Dan and Phil, In Control With Kelsey, Henry Golding’s meltdown over kittens).
Propaganda / Joseph SolomoN
The new year started strong with a night of raw poetry by Christian artists, Propaganda and Joseph Solomon. Propaganda’s album Complicated made it onto last year’s list and has been a constant source of encouragement, challenging messages and creative inspiration. I know Joseph Solomon more from his entertaining, truth-filled YouTube videos but he wowed us with a powerful improvised (!!) set of songs and poems. He’s extremely nice (and very tall!) in person. We also had the pleasure of speaking with DJ Efechto, who sadly passed away at the end of this year. He left us with the impression of being a kind, curious, multi-talented human being who had many dreams and interests left to explore.
The Oh Hellos
Every winter, I long for another sacred night with The Oh Hellos. A new friend introduced me to the local folk band when I first moved to Austin, and since then they’ve always reentered my life right when I need them. The Oh Hellos have walked me through some tough times, and have the powerful gift of marrying grief with glints of hope. Their new EPs this year - especially the song “Grow” - offered me assurance that growth is a process that cannot be rushed.
Sir Sly was the first concert I ever attended. I went alone, braving downtown Austin parking, and showed up way too early at the small venue on Dirty Sixth. The crowd barely filled the room but I’ll never forget that night. This year, Sir Sly came back to play at the exact same venue, only this time to a sold out show. Vocalist Landon Jacobs has had a hard few years between a divorce, his mom’s death and losing his faith. I’m so thankful that despite everything, he and his friends continued to pour themselves into the healing work of music. Proud of these guys.
Sales / No Vacation
A friend of mine introduced me to Sales a few years ago and since then they’ve settled into a warm, nostalgic space in my life. They’re the perfect soundtrack for both slow summer days and nighttime winter drives. Sales is the seed for my playlist titled “playful melancholy” if that gives you a sense of what they’re like. This summer they released their new LP, Forever & Ever, and I had the pleasure of seeing them on tour with the equally soothing No Vacation. Lauren’s goofy performance of their dreamy single, “White Jeans”, was pure delight. That more than made up for my sweaty, grouchy mood at the too-crowded venue filled with loud-talkers (eek).
After my brother introduced me to Phoenix, they quickly became one of my first favorite bands. Seeing them in concert has been on my bucket list for years and I finally had the opportunity to see them in Austin! They performed “Love Like a Sunset”, perhaps my favorite piece of their music, and the accompanying light show was a thing to behold. (How many times has that song brought me wordlessly to tears?) Thomas Mars sang himself thirsty, stopping mid-crowd-surf to request a beer. It even started raining in the middle of the set, but no one seemed to care. :)
Andy Mineo / Lecrae
My best friend finally pulled me aboard the hip-hop train a few years ago, and a whole new world has opened up to me since then. I’ll admit it took me some time to understand the language and format of rap and hip-hop but now I’m convinced that the most creative music and freshest poetry exist in the genre. Beyond aesthetics, though, it was the way Christian rappers like Andy Mineo and Lecrae talked about Jesus that was so refreshing to me, and it came right when I needed a new perspective in my faith. Lecrae’s 2017 album, All Things Work Together, gave us strength for a hard year. In 2018, Andy Mineo’s releases, I: The Arrow and II: The Sword, tackled topics that hit us close to home: the constant pressure of anxiety, complicated relationships, the confusion of doubt. So when we saw they had booked a concert just a town away, we knew our moment had arrived. Our little group of friends piled into a car after a hard week, a hard month, a hard few years for each of us. We danced, rapped (poorly), laughed and cried. It felt like a reunion with old friends - catching up after years apart, offering hope and courage to keep on going.
Until the Ribbon Breaks
After their well-received first album, UTRB went eerily silent for several years. It wasn’t until the lead up to their self-titled 2018 album that British frontman Pete Lawrie-Winfield shared the reason for the delay: his slippery descent into alcoholism and the ensuing struggle for sobriety. This new album is born from a place of raw humility in the wake of disaster, and self-forgiveness in the midst of recovery. I love this album because it’s vulnerable and full of hard-won hope. It’s both a confession and a work of healing. One song in particular, “Petrichor,” gives me permission to let go of the shame I’ve been holding onto. “Petrichor” is a word describing the refreshing smell of rain after a long dry spell - a perfect analogy for new beginnings.
Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett
I feel a certain kinship with Courtney Barnett. Her wry but oh-so-precise humor, her world-weary frustration, her gentle embrace of hope. Even her song titles (“Crippling Self-Doubt and A General Lack of Self-Confidence”) feel painfully relatable as a human, and especially as a woman. It’s nice to have a sister who gets it. I’ve often claimed her song, “Hopefulness”, as a much-needed benediction this year: “Your vulnerability / Stronger than it seems / You know it's okay to have a bad day.”
Other Albums of Note
Jackie Hill Perry released her courageous album, Crescendo. An absurd Twitter thread introduced me to the phenomenal Saturn by Nao, which I had on repeat for a solid two weeks. vertigo by EDEN filled my bottomless sad boi void. I found excellent new work/study music in leon chang’s re:treat and Eric Lau’s Examples, Vol. 2. Khalid released Suncity and Alessia Cara released Growing Pains, and I’m very proud of them both. Negro Swan by Blood Orange still needs an uninterrupted listen, but so far I’ve loved it. Blood Type by Cautious Clay has me intrigued. Finally, Reach Records dropped a surprise Christmas album that finally feels like my own, The Gift: A Christmas Compilation.
“Doesn’t Matter” by Gallant feels like the only song I listened to in 2018. Issa bop. I did my best to learn how to rap “Coming In Hot” by Andy Mineo and Lecrae (pure fire), though my performance will never leave the privacy of my car. “This Is America” by Childish Gambino made waves this year, especially with the music video directed by the brilliant Hiro Murai. Chance the Rapper came out with several new tracks this year, with “Work Out” being my favorite. Sleeping at Last released new space-related songs in his Astronomy series and my enneagram number song, “Four”! I’m always looking for new moody night-drive music, and “Lost Boy” by The Midnight and “West End Girl” by Rabih Salloum fit the bill.