As predicted, I encountered many wonderful new (and not so new) stories this year.  I could not have predicted these would be on my list (mostly), and for the first time I’m going to include a sizable list of honorable mentions (because it’s my list and I can do as I please)!

The stories included on The List proper may not necessarily be the best of the year (either not quite being “the best” or not being “of the year”), but they are things that I encountered this year, found interesting, and wish to discuss.  Thus, some of my Honorable Mentions were relegated to that designation not from lack of quality, but because I don’t have much to say about them besides “check out this awesome thing”.  And with that, here’s my list (in alphabetical order).

Anastasia (Stage Musical): This was definitely one of the things I was looking forward to at the end of last year, and while I’m sure it’s not the best show in the world, I found it immensely fascinating as an adaptation.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Don Bluth’s Anastasia, primarily because of the music (and also the animation – if you’ve never seen it, check out the best scene in the movie, Once Upon a December), but as I’ve gotten older, its flaws have become increasingly difficult to ignore.  The most obvious issue is the general whitewashing of Russian history, but the characters also tend towards the disappointingly flat stereotypes and the plot can be a bit contrived.  Much of this is remedied in the stage adaptation, which was written by actual Russians!  The resulting story is less Disney princess lite and more like Fiddler on the Roof, or even Les Miserábles at times.  There’s still a bit of a Cinderella flair to the story, but it’s generally much more grounded in reality (as evidenced by the absence of undead sorcerer Rasputin), and at times it feels almost like a love letter to a Russia that’s long gone, if it ever really was more than a fairy tale.  If you (like me) saw Anastasia as a flawed movie with great songs, definitely look into this.

Haibane Renmei (Anime): So this year I revisited a few anime which I had only seen once before when I was first getting into anime and had next to no context for what I was watching (besides not knowing what I would like).  The additional context helped me enjoy all of them much more, but this one rose the most in my esteem because I didn’t just understand the appeal, but I think I understood its story for the first time.  This isn’t so much because I “get” anime more, but because I discovered a helpful framework for interpreting the story (which never feels the need to fully explain itself): It’s about young people in purgatory who died by suicide.  At least that’s what I thought going in – by the end, I’d concluded that how they died didn’t matter nearly as much as their self-destructive ideations.  It is at its core a story about healing, and it’s really unique in the way that it manages to grapple with those dark feelings (mostly) without even depicting the trauma that caused it.  If you’ve ever experienced self-hatred, you’ll probably find someone to relate to here, and hopefully take heart.

The Hate U Give (Film): This is an essential primer on systemic racism in America and how it impacts black communities.  While it was marketed as a YA story (or at least the book was), basically the only things that mark it as such is that the protagonist is a teenager and the story wraps up a little too neatly at the end.  For the most part, it’s just a really accessible look into the struggles of African Americans.  At some points it’s shocking, but it’s the sort of shock that’s necessary to change minds and start conversations.  That’s really all it’s advocating: Love and understanding.

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (Film): This movie is seriously just a comic book in animated form, and it is brilliant.  It’s simply bursting with creativity, which shouldn’t surprise me coming from Lord and Miller (of The Lego Movie fame), but the expressions thereof are endlessly unique.  The animation is breathtaking, the music works perfectly, and somehow it manages to incorporate six different versions of Spiderman and make them each easily distinguishable – and did I mention the main Spiderman is biracial?  The love these people have for comics and animation is palpable.

Steven Universe (Cartoon): I was honestly shocked how much I came to love this show in so short a time, but this now easily my favorite American cartoon.  I think it’s thanks mostly to one of the best first seasons I’ve ever seen for a kids show (even Princess Tutu stumbled a bit in the first few episodes) – it’s warm and inviting, but even early on there’s a lingering sense of melancholy in the form of the mother Steven never knew, and once the stakes were raised at the end of the season I was fully invested in the characters.  What’s more, this show is just so confidently and endearingly itself, not trying to sell me something, just telling a good story with a good heart.  Also, this show is very gay, just FYI – it starts out mostly subtextual, but suffice to say it’s impossible to ignore by the end.  I don’t always agree with its ideas, and it has its share of flaws, but it does it all so earnestly and with such goodwill that I can’t help but love it anyway, just as I’m sure Steven intended.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Apocalist Book Club (Podcast) – a fun jaunt through modern apocalypse novels for literature nerds
  • Astra Lost In Space (Anime) – perfectly paced and self-contained, plus the first story I’ve ever seen to feature an intersex character
  • Avengers: Endgame (Film) – A much better ending than I anticipated; it made me cry
  • Fruits Basket (Anime) – of which I have already written
  • Little Women (2019 Film) – A fresh perspective on an old story (although it might not be the best way to introduce someone to said story)
  • Miraculous Ladybug Seasons 2-3 (Cartoon) – this show just keeps getting better with age
  • The Promised Neverland (Anime) – an excellent first act to a much larger story
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Film) – if you love animation, watch this movie

Just on a technical note, I’ll be returning to a T/R schedule for my next series (hint: it’s somewhere on this list)…

…next time!

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