As the year drew to a close, we asked Reason's staff to select some of the best books, movies, and other media released in 2016. Our picks range from a novel about economic apocalypse to a sitcom about aliens, from a book about cocktails to a film about Hannah Arendt. Dig in. —Jesse Walker
Eric Boehm, reporter
Painkillers, former Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon leaves his Springsteen-meets-the-Replacements roots for a folksy-rock exploration of failed relationships, nostalgic romances, and the freedom that comes from letting go of the past, even if you'll never be rid of it. "You can't make me whole, I have to do that on my own," Fallon sings on the album's introspective closing number, a reference in equal parts to his recent divorce and to the breakup of his band.With
The simple Americana arrangements here put Fallon's skills as a songwriter—and he's one of the best out there right now—in the spotlight, particularly on "Rosemary," "Among Other Foolish Things," and "Smoke." He may be going in a new direction, but Fallon spends most of Painkillers looking back, examining hazy memories or half-remembered dreams of what might have been. There's borrowed cars, girls who love whiskey, and Rites of Spring. The good times, Fallon sings, are "lost in the songs they don't write anymore."
Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst
Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a documentary by the Israeli director Ada Ushpiz, may not be the best offering of 2016, but it is arguably the most relevant. The West is experiencing a rise of demagogues, fuelled partly by right-wing populist movements. It is possible that in resisting them, Western liberalism will strengthen itself. It could also collapse into something horrible, as Weimar Germany did. The film, which hit select American theaters this year, offers a glimpse into the mass psychology that would allow that to happen.
Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, fled to America from Nazi Germany. The documentary delves into her thought to understand how the land that produced the greatest minds in philosophy, literature, and music collapsed into the barbarism of Auschwitz. It excavates rare footage of Germany during Hitler's rule to show the campaign to dehumanize Jews that preceded the Holocaust. But the more crucial step, per Arendt, was the triumph of what Frankfurt School philosophers call instrumental or technocratic rationality over critical rationality.
The film depicts Arendt's 1961 journey to Israel for The New Yorker to cover the famous trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi accused of war crimes. After observing months of testimony, Arendt coined her phrase "banality of evil" to convey that Eichmann, a diminutive and soft-spoken man, wasn't motivated so much by hatred of Jews. Rather, he believed that his job was to find the most efficient way to execute his assigned tasks, not raise big questions.
Arendt was condemned for soft-peddling the Satanic nature of the Nazi regime. But the documentary shows that she was laying bare something still more horrible: how ordinary people can stumble into unspeakable evil when they let their civilizational guard down.
Anthony Fisher, associate editor
Horace and Pete, originally released on his own website but now available on Hulu. Though occasionally funny, this is no comedy—in fact, it's as much of a horror show as a drama.Louis CK blew up the concept of the 30-minute sitcom with his FX show Louie, where the main character's backstory would change without explanation and where excruciatingly painful situations could be both hilarious and cathartic. Now he may have blown up the episodic television show itself with the eight-part miniseries
Set in the hellscape of a 100-year-old Irish bar in Brooklyn, the show's depiction of boredom, dumb arguments, sexism, familial abuse, mental illness, and pathological self-destruction make for perhaps the most honest depiction of barfly culture ever presented on "television." One particularly notable episode begins with a character the audience has not previously encountered, in close-up, telling a detailed story for over nine minutes before the shot is interrupted. Amazingly, it works. You're not sure what you're watching, but you can't take your eyes off it.
Nick Gillespie, editor in chief, Reason TV and Reason.com
The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. With painstaking detail and a fluid writing style, the Harvard historian documents how Prohibition became a means to impose social controls on "undesirable" populations (Catholic immigrants in the North, blacks and poor whites in the South) while inventing the first truly national law-enforcement agencies. Leading politicians of the day, such as Al Smith, rub shoulders with anonymous victims of police abuse, making the text a triumph of "thick history," combining views from all levels of society.If you're worried about how odd assortments of special interests can radically reshape the size, scope, and spending of government in a relatively short period of time, you need to read Lisa McGirr's
McGirr, who I interviewed for ReasonTV earlier this year, underscores that many of the same characters involved in anti-booze crusades then switched over the next big domestic "war," this time on drugs. The War on Alcohol explains better than any book I've read how the United States became the world's greatest jailer.
Ed Krayewski, associate editor
People of Earth, a TBS show about an alien abduction support group. The series introduces viewers to the familiar mythos of greys, Nordic aliens, and reptilians, who can appear as humans. (Some famous figures are outed.) By the end of the first episode, all three extratrerrestrial species are happily confirmed to be real.The best new cable comedy of 2016 is
The ensemble show centers around the nine members of Star Crossed, the support group. Luka Jones plays a committed alien researcher who hasn't been abducted but desperately wants to be. Wyatt Cenac plays Ozzie Graham, a reporter sent to cover the group who ends up having a close encounter of his own. The show doesn't just play on the support group's dynamic, but also shows us three aliens, one of each kind, on a ship orbiting overhead. They deliver some of the best lines.
Photo Credit: HBO