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2016 in entertainment and pop culture: the good, the great, the weird

The year is over and we're taking stock. What pop culture drew our eyeballs this year? Good, bad, weird, and otherwise. We're going to walk back through it all and look at it again to see what we missed or misunderstood, and what we didn't appreciate enough the first time. 'Tis the season for making lists.

  • Dec 28, 2016

    Verge Staff

    Our favorite pop culture of 2016

    Beyonce

    Here in the final week of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago has reached its height in the pop-culture universe. This week, we look back on some of the best entertainment experiences we had in 2016 — the things that made our jobs and our lives worth it.

    Don’t miss our previous best-ofs:

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  • Dec 28, 2016

    Andrew Liptak

    The 11 best science fiction and fantasy novels of 2016

    We’re living in a world that looks increasingly like science fiction, so I find myself looking to the genre not for predictions of what the future holds but for some guidance for dealing with this strange and changing world. 2016 was a difficult year, but a bounty of fantastic science fiction and fantasy novels were helpful in not simply escaping the present, but confronting it.

    Here’s the best of what the year had to offer.

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  • Andrew Webster

    Dec 27, 2016

    Andrew Webster

    10 amazing games you may have missed this year

    2016 was a great year for big games. There were fantastic sequels like Uncharted 4 and Final Fantasy XV, long-awaited adventures like The Witness and The Last Guardian, along with fantastic indie gems like Firewatch and Inside. But amidst all of the big names, the year was also filled with many smaller, yet equally enticing experiences that you may have missed. There’s everything from cute horror games to futuristic puzzle boxes to heartbreaking true stories. Here are 10 of my favorite hidden gems from 2016.

    Yomawari is a deceptive game. It looks cute, starring an adorable schoolgirl with a big red bow in her hair. But from the very beginning, when she decides to take her dog for a walk in the middle of the night, things feel amiss. Despite its adorable visuals, Yomawari is terrifying, and a lot of it comes down to sound. You can hear the little girl’s heart thumping when a monster gets too close, and the game uses silence to create incredible moments of tension.

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  • 2016: the year music went ‘exclusive’

    beyonce-lemonade

    Whether it was what she intended or not, Taylor Swift threw down the “exclusive” gauntlet with her 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed about the future of streaming services. In it, she referred to music as something “important and rare,” and therefore, “valuable.” She was arguing about something only tangentially related to streaming exclusives, but she was also framing a mindset towards music that would morph into the industry standard over the next two years. And last summer, when she gave only Apple permission to stream her album 1989, she planted the seed of a powerful idea. In 2016, another year of war between the big three on-demand streaming services (Tidal, Apple Music, Spotify), having “important” and “rare” and “valuable” things like exclusive new albums from music’s biggest stars are the ultimate edge. While streaming was meant to make music more accessible and convenient, it’s now creating a series of walled gardens — beautiful houses for rare and important art. Let’s check in on how that’s affecting consumers and the industry at large.

    Kaitlyn Tiffany: This time last year, you and Jamieson (our dear friend, former co-blogger, long-time Canadian, and Kim K stan) talked about how streaming services like Apple Music, Tidal, and Spotify have made the music industry even more unequal — they solidify the 1 percent status of artists like Drake, Taylor Swift, Adele, etc., and make it even harder for indie bands to make a living off of releasing music. This year, I want to talk about something else streaming services have spent the year doing: exclusive releases. They’ve been solidified as standard practice, and this seems like the way things are going to be for a while. Do you feel like it’s a good solution?

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  • Tasha Robinson

    Dec 22, 2016

    Tasha Robinson

    The 15 best movies of 2016

    La La Land’s immense popularity with critics and industry insiders isn’t hard to understand: Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, and cinephiles love movies about loving movies. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is both. His swoony, playful, often deeply melancholy musical fantasy about two Hollywood up-and-comers (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) echoes the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, imitating their energy, then stepping back to enjoy a warm, longing nostalgia for their heyday. Choreographer Mandy Moore deliberately quotes Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins, so the dance sequences feel comfortingly familiar. But Chazelle’s film has its own visual verve, and its own tragic reflection on the struggle for fame, and the cost of winning it. It’s also one of the year’s most intense emotional roller coasters, zooming from joy to sorrow while making both look beautiful.

    Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ fantastic romantic novel Fingersmith moves the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, and brings in the obsession with bloody revenge that Park explored in Oldboy, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, and other films. But it’s still a remarkably close adaptation. Park preserves the surprise romance, the creepy mystery, and the startling twists, as a young Korean criminal agrees to help a con man seduce a rich, sheltered shut-in. But Park plays up the erotic horror, and the pain and satisfaction of first loves, until the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The performances are elegant and startling, and the composition is endlessly striking — this is a lavish banquet of a film — but the compelling story is what makes all the agony and ecstacy meaningful.

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  • Dec 21, 2016

    Verge Staff

    The worst pop culture of 2016

    Matt Furie mourns his frog character Pepe becoming a racist pro-Trump meme.
    Matt Furie mourns his frog character Pepe becoming a racist pro-Trump meme.
    Matt Furie, The Nib

    As we head into the final weeks of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago is engulfing the pop culture universe. This week, we look back on some of the most awful, inexplicable entertainment we experienced in 2016 — the “how did this get made, and why did we suffer through it?” memes, moments, and movies that made our jobs harder and our lives sadder.

    Don’t miss our previous best-ofs:

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Dec 20, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    Crying basketball boy is my favorite YouTube video of 2016

    I’m not talking about Crying Jordan, I’m talking about Crying Clifford. Clifford, as in Dennis Clifford, the Boston College basketball player who had a tough time at a press conference this year after his team lost the final game of their losing-streak season. Do you remember this video? I think it may be my favorite one of 2016. It goes like this:

    REPORTER: “Cliff, what’re you gonna take away as your best memory from playing basketball at Boston College?”

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  • Dec 20, 2016

    Chris Plante and Sam Byford

    2016 revived the first-person shooter genre

    Overwatch

    Before we dig into 2016, let’s review 2015. Let’s revisit The Verge’s list of best games of last year, and the only traditional first-person shooter that made the cut was The Taken King, an expansion to 2014’s DestinyFallout 4 is on here, too, which is a role-playing game, albeit one with plenty of guns and opportunities to shoot people in the head. So our favorite shooters were an add-on and RPG: not a good year for the genre.

    For comparison’s sake, we jotted down a list of shooters we considered for our Best of 2016 list, and we have five choices: DoomOverwatchBattlefield 1Superhot, and Titanfall 2. If we expand our scope to include role-playing or stealth first-person games, then I’ll tack on Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The list doesn’t include Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, easily the best entry in the franchise in years, or small and enjoyable one-offs, like the retro-gritty Devil Daggers. Gory shooters like Killing Floor 2 and Shadow Warrior 2 didn’t win us over, but were notable — and may have connected with me in a less crowded 12 months.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Dec 15, 2016

    Adi Robertson

    3% and The Thinning are this year’s best and worst take on dystopian meritocracy

    One of my favorite Twitter accounts is @DystopianYA, a parody of young-adult science fiction by Observer culture writer Dana Schwartz. Its tweets are a mix of the bland platitudes, clichéd rebellion, and on-the-nose metaphors we associate with bad YA dystopia — our old teen angst dressed up in neologisms. "You must complete trials in order to move into adulthood,” reads one of the more popular tweets. “They're called 'the SATs' — no wait sorry I meant 'The Trials.' Yeah that's it."

    This tweet essentially describes the plot of two recent projects: The Thinning, an original movie produced for YouTube Red, and 3%, a Brazilian science-fiction series produced for Netflix. Where YA poster child The Hunger Games was about coercion and reality TV, The Thinning and 3% are both about meritocracy gone wrong, set in worlds where a single cutthroat test determines your place in society, or even your right to exist.

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Dec 14, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    This year, Shia LaBeouf became a new kind of interactive celebrity

    shia-labeouf-take-me-anywhere

    For the actor and artist currently known as Shia LaBeouf, 2016 was a mellow year, comparatively speaking. In the previous three years, LaBeouf plagiarized graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, got arrested during the intermission of a Broadway musical, and quit the production of a different Broadway play, apparently over disagreements with his co-star, Alec Baldwin. In the court of public opinion, LaBeouf was edging toward child-actor stereotype — although he had successfully transitioned from precocious child star to “serious actor,” he seemed to be breaking down in the process. Until, on the last day of 2013, he sent this tweet:

    LaBeouf’s public proclamation at the time seemed like just another New Year’s resolution that would go unfulfilled. Why would someone who had reentered the limelight because of a parade of controversies suddenly decide to stop being controversial? But over time, the lack of controversy allowed LaBeouf to become an offbeat, endearing internet personality. And keeping this resolution allowed him to become a new kind of celebrity: a Not Famous one.

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  • Dec 14, 2016

    Verge Staff

    The weirdest pop culture of 2016

    As we head into the final weeks of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago is engulfing the pop culture universe. This week, we look back on some of the stranger things we experienced in 2016 — pop culture that made Stranger Things look downright normal.

    Don’t miss our previous best-of: The pre-2016 entertainment that got us through 2016

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  • Dec 14, 2016

    Andrew Webster, Chris Plante and 4 more

    The 11 best video games of 2016

    We struggle to recall 12 months so crowded with great video games. Indie developers, blockbuster studios, virtual reality tinkerers, and creators who defy labels: all corners of the industry contributed to one of the strangest, most varied, and best years in the medium’s short history.

    Controversial games like No Man’s Sky and Pokémon Go let us explore both infinite solar systems and our neighborhood park. Dishonored 2 and Firewatch showed the range of first-person storytelling, a form that no longer requires guns to justify its existence. Final Fantasy XV’s evening camps, Stardew Valley’s days on the farm, and Forza Horizon 3’s aimless drives let players find their own fun.

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  • Kaitlyn Tiffany

    Dec 13, 2016

    Kaitlyn Tiffany

    How One Direction stayed the world’s biggest band even after it stopped existing

    One Direction has been on an indefinite “hiatus” since December 13th, 2015 — one year ago today. In the meantime most of the members have moved on to new projects: a solo recording contract here, a label imprint there… a Christopher Nolan film, a golf management company, an embarrassing production moniker, an Ed Sheeran-lite debut single. The boys have been busy, but they haven’t been together.

    Regardless, One Direction was Forbes’ second highest-paid musical act for the year. A big reason for One Direction’s $110 million haul for 2016 is simply rolled over cash from their On the Road Again tour, which grossed over $200 million and wrapped in late fall of 2015. But the group also still has nearly 9 million monthly listeners on Spotify — more than four times the number boasted by 5 Seconds of Summer, their knighted successor. Made in the AM, released in October of last year just before the hiatus, was their fifth album to debut in the Billboard top 10 — breaking a record set by The Beatles. It sold 2.4 million copies in the remaining month and a half of that year, and then took 45 weeks to drop out of the top 200. It was a steady revenue provider well into 2016.

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  • Dec 7, 2016

    Verge Staff

    The pre-2016 entertainment that got us through 2016

    The Dixie Chicks
    The Dixie Chicks
    Sony BMG

    As we head into the final weeks of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago is kicking in across the pop culture universe. Everyone’s surveying the most significant films, books, music videos, memes, celebrity shade-offs, and what have you from the past year, and deciding what was most important for them in 2016. But while the hype cycle operates in tidy annual waves, our lives don’t. We’ll be getting into some of the best of 2016 on the site shortly, but we figured we’d kick things off with a staff look at the things we loved in 2016 that weren’t from 2016, and talk about how those favorite things got us through a tumultuous year.

    We The Internet have collectively agreed on 2016's status as a Level 6 Garbage Fire. In my personal life, 2016 was more like a grease fire, a small flame, but one that refuses to go out and promises to burn your life down if you let it. My grandmother passed away, my wife and I continued to mourn the death of a close friend, and as if tormented by metaphor, practically every appliance in our house broke in the span of six months. This week, I got food poisoning, in a cheeky full stop to a year that often felt, emotionally speaking, like barfing and shitting at the same time. As an act of self-preservation, I turned on most Sunday mornings to Tusk, Fleetwood Mac's experimental 1979 folk album. In a 2015 Letter of Recommendation for New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson perfectly described Christine McVie's voice as "smooth and sad, a melon-flavored wine cooler on a vacant beach at sunset with the one you know will eventually leave you." Fleetwood Mac is McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks, and when they were authoring this music, the latter two were just entering their 30s. Even rock stars, their lyrics suggest, must grow up and do battle with the dragons of mundanity: death, heartbreak, and finances. In 2016, those beasts appeared over and over, over and over, and Tusk served as a torch, rarely leading the way, but always illuminating the darkness. –Chris Plante

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Dec 7, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    YouTube’s top videos of the year prove its only dominant community is brands

    adele-carpool-karaoke
    adele-carpool-karaoke

    YouTube’s most-viewed video of 2016 shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s an episode of James Corden’s wildly popular Carpool Karaoke featuring a globally beloved pop star whose most recent album broke several sales records. Adele and Corden drawing a lot of attention isn’t unusual, but the rest of the videos in YouTube’s Top 5 are more surprising: there’s the video for the goofy parody song “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen,” a clip of a little kid and an older guy cutting open a rattlesnake’s rattle, a Freaky Friday-like Nike commercial starring Cristiano Ronaldo, and an audition from an episode of America’s Got Talent.

    Trying to extrapolate a coherent theme from these videos is challenging — there’s no common thread, outside the platform they all exist on. For comparison, take Tumblr’s recent year-in-review: at first glance, its most reblogged posts also seemed to be a random collection of unrecognizable memes and photos. But as my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany pointed out, the strange popularity of these posts is an effect of Tumblr’s insular community. Users have their own trends — even their own language — and it’s difficult to find them anywhere else online.

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  • This countdown of 2016's best films will catch you up on the good stuff you missed

    It’s December, the most wonderful time of year for supercuts, mash-ups, and the crippling realization that time is trickling through our fingers like whatever metaphor you best prefer! (Water.) But no end-of-the-year examination is complete without a viewing of the latest entry in David Ehrlich’s 25 Best Films series. This year’s list includes everything from Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight to Kubo and the Two Strings and La La Land.

    Ehrlich, a senior film critic at IndieWire, has been counting down the best films with video compilations since 2011. Part of his job is to see hundreds of films a year, he tells The Verge, and he gathers footage year-round from trailers and the like as part of his “low-key nightmare” editing process.

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  • Kaitlyn Tiffany

    Dec 5, 2016

    Kaitlyn Tiffany

    Tumblr trends for 2016: at least the teens had a nice year

    If you ask Tumblr, 2016 is the year of the caterpillar.

    Specifically, it is the year of Chicken Nugget, a caterpillar who eventually metamorphosed into a butterfly named Chicken Wing. Chicken Wing née Chicken Nugget was the platform’s biggest celebrity of the year, and the story that introduced him to the internet was the most reblogged Tumblr post of 2016.

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  • Kaitlyn Tiffany

    Dec 2, 2016

    Kaitlyn Tiffany

    DJ Earworm’s yearly mash-up of pop’s biggest hits is here

    “The whole year put you in the worst mood,” The Weeknd croons to kick off DJ Earworm’s annual hit extravaganza, “The United States of Pop.” True, Abel, and thank you for noticing.

    The mash-up features 25 of the year’s biggest hits, including Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” and Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home.” Where last year’s track synthesized 50 songs into one sultry bedroom slow-jam, this year’s product uses fewer pieces and delivers something more frantic, anxious, and occasionally scary. At one point, former One Direction member Zayn Malik’s hit break-out single “Pillowtalk” is sped up by a factor of at least four and paired with a shot of 14-year-old Sia muse Maddie Ziegler covering her eyes and sticking out her tongue.

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