More of the best of the worst year ever

December 19, 2017 contributors offer up their favorites of 2017, because this year definitely needed distracting from. Click here for the first round of recommendations.

Khury Petersen-Smith

THE REMIX of Willy William and J. Balvin's song "Mi Gente," featuring Beyoncé, is the song and video of the year. First of all, it's a banger that's impossible not to dance to--but those of us who reject a world divided by borders have more reasons to love it.

The first version of "Mi Gente," released at the end of June, is itself a remix of "Voodoo Song" by William, a French producer and singer who combines an up-tempo reggaetón beat with a spooky, looped melody to make an infectious track.

To get the sound, William sampled "Heila Duila Nach," by Bengali composer Akassh and singer Kona, so when he joined forces with Colombian reggaetón star J. Balvin, they already had a song without borders and a perfect summer jam, serving as a more upbeat complement to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's smash hit "Despacito."

Then Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. One of the places most battered was Puerto Rico, home of the hottest song of the year.

Amid the heartbreak and ruin of these overlapping disasters--whose main victims were poor Black and Brown people--arrived a surprise, trilingual remix of "Mi Gente," featuring none other than Beyoncé.

Clockwise from left: Arundhati Roy, Beyonce and Hari Kondabolu
Clockwise from left: Arundhati Roy, Beyonce and Hari Kondabolu

The queen took an already solid track to the next level. If you didn't know Bey could sing in Spanish, now you know. Some of the people in the video, like Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo and American DJ Diplo, are famous, and professional dancers rock other-worldly choreography. But they are mixed in with regular people recording themselves dancing with their cell phones.

So it's a global party, and we're all invited. All while Beyoncé sings, "Lift up your people / From Texas to Puerto Rico / Dem islands to Mexico." Did I mention that the proceeds all went to disaster relief? For a few minutes on the dance floor, however fleeting, a world without borders.

Scott McLemee

A YEAR that started with the rapid, nationwide mobilization of women protesting the inauguration of an admitted sexual predator is now winding down with daily revelations of workplace harassment by men whose fame and power no longer spare them from the consequences of their behavior.

The circumstances make Alias Grace--the six-episode historical drama now streaming on Netflix--extremely timely. Grace Marks, the title character, is an Irish immigrant working as a maid in 19th century Canada; she barely enters puberty before having to face the brutal realities of her station in life.

Based on a novel of the same title by Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace offers more than the docudrama reconstruction of a real-life murder case. (Details, and spoilers aplenty, here.) In bringing the story to the screen, Mary Harron--the director of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho--uses every shot and edit to intricate effect.

As the series opens, Grace has been imprisoned for 15 years; a committee of supporters has brought in a psychiatrist in hopes he will write a report that will persuade the authorities of her innocence and sanity. With this narrative frame in place, Grace begins to recount her past.

By now audiences are familiar with seeing a story told from more than one character's perspective (Rashomon) or from the point of view of someone whose account is dishonest (The Usual Suspects) or grounded in an unreliable memory (Memento).

In Alias Grace, the viewer is faced with a narrator who is clearly much sharper than anyone gives her credit for--and highly conscious that an upper-class man can't hear or understand certain things she knows all too well.

Alias Grace makes plain that even when social repression doesn't erase a story entirely, it forces a lot to go unsaid.

Todd Chretien

ARUNDHATI ROY'S novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a vast and wondrous forest, one in which, even if Roy is an expert and welcoming guide, I feel that I am still a stranger.

I am no expert in literary style or schools, but I'd place The Ministry on my bookshelf next to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez for magical sensibilities and the pure joy of her sentences; Arráncame la Vida by Angelas Mastretta for historical sweep and insight; and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño for brutalist reality and character complexity.

But above all, it's a love story--or rather, many love stories. College friends divided by war in Kashmir; downtrodden mothers, daughters/sons, friends, mentors and rivals carving out a space for themselves within a New Delhi transgender hijra commune; and, above all, the promise that a child may unlock a new world, even if that new world faces long odds of ever being born.

Personally, I struggled to understand what I was dealing with over the first 100 pages or so. I came to feel that this is no mere story, with a beginning, middle and end, but rather a set of categories and instances in motion that only have (their true) meaning when comprehended in relationship to one another.

It's hard to get that starting from a dead stop. But if, to paraphrase Hegel, you're willing to dwell within The Ministry and become absorbed by it, Roy offers comprehension of time and people and catastrophes alike.

Pranav Jani

JORDAN PEELE'S Get Out--an anti-racist horror film that plumbed the depths of anti-Black racism in the U.S. as well as internalized racism among people of color--showed how fiction can arrive at depths that non-fiction can't even approach. Get Out is the perfect antidote to the empty pieties of "post-racial" America.

Director Theodore Melfi's film Hidden Figures--I know, it came out in December 2016--kept audiences young and old spellbound at the Martin Luther King Day showing I attended. Through incredible drama and acting hidden history of three Black women, mathematicians at NASA, who played a crucial role in launching John Glenn into orbit.

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina's movie Coco, a Pixar fantasy centering on a Mexican boy who learns about his family and the relationship to music on Día de los Muertos, stands out for its refusal to appropriate or exoticize Mexican cultures and space. At a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, such a film is invaluable.

Comedian Hari Kondabolu's documentary The Problem With Apu took on the stereotypes of Indians in The Simpsons and their impact on a generation of South Asian American kids. But The Problem with Apu did much more, introducing the experiences of South Asian Americans to the mainstream. And it's funny, too.

The Refugees, a collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen, is amazing, taking up a series of different subject positions in order to investigate the various circumstances of Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. The story "The Americans" tore my heart out.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the second novel by Arundhati Roy, has been criticized for being too political and too fragmented. In fact, Ministry links the cadence and tenor of Roy's first novel, The God of Small Things, with her voluminous political writings, offering new and important insights into neoliberal India.

Nicole Colson

THERE'S A kind of dialectical materialism to the art of baking--the difference between disaster and triumph often hinges on tiny details and interactions.

That makes The Great British Baking Show (which airs as The Great British Bake Off in the UK) a--pardon the pun--sweetly addictive reality television show. With four seasons available to stream on Netflix, each season follows a group of home bakers through a series of intense challenges based on themes like "pastry" or "bread."

Unlike American reality television, there are no manufactured dramas, yelling or evil backstabbers here--just a diverse group of bakers who are thoroughly committed to avoiding "soggy bottoms" (on their crusts). The contestants often have genuine affection for each other and are even prone to helping each other.

While there's nothing overtly "political" about it, The Great British Baking Show is a lovely, gentle reminder of the decency and creativity of which ordinary people are capable.

On his first solo album in seven years, veteran punk rocker Ted Leo is back with an examination of political and personal upheaval in The Hanged Man.

The album is steeped in trauma--the election, a late-term miscarriage his wife suffered, his own revelation of childhood sexual abuse. "Moon Out of Phase," which was written in the immediate aftermath of the election, is about trying to find the drive to get out of bed, even as "the creeping and the menace grows."

The album's final piano-based ballad, "Let's Stay on the Moon," is an intense journey through the painful struggle to come out the other side of devastation, with Leo singing: "We had a daughter and she died / Let's stay on the moon / And watch the earth go down."

Further Reading

From the archives