Last year, in lieu of a “solemn year-end reflection”, I posted a brief list of every book I had read, movie I had watched, place I had visited, and more in a simple blog post that I had hoped would make me feel better about the miserable year that was 2020. Thankfully, 2021 has been much better for me, emotionally speaking. (Still a garbage year as far as general global outlook goes, though.) As I write this year-end reflection, I probably won’t be too solemn about it either, but I think that I can spare more words to describe how I feel about the huge transitions in my life that brought me to where I am today. I’ll start with the culture roundup, though!
I didn’t read as much in 2021 as I had hoped to (only 17 books), and it’s partly because I spent so much time watching movies. I now live just a block away from a wonderful independent bookstore, so I think I’ll pick up the reading a bit more in 2022. Anyway, my top 5 books from 2021 were:
- The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu: I loved his blend of sci-fi and fantasy, and I model the stories I write after his and Ted Chiang’s styles
- The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin: totally engrossed by the world-building in this one, but the second and third of the trilogy were a little less inspiring
- The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson: picked up this trilogy after a long hiatus, and was absolutely thrilled by this and the last one in the series
- Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: felt like reading a warm mug of tea, and also made me think a lot about my faith, which is unusual for a non-theological book
- Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, by Tony Kushner: had this on my to-read list for literally years, and I’m glad I finally crossed it off the list
In 2021, one of my few resolutions was to keep better track of the movies I watch, and I successfully did that by creating a new page on this blog specifically for this purpose. If you want to know which 79 (!!!) feature films, short films, and televised plays I watched this past year, you can head on over to that page or add me on letterboxd; in this post, I’ll just write about the top 10.
Top films that I watched for the first time in 2021:
- Minari (2020, dir. Lee Isaac Chung): for its achingly beautiful portrayal of immigrant joy and struggle
- The Father (2020, dir. Florian Zeller): for its stellar leading performances and a haunting directorial style
- In the Heights (2021, dir. Jon M. Chu): for the exuberance, and the music, and the dancing
- West Side Story (2021, dir. Steven Spielberg): same as above, but also add phenomenal cinematography and smart directorial choices to bring an old story some freshness
- Sound of Metal (2019, dir. Darius Marder): a film so striking that I wrote about it for a linguistics magazine
Top films that I watched in 2021 that were released in 2021 (aside from #3 and #4 above):
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton): it had some of the best fight scenes I’ve seen in any Marvel movie, and it also had Tony Leung
- tick, tick…BOOM! (dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda): I’d been waiting for this movie basically since I was in high school and memorized the entire soundtrack… it was wonderful and Andrew Garfield is wonderful
- Spider-Man: No Way Home (dir. Jon Watts): just a hell of a lot of fun!
- Raya and the Last Dragon (dir. Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada): same as above, but also for some reason, of all the movies on this list, only Raya and Minari made me cry
- Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King): important history made vibrantly human
Honorable Mentions: Ship of Theseus (2012); Son of Saul (2015); Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (2018); 37 Seconds (2019); Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020); Little Fish (2020); The Tomorrow War (2021); Free Guy (2021); Space Sweepers (2021); Eternals (2021); Boss Level (2021); CODA (2021)
I would highly recommend any of the films mentioned here, though for very different reasons: some are really difficult to watch, but worth the pain; others are almost objectively bad movies, but too much fun to miss! Like last year, I’d like to thank my friend Blake and our weekly Sunday Movie Club for introducing me to so many amazing films that I might not otherwise have heard of, although with the return to theater-going in 2021, a lot of popular blockbusters unsurprisingly made my list!
Compared to 2020, in 2021 I watched fewer television shows and series but enjoyed a greater proportion of them. I would actually highly recommend any of the shows that I watched, and there were only eight of them. The top five would have to be:
- The Chair: for its thoughtful and hilarious portrait of academia, and for Sandra Oh
- WandaVision: for its incredible creativity and pathos
- Ted Lasso: for Roy and Keely, honestly, but also for its empathetic dive into mental health and its heartwarming comedy
- Schmigadoon!: for the music!!!
- Squid Game: for its social commentary (not for its ultra-violence)
My Spotify Wrapped for 2021 tells me I listened to a lot of my self-curated musical theater playlist, topped by “Michael in the Bathroom” from Be More Chill. I also played a lot of my self-curated “Get Over Him” playlist, which included lots of Demi Lovato, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande. Just soaking up those self-empowerment and “I give myself permission to be happy!” vibes. I usually use Spotify to put on random top 40 dance pop to work out to. In 2021 I should probably try to find new music… your recommendations are welcome!
I didn’t end up playing many board games this year, due to the ongoing pandemic, but in addition to my still-top favorite, Scythe, I got to play a few new ones! I learned Oath and Root, and enjoyed them both. I was also thrilled to get my hands on a copy of my friend Randy’s game, Roll In One, which he designed and I helped back on Kickstarter! Lastly, I learned PARKS, and it made me want to travel again…
Speaking of which, I traveled a little bit in 2021, and I’m grateful for the few opportunities I had. Most important to me was the privilege I had to be able to easily leave Los Angeles in the early spring and relocate to a better environment. Six months after that, I moved to Canada. In between all that moving around, I managed to sneak in a few long trips, including visits to three national parks:
- Seattle (three times, astoundingly)
- Lake Tahoe, with family
- Atascadero and Pismo Beach, with friends
- An intense one-day road trip to Yosemite, with Cameron
- Alaska (Anchorage, Seward, Denali), with Ashley, Katelyn, and Mark
- Glacier National Park, with my parents
- A criss-cross-country trip to D.C., New York City, and Denver to visit various friends over the summer
I guess in some ways it’s a lot more travel than I’d expected to do at the start of 2021, but looking back, it’s a lot less than I could have done. I have no way of predicting way 2022 will look like in terms of travel, but since I’m based in Canada now, I do hope to see the rest of this enormous country, one province or park at a time!
I think this photo of me taken in Alaska probably sums up my 2021, emotionally. I definitely look lost, and probably felt lost, but I wasn’t actually lost. The landscape looks super desolate, but I’m actually at the top of a mountain with a stunning view all around… you just have to keep going for a bit until you see it. So there’s hope. And it was a very difficult hike to get up to the top of this mountain, just like it was very hard this year to move (twice!) and transition to a new job in a new country and basically start a new social life from scratch. But where I am, I don’t have to run. I can just walk around. Breathe in the cold air. Rest a bit, before heading onward.
Happy New Year!
Word of the Day: ylem (/ˈiːlɛm/) is a recently-coined term in astronomy and cosmology that refers to the hypothesized “primordial soup” of plasma that preceded the Big Bang during the creation of the universe. It is said to have come from a Middle English word that itself was taken from the Greek ὕλη (“matter”).