It is a difficult year to put together a "best of" list. How do you pick between movies like Parasite and The Irishman, or TV shows like Fleabag and Succession? Booker Prize judges found Margaret Atwood's The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other both so good they literally couldn't select a winner. And that's to say nothing of this year's output of fantastic music, whether Lana Del Rey or FKA twigs or Billie Eilish.
But what about the books, movies, TV shows, and music that were great, but flew under the radar? Here's what you might have missed in 2019.
Most overlooked book: Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, by Pam Houston
In Deep Creek, a collection of essays, author Pam Houston does for the Colorado mountain town of Creed what Ansel Adams did for Yosemite, or John Muir for the National Parks. When Houston buys a ranch at 9,000 feet above sea level at the age of 31, she does so not fully understanding all that Colorado will eventually throw at her: snowstorms, wildfires, murderous farmhands, and the deaths of beloved animal companions.
Still, with words that make you yearn to pack up and buy a high-altitude farm of your own, Houston describes the sort of life off the grid that is becoming increasingly rare in our ever-expanding world. "What edges out the worry, of course, is the wonder," she writes. "Because what could be better than 48 inches in 24 hours (76 inches is the local record), than a couple of Irish wolfhounds leaping though bottomless powder with giant smiles on their faces, than a herd of 200 elk making their stately way chest-deep in the snowbound pasture toward the river?"
But more than being just a memoir — although Houston does also reflect on her own career and difficult mother — Deep Creek is a call to preserve and protect not just the American west, but the world. "The language of the wilderness is the most beautiful language we have and it is our job to sing it, until and even after it is gone, no matter how much it hurts," is how Houston puts it. And how beautifully she can sing. Buy it here.
Most overlooked movie: Kitbull
Despite being only nine minutes long, the Pixar animated short "Kitbull" is mightier than many full-length features that came out in 2019. The debut directorial work by Incredibles 2 story artist Rosana Sullivan, "Kitbull" was created as part of Pixar's SparkShorts program, which grants filmmakers a limited time and budget to produce short films. Unlike many other popular Pixar shorts ("Piper"; "Bao"; "Day & Night"), "Kitbull" wasn't paired with a feature film this year. In fact, unless you were at the SparkShorts showcase at the at El Capitan Theatre in January, found it on YouTube in February, or chanced across it browsing Disney+ in November, you could have entirely missed one of the best films of the year.
Even as 2019 was dominated by hyper-realistic animation and special effects, "Kitbull" stands out. The film is 2D, entirely hand-drawn, and without dialogue, following the story of a tiny kitten who ultimately befriends an abused pitbull. I dare you to try to make it through the whole thing with a dry eye; Sullivan's short is a testament to the emotional weight of "old-school" animation. Lion King (2019), this is not.
But in a year when "a record 92 animated short films have qualified for the 92nd Academy Awards," including the popular and critically-acclaimed "Hair Love" from Sony, "Kitbull" might not ultimately get the recognition it deserves in 2019 (it made the Oscar shortlist on Monday). Whether it gets the accolade or not, with "Kitbull" Sullivan has announced herself as a formidable talent to watch in the next decade. Watch it here.
Most overlooked TV show: Primal
Breathtaking animation was not limited to short films. On Adult Swim, Genndy Tartakovsky's dinosaur-and-caveman drama Primal was one of the year's best, and most overlooked, shows. At 22 minutes each, the five episodes released this year (five more, also part of "season one," will arrive in 2020) dealt brutally with themes of loss and survival, all set on a prehistoric stage.
While many animated TV shows unfairly get dismissed as being "for children" — despite some of the best television work this decade being animated, from Bojack Horseman to Amazon's Undone — Tartakovsky's show is not for the faint of heart. With splashes of blood, devoured babies, and a total lack of dialogue, it is as nihilist as it is emotionally wrenching. "Think Clan of the Cave Bear directed by Akira Kurosawa," The Hollywood Reporter accurately writes.
So rarely does TV feel genuinely ambitious, but Primal fits the bill. Tartakovsky "wants to put more sublime imagery on screen," writes Polygon. "He wants to push the limits of the medium. He wants to command [respect]." And with Primal, he does. Watch it here.
Most overlooked album: Altın Gün — Gece
The music of Altın Gün might sound reminiscent of a 1960s or 1970s Turkish psychedelic rock band, but the group is actually based in the Netherlands. Despite their lyrics also being in Turkish (the band's name means "golden day"), only one of its six members was actually born in Turkey. Altın Gün's Gece, then, is a pitch-perfect homage to the Anatolian rock tradition; the group had its first U.S. tour this year.
Mixing the distinctive sound of an electric saz (a kind of three-string lute) and Istanbul-native Merve Daşdemir's timeless voice, Gece (meaning "night") is mainly made up of covers, including the haunting "Leyla," which is a popular song in Turkey. Of all 10 tracks, only "Şoför Bey" is an original, Bandcamp notes. And while the music speaks for itself, Altın Gün best coheres when you watch them play live.
Even unfamiliar with their influences, though, listeners will find Altın Gün is infectious, and Gece the kind of music that is both different from anything anyone else is doing, yet classic and unshakeable. While the band might not be topping any "best of" lists just yet, it may just be a matter of time. Listen to it here.
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