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Year End Roundups can be tricky things in any year, let alone a year like 2023 when the pop culture world - with good reason - was put on hold.
We’ve done a year end roundup before, of course, but it was a one that highlighted not just what shows and movies there were, but which ones had improved or gotten worse with the passage of time.
We could do this again for 2023 but to be honest why dwell on the bad? It’s been a hard year for many for a multitude of reasons. Do we really need a reminder about things that were horrible or at best middling?
Nah! Heck with that. Instead here’s a recap of things in 2023 that managed to spark joy in a year where we’re all struggling to find any. Full caveat that some of these things didn’t start in 2023, but they were still doing things this year that helped make the year better. I say they still get credit for that.
So, in no particular order…
Movies, Shows, Movements, And People Who Made 2023 Better
Any list of the best of 2023 which doesn’t include Across the Spider-Verse isn’t worth reading, so let’s get that out of the way right now. Like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before it, Across the Spider-Verse took the tools of the animation landscape - including ones created and patented during the making of Into the Spider-Verse - and said why stop there? The innovations in using visuals for storytelling are beyond anything that existed before. More importantly, the innovations tell the story.
This is not a movie of shiny bells and whistles. It’s not a movie that exists to only be a meme delivery device (though it offers winks to that too). It’s a movie that has something to say about the characters and why stories themselves matter. There’s a reason why, when the subject of so-called superhero fatigue shows up, this movie is never mentioned as an example of it. It’s a genre unto itself, and the genre is the best that movie making has to offer.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that the Barbie movie was as good as Across the Spider-Verse, but in fairness nothing could be. It does, however, share a key foundation with Across the Spider-Verse, which is that stories are not about ideas but about people. Yes, Barbie is full of references to things the audience knows - I had visceral reactions to seeing costumes that were pitch perfect recreations of Barbie outfits my dolls wore when I was a child - but you could remove each and every one of those and still have a solid movie about characters figuring out who they are and their place in the world.
Ryan Gosling is the one getting all the Oscar buzz, but don’t sleep on Margot Robbie’s ability to tell an entire story using her facial expressions alone, especially when she’s the one carrying the weight of a character who starts out without an inner life and then discovers what life actually means to her.
Me being me, I of course have to give shout outs to the excellent use of dance to tell the story, with props to choreographer Jennifer White and associate choreographer Lisa Welham for making that happen.
As an extra bonus, if you liked Jacqueline Durran’s costume design - and well you should! - you’ll enjoy this video by WithWendy which explains the history of why Barbie wears that iconic gingham outfit.
Much like Game Changer’s host, Dropout has been here the whole time, albeit while formerly being known as College Humor. But 2023 saw the little streamer that could emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Not only is it a standout in the realm of improv comedy and TTRPG Actual Play shows, CEO Sam Reich is attempting to make the company something sadly far too uncommon in Hollywood: a place where quality people want to work because they’re treated like quality.
From the not so well hidden secret that Sam Reich tried to take care of as many people he could when Dropout’s former parent company laid off workers back in 2020 to this year’s unprecedented profit sharing with anyone who did any work for them in 2023, Dropout is proving the lie that folks like AMPTP tried to peddle that there’s no way to pay your people what they’re worth.
It’s also not for nothing that Dropout manages to do this while doing things like having diversity in front of and behind the cameras, and making sure the audience knows the pronouns of cast and characters, and even providing warnings about when potentially triggering things might happen during a show. So much for “go woke, go broke.”
Of course all this means nothing without shows that the audience wants to pay a monthly fee to watch. There are may to choose from but if you’d like recommendations that Dropout provides for free you could do worse than their nerdy game show Um, Actually or Wayne Brady approved improv show Make Some Noise. And if you’re curious about Actual Play shows then you should run not walk to the first episode of Dungeons and Drag Queens which is a perfect place to start even if you have no idea what a tabletop role playing game is.
Regular readers of the site know that we are big believers in respecting all levels of production (shameless merch plug alert! Makes a great gift!). Great movies and TV aren’t just big name actors and directors, but hundreds if not thousands of people behind the scenes working together to make it all happen.
A good editing team can make or break your project, and The Editing Podcast is a great way to learn how and why that is. Hosts Hayden Hillier-Smith and Jordan Orme not only bring their own experience to the show, they’ve been bringing in a stellar list of guests which takes it all to the next level. How do you get a career in editing? What’s it like to edit for YouTube vs TV? Which takes should you use to best tell your story?
There’s no lack of good episodes to try, but I have to give a special shout out to guest Michael Andrews talking about the editing of Across the Spider-Verse and dream team Timothy Good and Emily Mendez in not one but two episodes talking about their work on The Last of Us which was and continues to be my go to example for how truly amazing good editing can be.
A latecomer to 2023 but even with - as of me writing this - only two entries to its (somewhat dubious) name this newsletter has still shown itself to be worthwhile.
Written by writer and producer John Rogers, perhaps most famous for a little TV show called Leverage, this newsletter provides a glimpse into the process of screenwriting from someone who has done it and experienced the highs and, well, the lows. Even if you’re not interested in screenwriting yourself, much like The Editing Podcast this is a great way to learn about what a good script is so you can appreciate it when you see one in action.
Author, playwright, and president of the Ann Patchett fan club (and its employee of the month) R Eric Thomas has such a gift for a turn of phrase even Oscar Wilde is pausing from his regular afterlife viewing of Beyoncé’s Renaissance to take notes so he knows the bar he has to pass when he comes back to Earth, presumably as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Regardless of whether you’re interested in the day to day life of a writer, R Eric Thomas’s newsletter, Here For It, is filled with so much humor delivered to your inbox like an old friend walking up to you, grabbing you by the arm, and immediately saying “Okay so you’ll never guess what happened this time…” that it’s worth it just for the joy it brings.
If, like me, you are interested in the more business related details, R Eric Thomas also talks about the ins and outs of his book tours and putting together his plays, the latter of which includes details about things like picking out props which I take as being included for me personally since to date I’ve never been told otherwise.
The weekly newsletter is free so it can be enjoyed by all. There’s also more content for a small subscription fee.
(Hey, who do we know who does something like that? Ahem.)
You probably don’t know Brendan Bradley and that’s the point. Brendan Bradley is a self-described jobber and, in 2023, a SAG-AFTRA strike captain who worked the front gates at Paramount for over 100 days (surpassing the count of his over 100 IMDB credits - when he says he’s done a lot of jobs in Hollywood, he’s not kidding!)
More than that, though, Brendan Bradley took his skills as an actor and producer and used them to create reel after reel to help educate people on what the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes were about. It was far too easy for people to dismiss the strikes as rich people whining about not making another million instead of what it actually was: people who work a day here, another day there, who provide us all with our beloved entertainment yet struggle to make rent.
Brendan also broke down the unique circumstances of an actor’s life which would be hard for a layperson to understand. Things like why would an actor prefer to skip a meal or did you know video game actors are often working without proper safety protocols or how studios abuse the concept of a “local hire.” All that while literally walking the picket line and dealing with commenters who thought it was original - and a check mate of an argument - to suggest that actors needed to stop whining and get a real job.
Now that the strike is over Brendan is back to working on upping that ever increasing list of IMDB credits. But he’s still working in an official capacity for SAG-AFTRA and continuing to educate about what the union does and how other members can participate. Because a deal is only a deal when it works for everybody and a union’s work doesn’t stop when the picket signs are gone.
More Hollywood Union Activity
The year of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes was also a year of others in the entertainment industry forming and using unions to demand the respect, treatment, and payment they deserve. It’s a blessedly long list that includes The Choreographer’s Guild, The Production Worker’s Guild, and New York and New Jersey based production accountants being included in IATSE Local 161.
There were strike actions by Musicians of New York City Ballet. VFX workers with Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, and Avatar are working towards much needed unionization to push back on the unrealistic labor conditions they’re being forced to work under. Interactive Media (aka video game) actors are also pushing for improved pay and working conditions.
The list goes on, and of course it’s not happy news that any of this is needed. But what is good news is that it’s happening and it shows that the Bob Igers and David Zaslavs of the industry can’t get away with taking shameless advantage of the people who actually do the work in the name of padding the C-Suite’s bonus checks.
Much like we can’t ignore the year’s best movie, neither can we ignore the year’s most significant developments. Though it would be remiss to suggest that everyone was thrilled - the SAG-AFTRA contract in particular had strong opinions for and against among the union members - the fact still remains that both contracts are milestones in the entertainment industry.
Of course money and AI protections were a huge part of both, but it’s worth noting the other developments that affect the media we love. That thing where you’re watching a TV show and wondering why episode eight seems like it has no awareness of episodes 1-7? The WGA contract addresses that. The decreased role of showrunners? Got that too. The need for a bench of up and coming writers to make sure there’s people learning how to create the next generation of movies and TV? Yep, got that as well.
Over on the SAG-AFTRA side gains were made in health and safety. Dancers and singers will be getting better pay for doing the same amount of work in rehearsals as they do when the cameras are on. Actors of color will no longer be left without hair and makeup people who can work with them and - as they did in the past - having to pay out of their own pocket and/or do their hair and makeup themselves.
It remains to be seen how the impact of these contracts will shake out over the years. But it can’t be denied that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA changed the landscape in a much needed direction.
We could go on but hey: it’s a busy time of year and we gotta stop somewhere.
Regardless, it’s worth remembering there were things and people to celebrate even in a year that was hard. I think we’ve all learned not to make any assumptions about what 2024 will bring, good or bad, but if nothing else now we know things to keep our eyes on.
To borrow a turn of phrase, it’s a good industry, Charlie Brown. You just have to keep your eyes peeled for where to find the quality.
Thanks for reading!