These are my thoughts and recommendations for my favorite art — books, shows, films, and albums — that I consumed in January 2021 (no spoilers). These are not art that came out in the aforementioned timeframe, but just art of any time period I consumed during the month.
Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel (2020)
I had always been a bit intimidated by financial management, like it was this big green monster lurking behind a door I was too scared to open. This book, recommended by my brother, totally opened that door for me and showed me that monster could actually be a cute fun dog to play with. Whereas many financial management books function almost like textbooks (which isn’t a bad thing), Housel breaks down the psychology behind how and why we think about money the way we do — and gives us a roadmap of how to manage money in a way that aligns with our values and personality. This book not only cured my intimidation, but made me excited to plan my financial future.
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal, PhD (2015)
Stress has always played a big role in my life, and in the lives of most people I know. I always imagined stress as something to be forever vanquished, and if only I could do that — I would be a better student and employee. This book, using loads of scientific research, totally changed my relationship with stress. Stress itself is not bad for you, how we think about and respond to stress is what can be bad for you. There is scientific research that illuminates how stress can promote the brain centers and chemicals associated with empathy, service, and growth — if we understand that stress is a signal to remember our values. This book made me realize that stress can be a catalyst to become a better friend, family member, and citizen.
Anxious People by Fredrik Bachman (2020)
This is going to sound odd, but Bachman’s writing style feels like a hybrid of Quentin Tarantino and Jhumpa Lahiri. It has the nonlinear narrative techniques and witty dialogue similar to Tarantino, but the empathy and understanding of the human condition similar to Lahiri. The novel functions superficially as a story of a hostage situation, but at a deeper level it is a story about people and the inner struggles and joys we all experience in navigating life. Bachman goes into detail into every single person effected by the hostage situation — the bank robber, the hostages, the police officers, and the loved ones of all those involved. It is a truly hilarious and uplifting story, and made me more optimistic about humanity. What more can you ask for?
Mad Men S6-S7 by Matthew Weiner (2013–2015)
I started my Mad Men rewatch in August of 2020, but finally wrapped it up last month. The show functions as a view of the changing 1960s culture, and the myriad ways this culture seeps into the decisions and values of our main characters. The last two seasons take place between 1967–1970 and I was fascinated to see these seasoned characters — particular Don Draper and Peggy Olson — adjust to the changing norms of the counterculture movement and hopefully try to find some happiness by the end of the decade. Considering Mad Men S1 takes place in 1960, it was fascinating to get a glimpse of how quickly and how much the country had changed in a relatively short time and to see how characters adjust to a world they no longer recognized. It reminded me about the importance of empathy and adaptation as we begin the 2020s decade. The show is a slow burn, especially the first few seasons — but it really pays off by the end. To depict an entire decade, especially as one as volatile as the 1960s, is outstanding.
Parks and Recreation S3 by Michael Schur (2011)
This is my favorite comedy show and is the one show that can always lift my spirits no matter what. I can’t believe it has been 10 years since this season, but it really holds up! This is the season where Parks and Recreation really went into masterpiece territory, adding Adam Scott and Rob Lowe to the cast. In addition, it started the tradition of writing season-long stories, S3 being the Harvest Festival. This season — and the rest of the show — fires on all cylinders. It is hilarious and heartfelt — perfectly capturing the zaniness of good people trying to do good things for their community.
Euphoria Special Episode 1 — Rue by Sam Levinson (2020)
I was a pretty big fan of Euphoria Season 1, albeit I found lots of the episodes and characters inconsistent in how interested I was in their story. Rue is by far my favorite character, and Zendaya plays the drug-addicted teenager who lost her father at a young age with such spirit, empathy, and nuance. This special episode absolutely floored me, and I prefer it to the entirety of Season 1. The whole episode is a late night conversation at a diner between Rue and Ali, her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor — an idea spurred by the restrictions of COVID-19. It is a conversation that spans topics of addiction, racism, religion, heartbreak, death, suicide, family, redemption, and hope. The episode is dark, heart-wrenching, beautiful, and inspiring all in the span of an hour.
Interstellar by Christopher Nolan (2014)
I absolutely adore this film. I saw it in theaters when it came out, and I love it even more every time I watch it. It is so grand and epic — a story about saving humanity from extinction through Interstellar travel — but at the heart of it is a father-daughter story that literally stretches across space and time. Very rarely does a film go into epic and sci-fi territory while remaining grounded in relatable and humanistic themes. Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, and Jessica Chastain all give Oscar-worthy performances, and Christopher Nolan directs a film that I am still in awe of its technical achievement. It is the rare optimistic epic that makes you hopeful for the future of humanity.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Peter Jackson (2001–2003)
There is not much I could say about this trilogy that hasn’t already been said. It’s absolutely epic and it really holds up in production quality, writing, and acting even two decades later. I hadn’t watched these films since I was a little kid, so it felt like re-watching the films for the very first time. The fact that the films function as one 10-hour story really gives a sense of hard-earned joy when we see the journey of our heroes reach the finish line.
Bridges of Madison County by Clint Eastwood (1995)
This film really surprised me — a romantic drama starring Meryl Streep as an Italian woman living in Madison County, Iowa with her husband and children in the 1960s & Clint Eastwood as a photographer for National Geographic who visits the town for a week-long assignment. The film is about their short affair and how it affects them for the rest of their lives. This film is a cut above most romantic dramas. Meryl Streep’s & Clint Eastwood’s performances are outstanding, Clint Eastwood directs the story in a realistic fashion that avoids cliches, and Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay is nuanced and understated. I never felt like I was watching a Hollywood romantic film, but rather a real story about two people.
Wunna by Gunna (2020)
I will always defend the creative skill needed for Trap Rap. Understanding melody, versatile cadences, and using one’s voice as an instrument are not easy skills — trap rap is to traditional hip-hop what the punk rock genre was to traditional rock. All subsets of genres have their place, yet certain ones will be unfairly ridiculed. Wunna — the deluxe version — was an absolute blast from front to back. All 26 tracks are fun and catchy — Gunna’s earworm melodies and the mind-bending production from Turbo and Wheezy make you feel like you’re flying over planet Earth with no care in the world.
Evermore by Taylor Swift (2020)
I was never a big fan of Taylor Swift until 2020. I never doubted her talent, but I have never fully connected to her mainstream pop sound. The second biggest surprise of 2020 — behind the global pandemic — was that Taylor Swift dropped not one, but two of my favorite albums of 2020. Totally shedding her multi-decade sound and aesthetic, Folklore and Evermore are outstanding forays into the indie folk genre — channeling abstract storytelling, understated production, and rich emotional acuity. Together, these albums will forever be the gold standard of the quarantine album.
4:44 by Jay-Z (2017)
This is one of my absolute favorite albums of all time, so it was only fitting that I started my 2021 having this masterwork on repeat. Jay-Z ages gracefully on his 13th studio album — no longer trying to compete with the young folk of the hip-hop culture but instead offering his hard-earned wisdom. Through the album, he addresses the benefits of therapy in healing trauma, the culture surrounding race and hip-hop, his relationship with his parents, and his own role as a husband and father. It is truly a cultural milestone for the hip-hop genre, and an album that has genuinely made me a more empathetic and service-oriented person.