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Alice Cottrell, Publisher 

My favourite read of this year was Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson, a short story collection that grabbed hold of me from the first line and didn’t let go. The characters and plots are brilliantly weird: a mother who works for an arms manufacturer frets about her son’s sensitivity after a playground incident, a teacher encounters an ex-student who inspires secret loathing, a couple move into a house in which there’s been a recent murder and fall under the spell of their strange neighbours. Wilson’s writing is sharp, funny and original—I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Of all the films I’ve watched this year, the real standouts have been documentaries. In Dick Johnson is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson works with her father, who suffers from dementia, to portray different (sometimes violent) ways he could die. This includes staging his funeral while he’s still alive. It’s a gorgeous and surprisingly life-affirming exploration of loss, death and love. Acasa, My Home is a portrait of a Romanian family who are removed from their wilderness home by authorities and forced to adapt to life in Bucharest. It’s an understated study of the benefits and perils of both off-grid and city life. Hating Peter Tatchell is an inspiring look at the human rights campaigner’s lifetime of activism and the power of civil disobedience.

I also loved the first season of Slate’s history podcast One Year, which explored culturally significant moments from the year 1977 in the USA, from Elvis’ death to the near-legalisation of marijuana to the appearance of Jesus on a tortilla. It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking listen about how a nation’s past shapes its present. The next season has just begun and is focused on 1995, so I’m looking forward to diving back in.

Alan Vaarwerk, Editor 

This year I loved Fiona Murphy’s The Shape of Sound, a tenderly written memoir that explores the author’s experience of coming to terms with her own deafness, which then forms a lens through which she talks about sound and silence and how our bodies move through the built environment. As a language nerd, I especially loved Murphy’s reflection on how Auslan and other signed languages build meaning and nuance through the whole body and its position in space. Similarly, Sam van Zweden’s Eating with my Mouth Open is a beautiful braided essay collection that uses the author’s relationship to food and family as a jumping off point for unpacking memory and our embodied senses, and the complicated place of food in culture. On the fiction side, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho was a tightly-controlled novel of quietly simmering dissatisfaction, and the vicarious thrill of Chloe Wilson’s Hold Your Fire was probably the most fun I had reading fiction this year.

In the cinema, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Collective, a stark and gripping Romanian documentary following journalists whose investigation into a 2015 nightclub fire reveals massive corruption within the country’s healthcare system, and the pervasive sense of nihilism even among those fighting hardest to change a deeply broken system. At this year’s online MIFF I also loved the trippy, contemplative Japanese volleyball documentary Witches of the Orient (after becoming obsessed with the sport at the Olympics), as well as the charming Zoom dramedy Language Lessons. On TV, Only Murders in the Building was a campy delight that both played with and respected its genre conventions, and after inexplicably resisting Call My Agent! for years, it’s finally clicked into place as the addictive slow-burning workplace satire I’d been waiting for all my life.

Suzy Garcia, Deputy Editor

In a year that sometimes felt like a quick blur and other times like an endless age, I looked for things that soothed me or took my imagination out of lockdown.

Music was a big help. My background music of choice was YouTube vinyl sets—my faves found on the channel My Analog Journal, which features guest mixes from all around the world. And aside from the obvious popular bangers that got me through (thank you, Taylor Swift), a much-played playlist of my own making was called ‘calm the fuck down music’ and included albums like Helado Negro’s Far InNala Sinephro’s Space 1.8 and Arooj Aftab’s wonderfully ethereal Vulture Prince.

My best escapisms were food-related: I tried out recipes from The Turkish Cookbook by Musa Dağdeviren; on TV, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown to travel from my couch; and I loved the podcast Home Cooking featuring Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat. (Podcasts were a big thing for me in a year that included a lot of neighbourhood walks. I also really liked Maintenance Phase, Anything for Selena and recent guilty pleasure Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College, which has me itching to reread The Secret History by Donna Tartt.)

As for new release books, Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford was a standout in its tender exploration of both a city and a daughter’s grief. From the international reads, Jhumpa Lahiri’s quiet and pared-back Whereabouts stayed in my mind.

The best new film I saw was El Planeta by Amalia Ulman, a witty and oddly moving debut set in post-GFC Spain about a mother-daughter pair of grifters.

Finally, I was also initiated to the world of gaming in 2021 via Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which immersed me in a long adventure that made the year infinitely more bearable.

May Ngo, 2021 New Critic 

Quo Vadis, Aida?: A Bosnian film written, produced and directed by Jasmila Žbanić. A fictional account of the days in the lead up to the Srebrenica massacre through the eyes of a local UN translator Aida Selmanagić. Powerful, suspenseful and genuinely heartbreaking. (Read Dženana Vucic’s review.)

One Hundred Days: Does anyone write class and race better in Australian fiction than Alice Pung? Always empathetic, she grants interiority and psychological depth to lives that are rarely given attention to in contemporary literature. The novel is a funny, biting and ultimately hopeful story about a mother and daughter.

Train to Busan: This zombie action thriller was released in 2016, but I watched it several times this year. The movie is a masterclass in structure and pacing, with every scene moving the story forward exactly like the train—there is no wasted shot. What I loved best about it, though, was that you think you’re watching a zombie movie, and then gradually the actual story underneath it hits you. Hard.

If we’re talking about things that got me through 2021, discovering Uncle Roger and his ‘Egg fry rice’ critique of Jamie Oliver on YouTube played a huge role.

I read this interview with writer Anne Boyer at the beginning of 2021 and it has stayed with me all year. I come back to it again and again, in the midst of all the chatter and hot takes, because it brings me back to what is real.

Ellen Cregan, First Book Club host

Firstly, I’d like to highlight @DumbBitchMemes69 on Instagram. This meme creator captured every emotion I had this year perfectly and hilariously, and it really feels like each meme was better than the last one. There were some especially great lockdown-related memes this year that made me feel less alone in the depths of social isolation. I hope that the anonymous author of this page knows how much I adore them.

Embarrassingly, the TV show I have binged the most in 2021 was Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. But I’m here to talk about the reason why I was binging it. That’s Messed Up is a podcast where two very clever and funny comedians (Kara Klenk and Liza Traeger) discuss an episode of SVU, retell the real-life crime it was based on, and interview someone involved in the show. This podcast is a true delight and I’m always hanging out for new episodes to drop.

Last but not least: books. This has been an excellent year for books, and I’ve read so many things I have loved (and honestly 90 per cent of them are our First Book Club titles for this year!) but there are two books that I’d like to mention. Firstly, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s pulp noir novel Velvet Was the NightThis book is set in Mexico in the 1960s, in the midst of political turmoil. When a young artist disappears, her dowdy neighbour must follow the clues left behind to figure out where she’s gone. It’s such a fun read with a well-researched historical backdrop, and doesn’t get too gory which is my ideal crime fiction vibe. Secondly, Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light, which is the most moving book I’ve read over the past few years. This is a wonderful, sad and hugely empathetic book and I’m so glad I read it.

Guy Webster, ‘An Ode to Brendan Fraser and Body Neutrality’

2021 was a tough year, my Spotify Wrapped Playlist reminds me. Angie McMahon’s Piano Salt and Lucy Dacus’ Home Video provided the perfect soundtrack to lockdown melancholy, while Lorde’s Solar Power broke a four-year hiatus with an album of sun-dappled sadness—made all the sadder by its less than favourable reception among audiences and critics. Dipped in the sounds of cicadas, waves and crackling fire, Solar Power evokes the Southern Hemisphere in a way that I’ll be defending for years.

In books, I have to mention Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. Nelson has always been an acute analyst, and in On Freedom her skills are sharper than ever as she grapples with what freedom means in the realms of art, sex, drugs and culture. 

In films, it’s Tick, Tick…Boom!; a semi-autobiographical musical written by the creator of Rent, Jonathan Larson. Already gut-wrenching, it’s made all the more affecting by the recent death of legendary composer, Stephen Sondheim, who features heavily throughout.

Finally, in a year once again marred by closures, I must take a moment to celebrate the incredible homegrown theatre I’ve been able to see. My highlights include the buoyant As You Like It at Melbourne Theatre Company, the enchanting The Mermaid at the newly renovated La Mama Theatre, and the return season of Suzie Miller’s arresting Prima Facie at Griffin Theatre Company. 

Deirdre Fidge, The Secret Life of Us and the Impossible Fantasy of your Twenties’ 

Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light is a phenomenal novel. It’s a story of one person’s life, and at the same time, a reflection of the numerous lives we all lead. The book contains themes that are often depicted in a simplistic, gratuitous way but Down presents them with tenderness and grace, and as someone living with the ongoing effects of trauma I found the experience of reading this extremely validating and moving. She has created characters that feel so real I realised I was delaying the final chapter because I didn’t want to say goodbye.

Here’s a bit of a change in tone from the last pick. The podcast Big Natural Talents comes from the wonderfully chaotic minds of Sydney comedians Lauren Bonner and Concetta Caristo. The loose theme of the pod is ‘gossip’, with the presenters sharing stories from their own lives and reading submissions from listeners. It’s very fun, very silly (in the best way) and has become my go-to for when I feel the existential dread and panic of this year creeping in.

Finally, Nina Oyama’s article ‘Chronicles of a Delusional Artist’ is SUCH A GOOD READ. Nina is a brilliant comedian and actor and this highlights her writing skills as well (okay I’ll stop being a simp). The arts as an industry is, how can I put this, cooked. Whether you work in the industry or not, Nina’s sharing of her experiences are important and eye-opening and serve to remind us we have a long way to go. (The piece also refers to The Comeback, a series I discovered in lockdown that is absolutely worth a watch!)