Best of 2023
Here's my rundown of some of my favorite TV, movies, books, and apps/tools/things around the internet from the past year.
TV shows: (in no particular order)
The Last of Us
Not an original choice in any way, but absolutely one of the most joyous, moving gifts of 2023. And for me, carried heavily by the magnificence of Bella Ramsey, and by the bond between the two main characters. Something like, "Even if the entire world goes to shit, at least we have each other." Where "each other" is neither a romantic partner nor blood family, but just people who have run into each other & have come to a mutual trust. In the world of this show (and maybe IRL, too): if you realize someone isn't out to use you OR kill you, hang onto that person!
Season 2 this year, but the first season was on my "best of 2022" list too. This one is also not an original choice, but I will be pushing The Bear until everyone on the planet has seen it. In particular, this season has a couple of my favorite episodes, of any show, ever. Those who have watched the season will be able to guess which ones they are.
Late to the party as this show started and ended in 2020. But the only way I can describe it is exquisite. After every episode I was left stunned and happily and/or sadly devastated. I read the Sally Rooney book (after watching the show), and I'm of the (perhaps controversial) opinion that the show breathed life into the story, in a way the book did not. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it on TV.
Honorable mention: Arcane
Also late to the party on this, and I wouldn't say it was life-changing like the others were, but Arcane is just really great fun with eye-poppingly gorgeous art. I was wrong to avoid it because of assuming it was "just the League of Legends show." It works quite independently of League of Legends (which I know very little about) and is just a high quality show, most importantly featuring a protagonist who has almost the same hair as me.
I'm sorry I couldn't narrow down this list to fewer than 7 movies, but I apparently watched 84 movies this year (slightly fewer distinct ones—I do like to rewatch the same movies over and over), so I'm just giving you the top ~10%! They are (mostly) in order of when I watched them, starting from the beginning of the year.
The Menu might be one of the least ""good"" (read: serious, important) movies on this list, but as I somehow watched it 4 times in 6 months, it didn't feel right to leave it out. I watched it twice for myself, and twice more because I was forcing various other people to watch it for their first time. Somehow, it only got funnier and funnier to me on each watch. (Those I forced to watch it found it very funny as well!) I feel like I enjoy this movie even more than its own creators really intended or planned for it to be enjoyed. I can hear them going, "Okayy, Rory, I love how much you love The Menu, but it's also okay to maybe watch a different movie sometime, y'know."
Return to Seoul
It's just good.
I cried watching this, then told all my Asian woman friends who are partnered with or married to white men to watch this movie, which I realized.. is all of my Asian woman friends.
One of those movies where it feels like whenever someone asked, "Okay, this might be too crazy, but what if we...?" the answer was "YES." Every line in every scene is totally stupid and totally brilliant. I wish so much that this movie had existed when I was in high school. Immediately jumped into my top 4 all-time.
An older Japanese man who lives alone and cleans public toilets around Tokyo for a living, just quietly enjoying his life, day after day. This movie was so healing to me. It put this seed in my brain that's slowly changing my relationship to reading and books.
All of Us Strangers
Latest addition to my "Paul Mescal being tender & caring" cinematic universe.
Grave of the Fireflies
The only movie on this list that didn't come out this year (it's from 1988!), but I got to watch it at the movies anyhow, thanks to a special screening. Grave of the Fireflies is regularly cited as one of the best movies of all time—not just out of animated movies, but all movies (#28 on Letterboxd, #118 on Metacritic), and now that I've seen it, I consider it a non-negotiable must-watch for all humans. Especially in this year of many wars. It's animated but it is NOT light viewing. Watch it well, because you may find it too devastating to watch it ever again. You might never think of geopolitics the same way ever again either, and that would be for the better, I feel.
An exciting thing is that my favorite books list below can now also be found in the app I've been building.
Like, I built this lists feature so that I could make lists of books, and now I get to use it. Sometimes being a coder is kind of rad.
In contrast to all the other lists in this post, none of these books came out this year. I rarely read new books, or books from this century if I can help it. (I won't go so far as my dad, reader of ancient Chinese poetry, who stands by his claim that "Nothing worthwhile has been written in the past 800 years.")
In order of when I read them, earliest first:
An Editor's Burial, ed. David Brendel, Wes Anderson
Anthology of old New Yorker pieces that inspired The French Dispatch (movie)! Many characters in the movie are amalgamations of the writers featured in the book. As it's an anthology I would typically point out my favorite pieces, but I actually can't. They're all good.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didon
No one does LA, SF, and NY in the 60s quite like Joan Didion. In particular, her way of seeing people, esp. young people, in all their silliness and also beauty, reminds me of Mavis Gallant who has a piece in the aforementioned An Editor's Burial. But not just people: Didion has a paragraph describing wind, that will make you want to quit writing on the spot (if you write).
Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes
Where has this book been all my life? When I needed role models for my toxic girl crushes? (By which I don't mean role models for snapping me out of my toxic girl crushes, only for writing about them beautifully.)
Life in Code, by Ellen Ullman
A random bookstore pickup that turned out to be life-changing: rare chicken soup for the programmer/poet soul. And as someone who literally grew up inside the internet, I felt right at home.
Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain == the best comfort reading/TV. His intense passion for anything degenerate and unclassy is something we needed in this world.
Apps, tools, things around the internet:
Paid search engine. No trackers. SEO junk downranked/hidden by default. No shopping links (unless you want them). Super customizable. Has already saved me years of my life of scrolling through garbage SEO-farm results on Google.
Lets me keep all my gazillions of tabs organized in separate spaces and folders. Lots of other little quality-of-life things that make it better than other browsers. Chromium browser, so I can still use dev tools as I would in Chrome. Pairs well with Kagi search because you can make it your default search engine and never look back.
Raycast is a macOS "Spotlight replacement." If you've never used Spotlight to begin with (press Cmd+Enter, search stuff to open files or apps; it's built into macOS), maybe going from no-Spotlight to using Spotlight will make a big enough difference in itself that you may or may not need Raycast, which has lots of extra stuff. But I've been finding the extra stuff super handy, for quick conversions and similar things that shouldn't require opening a browser tab, like "london time", "43 days from now" (returns the date), measuring unit or currency conversions, also for moving/resizing app windows, getting "the thing before the last thing I copied to my clipboard," some dev stuff I've added via extensions (get current unix timestamp, convert colors between hex and HSL), and! the ChatGPT window (covered in "ChatGPT", below). It's like a Swiss Army knife for my computer.
ChatGPT + GitHub Copilot
Another unoriginal choice, but I should say that I only really use ChatGPT for coding. Occasionally I use it for something else for fun, but I wouldn't necessarily pay for that. On the other hand, these two services combined have probably made me at least 2-3x more productive as a dev. I use GH Copilot for the autocomplete suggestions while typing code in my editor. What it suggests is sometimes exactly what I want and sometimes exactly NOT what I want.. but it's about 90% what I want, at least 60% of the time. That just saves me a ton of typing and looking stuff up. It's about the same quality as when I copy-paste code from my other files or from the internet (all of which I regularly do), but without having to spend the time even to find it and copy-paste it, only to edit it after. It's like, "Is this what you were wanting to copy-paste?" and I'm like, "Actually, yeah."
I use ChatGPT for all other coding help, including prompting it to write code (you can do this with Copilot but I don't find it as good), or to write SQL queries (huge!), "what's wrong with this code / can you fix it?", "here's some sample code I copied from the internet, can you convert it to [system/language I use]?" and more. I especially appreciate that I can keep talking to it, e.g. "no, I meant using [blah]," or "but won't that not work because [reason]?" About 5-10% of the time it responds with complete BS, but it's still worth it for me on net. (The connection to Raycast is that Raycast gives me a ChatGPT shortcut and window, so that I don't have to keep the OpenAI website open; it also means I can use GPT-4 (for more money) through my Raycast subscription, which I recently learned might not be available to everyone yet if you go direct through OpenAI.) I was a holdout on AI tools too and was not excited to try them, but I'm finding them too useful to ignore.
This isn't an app or tool, more of a "thing around the internet": Lofi Girl is a YouTube channel / set of 24/7 streams of chill music, each with a chill animated backdrop of a person working or, well, chilling, always with an equally chill little pet nearby. The streams come in a few main flavors with a couple of different characters (there's Lofi Girl and Synthwave Boy), and are watched (not really "watched", more like "put on") by tens of thousands of people, around the clock, every day of the year. And the streams run continuously, for YEARS (interrupted once every few years by the rare technical issue). Lofi Girl is the patron saint of all those working at a desk in solitude late into the night, as she is always, ALWAYS studying. (Or writing, if you want to see it that way.) I love the community (there is a YouTube chat, but I hide it, so I mean more like the implicit community) of knowing many thousands of people (probably mostly students) are working whenever I'm working. Lofi Girl was such good company for me in the past few months and helped me concentrate to such an extent that I learned that if I have the stream on every waking hour, it is actually not sustainable after a week or two, as the music starts to cycle a bit too much, so I had to cut back.
Alrighty, that's it for now. If you get into any of the above things because of my rec, I'd love to hear about it. Happy New Year and see you in 2024!
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