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The year in review: 50 wonderful things from 2023

Clockwise from left:<em> Cocaine Bear, </em>Luke Macfarlane in <em><em>Platonic,</em></em> Danielle Brooks and Fantasia Barrino in<em> The Color Purple, </em>Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies<em>, </em>the cover of the book <em>Starter Villain,</em> Jessica Williams in<em> Shrinking.</em>
Universal Pictures; Apple TV+; Eli Adé/Warner Bros. Pictures; Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images; Tor Books; Apple TV+
Clockwise from left: Cocaine Bear, Luke Macfarlane in Platonic, Danielle Brooks and Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple, Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies, the cover of the book Starter Villain, Jessica Williams in Shrinking.

I've been making annual lists of 50 Wonderful Pop Culture Things since 2010. They include things you've probably heard of and things you might not have, things that are meaningful and things that are hilarious, things that matter and things that don't at all. In this year in which TV and film were both interrupted for months as a result of labor disputes, there was plenty to admire even as production ground to a halt.

The usual caveats apply: These are not objectively the best things; they are just wonderful things. There were far more than 50 wonderful things to admire this year, and there is far (far) more that I never saw or read or heard at all. But it never hurts to look back on the year and realize that in fact, delight was upon you over and over.

1. The best podcast I started listening to this year wasIf Books Could Kill,hosted by Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri. The premise is that they dive into "airport books" from self-help to political posturing to investigate their claims. It's very funny and deeply researched, and in a world where it's easy to feel like you're losing your grip, it's a good reminder: your grip is fine. You're just being handed a lot of slippery things. Start with their January episode about John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. You never forget an episode that makes you cackle in your car.

2. It's hard to pick a single moment from the scorching fourth and final season of Succession. But the balcony fight between Shiv and Tom that went on and on and got worse and worse, more and more painful, encapsulated exactly what has worked so well about the show. It was a years-long story reaching its inevitable nuclear meltdown, and Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen played it brilliantly. "I think you are incapable of love." Yikes.

3. Rarely has a show come back from a truly great first season and made a truly great second season. The Bear managed to do it with the help of an exquisite cast, both regulars and guest stars. There are enough powerful performances on that show to make five more just like it. When pastry chef Marcus went off to Copenhagen and studied with Luca, played by Will Poulter, the fact that the focus was far away from Carmy did nothing to detract from the episode's power and its thematic connections to the season.

A look back at Amy's hairstyles in <em>Beef. </em><strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/04/06/1167959412/beef-review-ali-wong-steven-yeun">Read a review of the show.</a></strong>
Andrew Cooper / Netflix
A look back at Amy's hairstyles in Beef. Read a review of the show.

4. The changes to Amy's (Ali Wong) hair over the course of Beef-- long and straight, blond and bobbed and parted on the side, dark and bobbed with bangs — are really effective at underscoring her struggle with who she is and wants to be. Hair department head Nicole Venables was clearly working at the top of her game.

5. Michael Schulman's book Oscar Wars is a great education in Hollywood history, but it's also dishy as all get out. My highlight? A story about Joan Fontaine (supposedly!) telling people that she was considered for the role of Melanie in Gone With the Wind, but was told she wasn't plain enough, so she recommended her sister (and frenemy at best), Olivia de Havilland. That is so ice-cold, you could wrap it up and use it on your swollen ankle.

Greta Lee in <em>Past Lives. </em><strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/10/19/1206824165/greta-lee-past-lives-the-morning-show">Hear Lee on <em>Fresh Air</em>.</a></strong>
/ A24
Greta Lee in Past Lives. Hear Lee on Fresh Air.

6. Greta Lee should be and likely will be in every awards conversation for her stellar work in Past Lives. But even on Apple's inconsistent The Morning Show, she's always a standout as Stella, a young entertainment executive who faced some terrible choices in the show's third season.

7. Had I been involved in the making of Barbie, I would have cared about nothing so much as exactly what song all the Kens should play when they, soaking in a bath of toxic masculinity, attempt to impress and win over the Barbies. Whatever I settled on would have been nowhere near as perfect as "Push."

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in <em>Rye Lane</em>. <strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/03/30/1166717149/rye-lane-review">Read a review<em>.</em></a></strong>
Chris Harris / Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures
David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in Rye Lane. Read a review.

8. The bright romantic comedy Rye Lane has a lot to recommend it. But perhaps nothing stuck with me as much as its stunning colors — deep golds and yellows, bright pinks and reds, rich greens and blues. From director Raine Allen-Miller, it would be a stunner even with the sound off.

9. Whatever your feelings about the franchise, there is nothing to fault in the sequence in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One in which Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell are struggling to survive in a train that's dangling off a cliff. A gas line, vats of oil, and a ratz-a-fratzin grand piano all play into the gloriously silly, tooth-grindingly tense scene.

Harrison Ford in <em>Shrinking</em>.<strong> <a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/01/31/1152527309/shrinking-review-harrison-ford-jason-segel">Read a review.</a></strong>
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Harrison Ford in Shrinking. Read a review.

10. Harrison Ford hasn't made a lot of straight-up comedy in this stage of his career, so what a joy to see him in Shrinking, alongside Jason Segel and Jessica Williams. All three play therapists who work together, and Ford deploys his brutal deadpan to make completely ordinary dialogue feel like punchline after punchline.

11. About five minutes into May December, Julianne Moore, seen in profile, opens the refrigerator in her sunny kitchen. The foreboding piano of the score (by Marcelo Zarvos, adapting a 1971 score by Michel Legrand for the film The Go-Between) suddenly sounds loudly, and she stares into the refrigerator, as if she's seeing the Ark of the Covenant. The camera pushes in. And then she says, "I don't think we have enough hot dogs." Is this a comedy? A drama? A horror movie? In that early moment, it is, as it will remain, hard to say.

The title<em> Cocaine Bear</em> says it all, and the film delivers on that promise in 95 minutes.
/ Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
The title Cocaine Bear says it all, and the film delivers on that promise in 95 minutes.

12. Cocaine Bear. The fact that they made it, the fact that they gave it that title, the fact that it's so gory and gleeful and comfortable being what it is.

13. There is a scene near the end of Saltburn in which an elaborate lunch table full of wealthy people trying desperately to act normal under bizarre circumstances is plunged into haunting red light by the closing of the curtains. Emerald Fennell, who wrote and directed, simply doesn't do anything halfway.

Iman Vellani, Brie Larson, and Teyonah Parris in <em>The Marvels</em>.
Laura Radford / Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios
Iman Vellani, Brie Larson, and Teyonah Parris in The Marvels.

14. Iman Vellani's performance as Kamala Khan in The Marvels bubbles with energy, and a scene where she and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) keep switching places, disappearing and reappearing in her parents' house, is a kinetic, rambunctious delight. If you were put off by the talk about The Marvels falling flat at the box office, don't let that keep you from checking it out.

15. My favorite food host of the year is a three-way tie. Sohla El-Waylly and her husband Ham have been doing the series "Mystery Menu" for the NYT cooking channel for a while now, but if you haven't seen it — their experimentation with durian, for instance — check it out immediately. Also: an equally good way to approach the NYT cooking channel is to watch absolutely anything featuring Eric Kim, who is enchanting. Also also: Anything on the Epicurious channel with chef Saul Montiel will brighten your day. Here he is making calzones.

Dominic Sessa, left, and Paul Giamatti in <em>The Holdovers. </em><strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/10/26/1208654864/the-holdovers-alexander-payne-paul-giamatti">Read a review.</a></strong>
/ Focus Features
Focus Features
Dominic Sessa, left, and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers. Read a review.

16. All of the performances in The Holdovers are top-notch, but it was especially promising to discover Dominic Sessa, a young actor on the screen for the first time. Playing Angus Tully, a high school kid who's both smart and foolish (as so many are), he offers exquisite touches of both swagger and insecurity, enough to keep up with towering performances from Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph. All three leads deserve many award nominations; he may be the one who loses out. But bet on him in the future. He'll be back.

17. The tense final moments of the suspense thriller Fair Play had me unsure what I even wanted to happen, and what actually happened was better than what I would have come up with anyway. That is exactly the ending you want from a psychologically complex story like this one, about a couple torn asunder by a promotion at work.

Luke Macfarlane in <em>Platonic.</em> <strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/05/28/1178396680/platonic-review-seth-rogen-rose-byrne">Read a review.</a></strong>
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Luke Macfarlane in Platonic. Read a review.

18. Luke MacFarlane is a veteran of holiday love stories (it's probably adequate to note he was in films called both Sense & Sensibility & Snowmen and A Shoe Addict's Christmas), and he made a splash with Billy Eichner in Bros in 2022. This year, he was very funny in Platonic, playing the loving husband of a woman (Rose Byrne) whose friendship with an old pal (Seth Rogen) takes off anew. The part could be a real nothing; he makes it sing. (Platonic runner-up: the scene, featuring friend of PCHH Guy Branum, in which he throws electric scooters like a track star throws a discus is a sport. As it should be.)

19. There was nothing like the go-for-broke madness of Peacock'sMrs. Davis,an action-adventure comedic thriller about a nun who's trying to resist the intrusions of an all-knowing AI who is suddenly in everyone's ear. (Said AI is called Mrs. Davis, you see.) Betty Gilpin played Simone, the nun, with such control and flexibility that the wild plot developments around her didn't distract from the character work.

Natasha Lyonne in <em>Poker Face. </em><strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/01/25/1151052867/poker-face-review-natasha-lyonne-rian-johnson">Read a review.</a></strong>
Phillip Caruso / Peacock
Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face. Read a review.

20. Rian Johnson created the episodic mystery show Poker Face, in which Natasha Lyonne played Charlie, a woman on the run who encounters a new mystery in every new town. Yes, the writing sparkled, and yes, the roster of guest stars — Judith Light! Lil Rel Howery! Hong Chau! Adrien Brody! — was top-tier. But at the center was Lyonne. From the minute she emerges from a trailer into the hot Nevada sun, sinks into a lawn chair, and grabs herself a beer and a smoke, the character already feels like an icon, and the show like a classic.

21. The Traitorsis a fun reality competition show. But what set it apart was host Alan Cumming, whose pronunciation of "murrrrrder" and succession of impossibly debonair suits made him host of the year.

Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies sprints home during a game against the Miami Marlins on Oct. 3, 2023.
Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images
Getty Images
Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies sprints home during a game against the Miami Marlins on Oct. 3, 2023.

22. I had a spectacular time — spectacular! — watching the Philadelphia Phillies this fall. How do you not love Bryce Harper running through a sign from the third-base coach, scoring, and popping up on his toe?

/ Tor Books
Tor Books

23. I dare you not to giggle at least once as the weird world of John Scalzi's novel, Starter Villain unwinds in front of you. Is there a labor dispute? Yes. Does it involve dolphins? Yes. Is there a volcano, and are there supervillains? Yes and yes.

24. Sometimes it's fun to just have something scare your socks off, and that's what happened with No One Will Save You, an eerie, almost dialogue-free "locked in the house and something terrible is happening" story starring Kaitlyn Dever. She hears a noise. She hides under the bed. She sees a pair of very upsetting feet go by. From there, she's on her own.

25. Podcasts diving extra-deep into a particular film or show are of wildly differing quality. But50MPH, a planned 50-part (!!) series about the making of Speed, has offered choice moments for the movie's fans. Try episode 12, about the script development, which includes a detour into the involvement of one Joss Whedon.

26. Emma Cline's novel The Guest is about a woman whose boyfriend kicks her out and leaves her adrift in the Hamptons to survive with nothing. She imposes upon one person, then another, and Cline builds a sense of dread amid all the wealth: "No one on the shore noticed her, or looked twice. A couple walked past, heads bent, studying the sand for shells. ... Surely, if Alex had been in any real danger, someone would have reacted, one of these people would have stepped in to help."

Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman, died in July at age 70. <strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/07/31/1191104833/pee-wee-herman-dead-paul-reubens">Read a remembrance.</a></strong>
Danny Moloshok / AP
Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman, died in July at age 70. Read a remembrance.

27. Paul Reubens, who created the character Pee-wee Herman, died on July 30, and was warmly and appropriately appreciated. What a delightful surprise, then, to see him in a cameo appearance in the affable comedyQuiz Lady,playing himself as the baffled target of a fan's affections.

28. I had trouble following the plot of the drama series Full Circle, which starred Claire Danes and Timothy Olyphant as a couple that learns their son has been kidnapped, which is only the very beginning of their problems. I did, however, greatly appreciate Vulture's Kathryn VanArendonk making a thorough investigation of why on earth Dennis Quaid ended up wearing a braid. It involves a last-minute dash to a wig shop. It's quite a tale.

29. Yes, Maureen Ryan is one of my very good friends and colleagues in the writing-about-television industry. But plenty of people agreed that as hard as it was to read, her book Burn It Down, about abuse in Hollywood and the systems that enable it, was a tremendous example of dogged journalism that does what it sets out to do. Pleasant to read? No. Wonderful to know that this kind of work is still being done, and done so well? Yes.

30. The Tiny Desk at NPR has been growing and growing in the breadth of its offerings, the devotion of its audience, and the vibrancy of its innovation. This year, nothing landed quite like the appearance by Juvenile, which is irresistible even to people who don't necessarily think they're "Back That Azz Up" people. Trombone Shorty was there! Jon Batiste flew in from London! What a wondrous thing.

31. Jimmy Tatro appeared in the comedy Theater Camp, playing a character not dissimilar to the doofus jock he played in American Vandal. Not to pigeonhole Tatro, but some actors have an eerily perfect touch with a particular kind of role, and Tatro is perhaps our foremost lovably lunkheaded bro.

32. Sam Sanders juggled two podcasts for much of the year: Into Itat Vulture and Vibe Check,which he does with his friends Saeed Jones and Zach Stafford. Disappointingly, Into It was a victim of cutbacks, but Vibe Check continues, and it provided one of the most moving episodes of the year in a discussion of grief following the death of Sam's mother.

33. There is a long history of shows making baffling choices when forced to replace a beloved host. When Padma Lakshmi decided to step away from Top Chef, a lot of us thought, "They should pick somebody like [Top Chef champion] Kristen Kish, but they won't." And then they did! Welcome the Kish era!

Ishmel Sahid, left, and James Marsden play alternate jurors in the series <em>Jury Duty. </em><strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/05/02/1173271968/jury-duty-james-marsden-ronald-gladden">Hear Marsden on </a><em><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/05/02/1173271968/jury-duty-james-marsden-ronald-gladden">Fresh Air.</a></em></strong>
/ Amazon Freevee
Amazon Freevee
Ishmel Sahid, left, and James Marsden play alternate jurors in the series Jury Duty. Hear Marsden onFresh Air.

34. Jury Duty is the Amazon Freevee series in which a man named Ronald is called for jury duty, and he doesn't know that everyone else from the judge to the other jurors to the lawyers and parties, is an actor. At the end, all is revealed to him — that he's been sitting on a fake jury of a fake trial — and it could have been so, so painful to watch. But Ronald has a good sense of humor, and he chooses not to feel let down, even by his new pal, James Marsden (who plays himself in the fake scenario). They lucked out with Ronald, for sure.

35. There were some impressive videos of striking actors advocating for themselves and their colleagues as their strike (and the WGA strike) wore on. One of the best came from Mandy Patinkin.

John Mulaney talks about his "star-studded intervention" in his special<em> Baby J.</em> <strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/04/25/1171880929/in-baby-j-john-mulaneys-jokes-are-all-at-the-expense-of-one-person-john-mulaney">Read a review.</a></strong>
Marcus Russell Price / Netflix
John Mulaney talks about his "star-studded intervention" in his special Baby J. Read a review.

36. John Mulaney's Netflix specialBaby J was deeply uncomfortable to watch, as he recounted his experiences with addiction, intervention and rehab. But the story of having an intervention with a room full of comedians sparkled. "Do you know what it's like to have 12 people save your life?" he asks in a discussion of his indebtedness. "It's too many people."

37. Last year in this space, I saluted Karina Longworth's excellent podcast series You Must Remember This, and its miniseries Erotic '80s. What happened this year? Erotic '90s, of course, and it was perhaps even better. Try the Julia Roberts episode.

Danielle Brooks and Fantasia Barrino in <em>The Color Purple. </em><strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/12/19/1219323296/the-color-purple-review">Read a review. </a></strong>
Eli Adé / Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Danielle Brooks and Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple. Read a review.

38. Danielle Brooks gives only one of several excellent performances inThe Color Purple. (What a joy to see Fantasia Barrino thriving, having watched her on American Idol so many years ago.) But Brooks' work is emotional and haunting and also tremendously funny — she plays Sofia, played in the Spielberg movie by Oprah Winfrey — and she never misses a step.

39. I don't spend as much time dunking on terrible things as I used to, but there's a particular pleasure to be found in an evisceration of something you very much disliked. Thus, please enjoy Lindy West's piece on The Whale.

40. In Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra Hüller plays a woman who might — or might not — have done something terrible. In effect, to sustain the uncertainty, she has to play two women simultaneously: one who is covering up guilt, and one who is being unfairly accused. It's a remarkable trick.

41. It has sometimes been hard to remember, as Twitter becomes unusable for me, that it could be a genuine source of friendly small talk. As a salute to that particular piece of its history, enjoy this thread in which a thousand people answered the call for pictures of their pets.

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in <em>American Fiction</em>. <strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/12/22/1220967809/american-fiction-black-art-selling-out-satire">Read an essay about the film.</a></strong>
Claire Folger / Orion Releasing LLC
Orion Releasing LLC
Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction. Read an essay about the film.

42. Jeffrey Wright's performance in American Fiction as an intellectual convinced that he's at the mercy of a foolish literary establishment (which is ... probably right) is part of the movie's appeal. But maybe even better is the part of the performance that focuses on the character's complex, fractured relationships with his family. Wright is one of our very best.

43. Oppenheimer is a category of movie we've seen before, in that it's an examination of a very famous man with a complicated legacy. But director Christopher Nolan is a master of capturing the unthinkably enormous, so it's unsurprising that his approach to presenting the detonation of a nuclear bomb is inventive and meticulously done.

44. The crime thriller Sharper sort of came and went (you can find it on Apple TV+); it stars Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan and Justice Smith as three of the people tied up in a complicated (really complicated) plot that involves con artists, guns, money and a lot of beautiful people. There's a kind of pleasure in twisty thrillers that you can't quite get anywhere else, and the closing chapter of this one delivered it.

Keri Russell in <em>The Diplomat. </em><strong><a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/04/19/1170685432/the-diplomat-review-keri-russell">Read a review.</a></strong>
/ Netflix
Keri Russell in The Diplomat. Read a review.

45. After The Americans and Felicity (and, sure, Cocaine Bear), nobody needs to prove the versatility of Keri Russell. But playing a new ambassador named Kate in The Diplomat, the way she moves from one room to another, the way she picks up and puts down various objects, even the way she squirms as someone puts makeup on her, all contribute to a vision of Kate as a superbly competent and capable person, which makes her spy-thriller adventures much easier to care about.

46. The level of difficulty in Emma Stone's performance in Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things is extraordinary: she's playing a woman who is, sort of, a child. But she rapidly grows emotionally and intellectually older, more and more independent and lustful. Stone makes it all seem like one performance, one character.

47. I very much liked Deadloch, an Australian comedy-crime series that is both a small-time crime series in the tradition of Broadchurch and a send-up of those very shows. I didn't know the actors, I didn't know much about the show until I watched it, and I was delighted to discover it. Most of those things are also true of runner-up Australian comedy Colin From Accounts, which is also worth a watch.

48. I was slow to get attached to Only Murders in the Building, which focused this season on the production of a musical. But Steve Martin's delivery of the patter song "Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did it?" was the best reason of all to get on board.

49. Hopefully, I can be forgiven for sneaking some older stuff in here by talking about a project that was great for me this year: The Criterion Collection continues to be a wonderful source for classic movies, and I used its collection of some of the films from the Sight & Sound poll as a way into movies including The Passion of Joan of Arc, Black Orpheus, Cleo from 5 to 7, and the film that topped the list: Jean Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

50. This was the year I got (deeply) into The Flop House, a podcast that's been around since late 2007 (what? I was busy) and passed its 400th episode. Each week, hosts Dan McCoy, Stuart Wellington and Elliott Kalan talk about a movie that's either a commercial or critical disappointment. There are guest hosts sometimes, there is a longstanding fixation on the more disposable work of Nicolas Cage (whom they rightly revere as an actor), and you can start right at the beginning of January with their consideration of Black Adam. From the not-so-wonderful, the wonderful can sometimes emerge.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.