I know that most of you did your 2010s reminiscing back in January, but you have to understand that, for me, Christmas ended like two days ago. It might as well still be Thanksgiving.
2010 was the year I started high school. The books, movies, TV shows and games that have come out since then have shaped who I am; some of them have given me some really bad tattoo ideas.
While the late 20teens have often felt like pages torn from some of Orwell’s shittier first drafts, I do feel lucky to have been here to witness creators push the limits of art and genre.
I’ve picked ten of my favorite works from the last ten years, pieces that have all spelled change for their medium—whether that’s video games, animation, music, books, podcasts, or even things so new we don’t have names for them.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
I don’t know who can get through the opening frames of Into the Spider Verse and not fall in love with Miles Morales. I was lucky enough see this movie in theaters with friends who knew more about both animation and Spider-Man than me. But from the opening bars of “Sunflower,” we all knew we were seeing something special.
Some part of me still can’t believe this movie was made. In a world where Spidey is an intellectual property nightmare and big-budget Marvel movies with white male protagonists are forever dominating the box office, everything about Into the Spider-Verse was a risk.
Greenlighting an expensive film with a groundbreaking animation style was a risk. Trying to bring a fresh take to the Spider-Man origin story was a risk. Making John Mulaney a talking, 2D-animated pig—all of it was a risk. And I think it paid off.
Over the Garden Wall (2014)
My closest friends and I have a falltime tradition of sitting down and watching all 10 episodes of Cartoon Network’s Over the Garden Wall, straight through, no stopping. More than the changing of the leaves, it’s the opening notes of the show’s theme that signal the season.
A ten-part miniseries that aired in November of 2014, Over the Garden Wall is a modern fairytale that follows two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who are lost in the woods. They meet mysterious strangers, fall prey to those who would do them harm, and stow away on a steamboat run by frogs.
It’s a passion project; a musical; an homage to 1930s animation; a cult comedy/tragedy/horror cartoon voiced by Elijah Wood and Doc Brown. It’s intensely weird. It’s one of my favorite things.
It’s deep in winter, right now, but I might need to watch it again.
Dirty Computer (2018)
Dirty Computer is as eclectic an album as Monáe herself. It dips into pop, funk, and R&B. The visuals are colored with Monáe’s signature futuristic, dystopian chic. Collabs range from Brian Wilson to Pharrell, Grimes, and before his death, Prince. The video for “Pynk” went viral mostly for the novelty of Monaé, Tessa Thompson, and a line of dancers wearing fluttering magenta vaginas.
But it was more than that: the bright tone and unabashed joy of “Pynk” is what carries the album, as well as Monaé’s unashamed love for who she is. Dirty Computer is Monaé’s joyful embrace of herself—her race, her gender, her sexuality, her aesthetics, her American-ness— and it’s palpable from from first track to last.
The Martian by Andy Weir (2011)
Originally published for free online, The Martian is the creation of a NASA enthusiast who was raised by a particle physicist. It is a DIY science-fiction epic that strives to be as painstakingly nonfiction as possible. But despite Andy Weir’s careful attention to detail, The Martian doesn’t read like the hard sci-fi melodrama you might be imagining—far from it.
Mark Watney is our lovable protagonist: astronaut, botanist, Cubs fan, space pirate. Left for dead on Mars, he spends most of the book living through abject torment.
But he gets through it by problem-solving and pure pluck. In a world gone anti-science, it’s refreshing to see a hero make his way through disastrous circumstances, over and over again, using science.
And it’s not just Watney: The Martian envisions a future where world governments can put aside bureaucratic self-interest and work together out of human decency and a love for discovery.
Some of that might sound a little Pollyanna in a world where Elon Musk is the only one interested in building rockets and our President is busy building a “space force” (whatever that means). But sometimes science fiction shows us a utopia to aim for, rather than a dystopia to run from. I’ll take The Martian‘s any day of the week.
Is there any moment that could better encapsulate the fever dream that was 2010s pop culture than when a YouTuber met Pope Francis and gave him a Steam copy of Undertale? (For those of you who had trouble with any of the words in that sentence, I envy you.)
Undertale was one of those things so explosive in popularity that it’s now mainly remembered for the extreme fervor of its fanbase. It earned so much praise from critics (and spawned so, so many memes) that some remember it with nothing more than an eyeroll.
But I still remember people who had never, ever been into video games suddenly texting me about the Pacifist route, or about jumping out of their skin when their Steam window crashed out. I can’t remember another game that I had such a strong emotional response to—laughing to the point of tears, and then getting hit with a strong wave of love and relief and sadness that I still feel to this day whenever I hear the “Home” theme.
Playing Undertale in 2015 really felt like something huge. It felt like it was signaling a shift in the game industry—an appreciation for indie developers, more value placed on moral decision making, immersive gameplay, a return to pixel and 2D aesthetics. And I think we’re kidding ourselves if we pretend like it didn’t.
Steven Universe (2013-2019)
The brain baby of Cartoon Network’s Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe follows its title character, Steven, who’s being raised by three magical crystal-based aliens and also his dad, Greg, who works at a car wash.
There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about Steven Universe. Not many kids’ shows have grown as huge a fanbase or been written up in Rolling Stone.
The show’s been both praised and censored for its portrayal of LGBTQ+ identities. Its music, anime roots, and animation style have sparked a wave in the industry that continues to this day. Its fans have become notorious for their passion and, sometimes, their ferocity.
No other children’s program of the last 10 years has inspired as much adoration, imitation, or aggravation as Steven Universe. But at its center is a core of pureheartedness that makes me glad it exists.
17776, or What Football Will Look Like In the Future (2017)
This one is a little harder to explain. I’d really recommend that you experience it like most of us did, the day after July 4th, 2017: by blindly clicking on a sports article called What Football Will Look Like in the Future. Prepare for a long haul.
Jon Bois, a sportswriter and creative director of SB Nation, is known for taking sports into the realm of the weird. On YouTube, Bois has become known for his visual storytelling, his unique video production, and a 3D animation style that brings forgotten legends and buried statistics to life.
17776 is one of Bois’ forays into speculative fiction—at turns surreal, confounding, funny, and heart wrenching. Often all at once. You don’t need to know sports, space, sci-fi, or football to fall into it wholly and completely.
Mad Max Fury Road (2015)
As someone who grew up watching Mad Max and all its sequels…
…the 2015 reboot had a lot to live up to.
And by God if it didn’t do its best.
George Miller’s fourth film of the franchise was in development for almost twenty years. By the time it was done, the team had spent over 120 days in the Namibian desert and shot over 480 hours of footage; the movie involved 150+ stunt performers and depended on 90% practical special effects. The Doof warrior, above, is riding on a real rig through the real desert with a real flame-throwing guitar.
The craftsmanship that went into this movie is insane, and that’s without getting into the storytelling, the worldbuilding, the world-class performances, the anti-tyrannical and anti-dehumanization themes set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape of capitalism on steroids. God, I love this movie. (And Charlize Theron’s in it! What more could you want?)
The Adventure Zone, Balance Arc (2014-2017)
The McElroy brothers had been making magic together for years, long before they started a Dungeons & Dragons podcast with their dad.
The brothers have co-hosted the comedy advice podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me for close to a decade, and they’ve since expanded into a podcasting empire involving their whole family.
The concept for The Adventure Zone (TAZ) began as a special episode, but quickly grew into more as the brothers’ D&D exploits became fan and family favorites. In the Balance arc, the first of several seasons, youngest brother Griffin served as game master for his brothers and father, who roleplayed over Skype as Taako the elf, Magnus the fighter, and Merle the cleric.
Justin McElroy once compared the process of recording TAZ to building a car while you were driving it, and then finding out it could fly. That’s what listening felt like, too. What started out as a goof between brothers grew into an audio epic with a soaring soundtrack, elaborate world building, and vivid storytelling. By the finale of the Balance arc, I felt blessed to have been invited along for the ride.
The Good Place (2016-2020)
Well. Now I’m gonna cry.
NBC’s The Good Place aired its series finale last month. It’s weird to think about how long it’s been since network TV affected me so strongly.
I think a half-hour sitcom about death and Kantian philosophy was probably a hard sell, but luckily Michael Schur’s success with shows like Parks and Recreation helped with the green light. Though it lured viewers in as a surreal, screwball comedy led by Kristen Bell, The Good Place managed to feature some of the most sincere conversations about life and death that have ever aired on prime time. A show starring Ted Danson made me think more about philosophy than I ever have in my life (and I’ve taken actual philosophy classes).
It simultaneously produced some of the best comedy that basic cable has seen in years, brought a host of bright new talents to light (D’Arcy Carden, marry me), and built on itself season after season even after pulling off what felt like end-of-the-road twists and reveals.
It was so, so good, and it ended well.
Take it sleazy.
Runners Up and Honorable Mentions:
- All of Chris Fleming’s repertoire
- Stardew Valley
- As my 350 hours on Steam can attest.
- As my 10,000 deaths can attest.
- I’m of the belief that if you’ve listened to a podcast in the last six years, you owe at least a little something to Sarah Koenig. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
- This musical gets harder to listen to the farther we get into an actual, real-world constitutional crisis, but if I left it off I would be betraying my sophomore year roommate who had to hear “Satisfied” on repeat for about six months straight. Still a banger.
- The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo
- True Detective
- My friends all know this about me, but at any waking moment I am available to drop everything and rewatch season one of True Detective. Not season two, season two is trash, but season one? Season one?!?! Carcosa, Marty. It’s about Carcosa. Marty!
- Half of the things on this list have at one point been called “the new Homestuck,” so it feels like cheating to not at least mention it.
- Fun Home (both musical and graphic novel)
- Listen. You either openly weep to “Ring of Keys” or you don’t. I can’t help you there.
- The Social Network