The 'Pacific Standard' Pop-Culture Picks of 2015

The best things our staff read, wore, and binge-watched in the past year.
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The best things our staff read, wore, and binge-watched in the past year.
(Photo: Little, Brown and Company/HBO Documentary Films/Vanity Fair/Pacific Standard)

(Photo: Little, Brown and Company/HBO Documentary Films/Vanity Fair/Pacific Standard)

Here at Pacific Standard, we report on public policy. We publish personal essays with panoramic implications. We keep you up to date on the latest scientific studies. And we watch a lot of Game of Thrones. (So that we might write about it, of course.)

Why is it that GoT viewers find climate change metaphors in Westeros? What strange forces paralyze instant-streamers in front of Netflix queues, and make young music-lovers fetishize that long-dead medium, vinyl? We probe questions like these regularly in our editorial work. In 2015 we also brought you stories about Mad Max: Fury Road, television's second "Golden Age," hot yoga, and ultrarunning. But most of our cultural obsessions and predilections never made it to the site. To give them their deserved due, behold: a list of our staff's pop-culture favorites of the year. Some of the picks below are serious; others absurd; most deeply personal. In any case, we hope they are entertaining. May this handy guide provide some guidance in this brave new world of choice overload.

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Best Work of Fiction: The Water Museum, Honeydew, and The Visiting Privilege

(Photo: Hachette)

(Photo: Hachette)

I was told at a much-venerated writing workshop this summer that short story collections don’t sell. Well that’s a shame, I thought, because I like short stories. I like that they don’t require a huge time commitment, that they deliver in word counts metered in the thousands. And, despite my habit of acquiring books, I am currently operating in a less-is-more mindset. I am thereby compelled to recommend not one but three masterful, haunting, and benevolently spare short story collections of 2015: The Water Museum, by Luis Alberto Urrea; Honeydew, by Edith Pearlman; and The Visiting Privilege, by Joy Williams. In these three books you will find characters and places far beyond your circles and your comfort zone. Your mind will be expanded by the sheer possibility of the circumstances you encounter. You will be rendered a better person for reading them. And you might just possibly play some small role in helping to convince the gatekeepers of book publishing to keep the short story collection alive. —Jennifer Sahn, executive editor

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Best Work of Nonfiction: "How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield"

(Photo: Vanity Fair, June 2015)

(Photo: Vanity Fair, June 2015)

The headline on this feature by a grizzled war reporter in Vanity Fair's June 2015 issue, on the post-traumatic stress disorder he and too many American soldiers face, doesn’t do justice to the the piece's scope. It’s the most convincing thing I’ve read on why trauma haunts some people but not others, and it even tries to unpack a bigger paradox: why affluent, urbanized societies have elevated rates of depression, suicide, and schizophrenia. —Michael Fitzgerald, senior editor

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Best Fiction Film: 45 Years

(Photo: Sundance Selects)

(Photo: Sundance Selects)

In a year characterized by sensational, flashy experiences at the movies (Charlize Theron spraying bullets from a war rig! Tom Cruise hanging off an airplane! Amy Schumer getting down in Madison Square Garden!), the best film was also one of the quietest. 45 Years, director Andrew Haigh’s melancholic answer to the burgeoning genre of feel-good fare about older people, has a lot of things going for it, principally the two actors playing its central couple, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. But it’s the urgent implications of this small, exquisitely realized drama that linger. How well can you know a person? Just how happy are those seemingly placid, long-standing marriages? For the weightiness of the movie's premise, it’s refreshing to have nagging questions ring in your ears post-credits, rather than the aftereffects of surround sound. With all due respect to Junkie XL. —Katie Kilkenny, associate editor

Runners up: Taxi, Ex Machina, Anomalisa, and Spotlight

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Best Documentary: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

(Photo: HBO Documentary Films)

(Photo: HBO Documentary Films)

It's often the case that when Hollywood studios option award-winning books, they're playing it safe; but in the case of HBO's Going Clear, the cinematic gloss is downright ballsy. Alex Gibney's Scientology documentary highlights a good portion of Lawrence Wright's original, damning research into the madness of founder L. Ron Hubbard, the litigation the Church has undertaken to hush up abuses, and the depth of the group's reach in Hollywood. But in its documentary form, and interviews with disillusioned entertainment-industry types, Going Clear also weaponizes a core source of the church's power—the cinema—against it. It's for this reason that HBO allegedly hired 160 lawyers during production—and the end product is so horror-movie harrowing. —Katie Kilkenny, associate editor

Runners up: Dior and I, The Salt of the Earth, Hitchcock/Truffaut

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Best TV Series: The Knick

(Photo: Cinemax)

(Photo: Cinemax)

The Knick is ER meets Breaking Bad, with the gothic flair of Frankenstein, plus syphilis. It’s great. The show, which wraps up its second season on December 18, follows the drug-fueled surgeon John Thackery as he MacGyvers his way to medical glory. Even if the true-to-life medical stories and cringe-inducing scenes in the operating theater make you look away, the character's personal story lines—like the ex-nun turned condom craftswoman—will draw you back in. The Knick is visually arresting, sonically satisfying, classically Soderberghian. I'm honestly jealous of those of you that still have the series ahead of you. —Kate Wheeling, associate editor

Runners up: Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman, and Narcos

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Best Album: The Most Lamentable Tragedy

(Photo: Merge Records)

(Photo: Merge Records)

I should add an asterisk here, and say best album for someone who never stopped loving bands like Sleater-Kinney. Anyhow, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the new triple-LP concept album by Titus Andronicus, is equal parts thought-provoking, captivating, and infuriating. Whether you feel the band has hit peak East Coast angst (like me) or maybe could have spared listeners a few of the more meandering tracks (also like me), The Most Lamentable Tragedy is sure to provoke some sort of reaction—like any good art. —Max Ufberg, associate editor

Runners up: To Pimp a Butterfly, In Colour, and Ivy Tripp

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Best Fashion Trend of the Year: The jean jacket

(Photo: Kyle Brammer/Flickr)

(Photo: Kyle Brammer/Flickr)

Denim culottes, jumpsuits, and flared jeans have all made comebacks this year, yet I have but one favorite fashion trend of all time: the denim jacket. This will come as literally no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a peek into my closet, for I own roughly 10 of them, all carefully scavenged from Goodwill, Salvation Army, and yard sales across the country. Whether shearling-lined, acid-washed, or bedecked with patches and pins, they remind me of the hodgepodge of places I’ve lived so far. They’re timeless, they’re durable, and they only get better with age. —Madeleine Thomas, staff writer

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Best Viral Phenomenon of the Year: The Boston Sunfish Bros

(Photo: Youtube)

(Photo: Youtube)

As a science journalist, I think the best viral item of the year is clear: That video of Boston bros seeing a ​Mola mola​, or an ocean sunfish, for the first time. I think it expresses the wonder and discovery that’s left for us in the natural world, even in this Internet age. You just have to get out there. —Francie Diep, staff writer

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Best Navel-Gazer: Ted Cruz

(Photo: YouTube)

(Photo: YouTube)

"He is Ted Cruz, he will always be Ted Cruz and he says the same thing to every group that he talks to because it's who he believes it's who he is": That's just one gem of awkward praise from Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi, in the 16 hours of the junior senator's unnused video campaign footage that surfaced in early December. Though Cruz's mirror face, "argument boots," and maddening tendency toward self-obsession can get annoying, his weird bragging anecdotes during Republican debates make for a great drinking game. —Julie Morse, editorial fellow

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Best dinosaur: The raptor that saved Chris Pratt in Jurassic World and Arnold Schwarzenegger

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

The victor of this category is a toss up between the heroic raptor that protects Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, a film that made good on titular premise—let us watch a bunch of dinosaurs beat the hell out of each other, think pieces be damned—and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pulls off a leather jacket better than any Millennial ever will, in Terminator Genisys. —Max Ufberg, associate editor

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