I love video essays, and watch a lot of them; they are both comfort food and intellectual stimulus. Inspired by BFI’s Best Video Essays of 2018 I figured I’d make my own list, as a way to share some of my favorites of the past year. This proved harder than I thought - it was a good year for a certain kind of online discourse, though horrible for every other kind, of course.
The Broccoli Tree: A Parable by John Green
To share something is to risk losing it…. the truth is if we hoard and hide what we love we can still lose it, but then we are alone in its loss.
I spent all of 2018 recommending John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, but he’s honed his essay skills on vlogbrothers for over 10 years, and videos like this continue to be bite-sized and sublime, following him and his brother’s slow-burn reaction to their own social media fame and how those platforms continue to shape the world.
See With Your Ears: Spielberg And Sound Design by Nerdwriter
Steven Spielberg’s disturbing film Munich (2005) is a brilliant movie to study for tension, and Puschak’s essay is the master class. He even goes for extra credit by creating his own audio mixes to juxtapose to Ben Burt’s astonishing sound design, and breaking down scenes sound by sound, even going so far as to remove the visuals altogether. He closes by exalting film students to ask “what do your ears see?”
Getting Over It by Errant Signal
I don’t feel bad that I haven’t beaten the game; it doesn’t care that I have or I haven’t, it’ll still be there, unchanged, if I decide to try it again. In the meantime the progress I have made, and the progress I’ve lost, is all mine.
Chris Franklin’s essay on Bennett Foddy’s surreal mountain-climbing challenge game Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2018) contextualizes fail states and failure, the placement of the player in a game, and digital trash. He also goes into granular, fussy capital-G Game Studies in video essay form, making it much easier to digest and that is extremely my shit.
Annihilation and Decoding Metaphor by Dan Olson
I already mentioned this one in my media retrospective of 2018, referring to it as an essay that should be taught in schools everywhere, and I stand by that. It not only is a great reading of the film, but unlike many video essays it shows the step-by-step of how Olson got there, which is highly valuable and entertaining in its own right. The essay also made me critically re-evaluate Annihilation in a way where I finally reconciled that I definitely didn’t like the film overall, but now I knew why.
The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy by Lindsay Ellis
“In which we look back at The Hobbit trilogy and try to give it a fair shake” becomes a complete investigative look at the production of and business ethics surrounding The Hobbit trilogy, including interviews with members of the New Zealand movie industry who were so adversely affected by the maelstrom of politics and polemical choices made to get these movies out the door, when by the end of the first one we weren’t really sure if we wanted any more.
The warning I’ll give is that these also touch upon the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, and don’t cast them in any particularly negative light but do make you think about them in ways that maybe you wish you hadn’t, so they could stay the objects of nostalgia they are for me at least. Ellis’ work has been a stalwart favorite, and choosing between this and her recent work on Death of the Author was tough, but the throughline of actually engaging with the people behind the art started here.
The Story of Harry Potter by Mikey Neumann
Neumann’s endless compassion for not only the characters of Harry Potter but of the makers of the movies is important - he dissects and praises and contextualizes it all, going past what I’d usually default to as the snide, basic critiques of the middle Potter films as tonally bizarre, stilted works and into them as parts of a massive, ten-year treatise on a traumatized world. Neumann isn’t afraid to look into what Potter really is, past what we hoped it would stay when we were young enough that we didn’t understand that it couldn’t.
P R E T E N T I O U S by Kyle Kallgren
“Pretentious” - it’s a dream-killing word…. To call someone pretentious is to say “I don’t believe in you.” To call yourself pretentious is to say “I don’t believe in me.” To call art pretentious is to say “I don’t believe in anyone.”
Kyle Kallgren went on a fucking roll this year, exploring himself through his essays in ways that are meta, entirely bared to us and reflexively reflective - he calls out us the viewer for writing a YouTube comment before we can, and self-effacingly grumbles at referring to himself in the third person.
It was a hard choice between this and Nostalghia Critique, his essay on Tarkovsky and also a film critic that I watched for almost a decade before learning a whole more about them of late. The latter, I’d argue, pushes the form of video essays farther than anything else on this list, but the former was more personally relatable, as someone who has been called “pretentious” for as long as I stopped trying to hide that I care a lot about a lot of things.
Even in the comments of the video the argument continues to unfold, highlighting how volatile the word is, how it still holds power over us, creators and consumers alike. In an online world, where authenticity is perhaps a commodity, or at the least elusive, being called fake in an attempt to be important, to stand out from the millions of other avatars all told to do the same, hurts the most.