Your Weekend Briefing

A toast to the year's best-ofs.

Welcome to the Weekend Briefing. Today we're bringing you a special edition. Enjoy!

From left: Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Power of the Dog," Kristen Stewart in "Spencer" and Ariana DeBose in "West Side Story."From left: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix; Pablo Larrain/Neon; Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Settle in with the best of everything

There's one week left in 2021, which means one week to take measure of the year that passed and to set our sights on the one approaching. I'm delighted to be here, embarking on this final week with you. I usually write to Times readers via the At Home and Away newsletter, a compendium of ideas and inspiration for passing the time richly during the pandemic.

And I can think of no richer way to pass the time this week, especially if you have some time off, than to dive into one of the most delightful of year-end traditions: best-of lists.

The critics have spoken

A big part of my job is ferreting out the best of everything, every week. But the year-end roundup time is my favorite because everyone is assessing the same cultural artifacts from the same period. You get a glut of recommendations to populate your queues and playlists and book-group picks for the months ahead.

New York Times critics have selected the best films and albums. The Food desk has chosen the best cookbooks of the year (I have my eye on "The Magic of Tinned Fish"). And if you're looking for one-stop shopping, Rob Davis, a former film critic for Paste Magazine, collects a ton of recommendations on Year-End Lists, an archive of notable ones from different publications. You can find more lists of lists at Album of the Year, Metacritic and Reddit.

How to make the most of the lists

I love to cross-reference best-of lists to see where they overlap. "Summer of Soul" and "The Power of the Dog" were cited by both of The Times's film critics — I'll move them to the top of my queue. I've seen Kazuo Ishiguro's "Klara and the Sun" on enough book lists that I feel compelled to give it a try. Films or books that are repeat picks aren't necessarily the very best of the best, but starting with them is a good strategy for diving in, especially when the volume of recommendations can feel overwhelming.

The real fun of best-of lists, of course, is checking critics' choices against your own. The strongest ones elicit emotions. They make you consider your own aesthetic preferences, what you like and what you don't. They send you texting or tweeting your confederates to engage in spirited debate.

Where most lists fall short

There are two problems, as I see it, with these year-end compilations. The first is that they're generally considered the province solely of professional critics. Why not complement "official" best-of lists with those of your friends? Ask them what they loved this year, or have them compile their favorite works of all time. This is a good activity for a chill New Year's Eve, or for a group email thread, if you prefer. It's also a swell get-to-know-you game — the most illuminating best-of lists I've collected are from people I didn't know very well but whose taste I admired.

The other rub I have with best-of lists is that they so infrequently depart from established categories. Yes, I want to know the best classical music tracks, the best thrillers, the best TV shows. But I also want to know the best ideas people had, the best advice they received, the most radical changes to their routines, the best walks they took or scents they smelled or conversations they had. More highly subjective, overly specific recommendations, please.

My extremely specific picks

On that note: The best changes I made to my routine were to stock my fridge with every canned coffee I could locate within a five-mile radius of my house so I could try a new one every morning, and to stretch my quads before bed. The best piece of advice I received was from a friend quoting the philosopher Alan Watts: "You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago." And, for the purists, the best books I read were "The Anomaly" by Hervé Le Tellier and "Luster" by Raven Leilani. I loved Lucy Dacus's album "Home Video" and Season 2 of "I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson." My favorite film of the year was "Passing."

Have a good week. If you come upon any hidden gems in your best-of list exploration, let me know.

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