As a video essayist naturally I watch a lot of essays and try to keep my pulse on the genre, so here are 18 video essays from this year that I think contain something special, introduced me to a new idea, didn’t get as many views as they deserved, or are just generally worth your time. This isn’t a “best of” list. It isn’t ranked in any particular order. And I made weird arbitrary rules for myself about picking the list (e.g I’ve only included one video per creator).
1. The Perilous Journey of a Truly Beautiful Soul – Hacksaw Ridge
I’m starting with this essay from Tom at Like Stories of Old, because it illustrates something that is very powerful about the medium; an essay can transcend the media it’s discussing. For me Hacksaw Ridge was probably a 6/10 film, but this is easily a 10/10 video essay. Great work Tom!
2. The Color of Pomegranates: A Failed Video Essay
I love this essay from Kyle Kallgren, because it doesn’t just discuss the work, it explores the difficulty of discussing certain films. Perhaps less relevant to people who haven’t tried writing about or making a video about a particularly difficult piece of art to discuss, but it illustrates another great aspect of video essays; an essay can be about much more than the piece of media it focuses on.
3. In Focus: The Broom Is Not What It Seems (Twin Peaks: The Return)
This video essay by The Long Take is the kind you click on with a sort of hesitant curiosity. Is an in-depth analysis of one shot from Twin Peaks: The Return going to: A. be worth my time and B. not tip over itself into ridiculous over-analysis territory. But Rafa actually has something insightful to say here and it expanded both my appreciation for Twin Peaks: The Return, and for the video essay format’s ability to examine even one shot, in a meaningful way.
4. You Are A Strange Loop
The video essay format isn’t just for examining a piece of media. It can also be a fantastic educational tool. This essay from Will Schoder shows how the medium can be harnessed very effectively to illustrate complex ideas in a way that’s easier to get your head around.
5. Why Do Dogs Die In Wes Anderson Movies?
This video from Luis Avezedo for Little White Lies isn’t just a great overview of how dogs are treated in Wes Anderson films, it cleverly structures the narrative voice of the essay as being spoken by the animated dog characters. It’s a great example of how the format can expanded from just the “voiceover with images on top” formula.
I might be biased though, I did the voice of one of the dogs.
6. Annihilation and Decoding Metaphor
When I made my video about Annihilation’s influences. I put an ode to Folding Ideas in the description.
Coincidentally Dan Olson later made a video talking about the exact topic I was sort of poking fun at with my description homage to him.
Besides that coincidence, the video itself is great, and does a fantastic job of not just breaking down how a lot of people seemed to misunderstand Annihilation, but also some of the issues in general with these “ENDING EXPLAINED” type of videos. I who heartedly agree with Dan in this video.
7. David Lynch - The Treachery of Language
I’ve seen many video essays that cover a theme across director’s entire filmography or several of their works. I’ve made videos like that myself. But Grace from What’s So Great About That takes a bird’s eye view in this video of David Lynch’s use of language in, not just his films, but his writing and painting. It’s a beautiful essay that illuminates Lynch’s work.
8. Explaining Hollywood's Penguin Obsession
The video essay genre can’t get a little self-serious sometimes. The format lends itself to making compelling arguments so well that it’s easy for some video essays to tip into the realm of the ridiculous. This video from Karsten Runquist isn’t just a fun parody of pompous over-analysis, it’s also actually a fun, genuine look at why the heck there is actually so many penguin movies.
9. How T-Series Conquered Youtube
The topic of this video from Stephen at Coffee Break is now almost common knowledge, but when his video came out it was the first, I and many other people heard about this story. Video essay can be educational, and they can potentially break a massive story, sometimes long before it’s covered by the media.
10. How to Keep Players Engaged (Without Being Evil)
Mark Brown’s excellent video essays on video game design illustrate something important to me. A well made video essay can be interesting even if you’re not invested in the topic.
I’m not a very big gamer. I log 20 hours in Civ every couple years, and play sudoko on my phone, but Mark’s video essays about game design are still completely fascinating and engaging to me.
11. How Diverging Diamonds Keep You From Dying
This video from Austin McConnell illustrates something important. A video essay can be about anything.
I’ve driven through these Diverging Diamond interchanges and every time wondered what type of hallucinogen the traffic planners were on when they came up with this. This video cleared up all the questions I had about this crazy design in an efficient and entertaining way and left me convinced that they actually make sense.
12. Why This Is Rembrandt's Masterpiece
Videos about popular media get more clicks, it’s just part of the video essay economy on YouTube. Which is why I admire Nerdwriter’s insistence on covering topics that fall well outside the range of the usual pop-culture examinations that get him the most views.
In particular I love his deeper dives on a single piece. Another earlier video of his about a painting is why I originally subscribed and I’m glad to know that he’s still making these videos even though they don’t get as many views.
13. The Sound of 80s Movies
I love when I click on a video expecting to learn the “why” of something and end up learning the “why” is much deeper, more complex and interesting then I imagined. In this video, Julian at The Discarded Image doesn’t just talk about why 80’s movies sounded that way from a technical perspective, he shows how the sound is inseparable from the ideas and themes that were being explored in that era in both film and music.
Sometimes a video essay teaches you about an interesting topic. They can also teach you why the topic is interesting in the first place.
14. FAKE FRIENDS EPISODE TWO: parasocial hell
If this list was ranked this video would be in the top slot. Shannon’s video is a full blown documentary length look at parasocial relationship. Not only does she uncover what they are, she lays out examples in a way that lets you immediately see what she’s talking about.
The opening 5 minutes of this video had me hooked and understanding what parasocial relationships are and some of the concerns that might surround them, before she even says anything. Yes it’s the second part of a series, and yes I watched this one first for some reason, but you should watch episodes one and two. This video shows where the lines between video essay and documentary blur.
14. McDonald's: The Mystery of "I'm Lovin It"
In contrast to the long, serious, discussions of important issues that we see in the video above, this mini-doc from Hodges U is a quick, fun, look at something that you didn’t need to know, but that you want to know anyway.
16. would you share a moment of lo fi with me?
MisterAmazing isn’t just talking about music here, he’s explaining the cultural phenomenon that surrounds and produced lofi.
When a trend like videos of anime girls studying to hip-hop playlist emerges, chances are there’s a video essayist there to help you understand what that trend is and where it came from.
17. Why Dave Chappelle Really Left
I think the true power of the video essay lies not in what the essayist expresses in voiceover, but how they can show separate pieces of media together in a way that tells a story that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Don’t be fooled, just because you can’t hear the essayist’s voice doesn’t mean their authorial influence isn’t all over the essay.
18. The Black Lotus
I’ve never played Magic: The Gathering in my life. I’m not interested in it, and if you told me at the beginning of 2018 that’s I’d watch a 30 minute video about a single card from the game, I wouldn’t have believed you.
And yet here we are.
That wraps up 2018. I’m very excited to see what is to come in 2019 and beyond for the medium. There are so many great essays out there, many that I wanted to include in this list that I didn’t have room for, but I wanted to create a more personal list, that probably wouldn’t contain all the videos you’ll see in every other best of list from the year.
Hopefully you found something interesting here, and are inspired to explore the world of video essays a little deeper. There’s a lot out there waiting to be discovered.
Here’s the link to a YouTube Playlist that contains all 18 videos, plus a bunch of honorable mentions, and what I think was the best video I made in 2018.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has cemented Joel and Ethan Coen as perhaps the most adept creators of minor characters in film. This video is a tour of the many minor characters that have populated their movies, and explores how they create such memorable characters with very little screen time.
Bo Burnham has had a fascinating arc from obnoxious teenager to sincere and nuanced screenwriter and director. Eighth Grade is one of my favorite films from 2018, and I talk about one of the reasons why in this video (there are no spoilers).
I also reccomend you check out the interviews I referenced in the video:
Team Human (This one is especially good)
Do you remember the Great Hotel Amenities Wars? No? Well this video will fill you in on some important history you’ve been missing out on.
Also if you happen to want to donate to charity, I talk about Clean The World in this video.