An educational and argumentative style has exploded in popularity across video platforms over the past few years, part of the broader wave of explainer-based content in social media. It’s gotten to the point where the form now constitutes an extremely wide tent covering an incredibly deep well of works — or, in the parlance of one subgenre, a gargantuan iceberg. We now see everything from wordless editing experiments to vlogs with occasional image wallpapering called “video essays.” (It’s gotten to the point where one of my favorite videos released last year waded into these definitional weeds, to thought-provoking results.)
This growth makes rounding up a mere 10 exemplary videos a bigger challenge each year. My guiding principles when formulating this list were not just depth of insight, originality, and diversity of subject matter and creators, but also trying to find video essays that truly make the most of both parts of that name — which demand visual attention and engagement. The essays are listed in order of release date.
Climate Fictions, Dystopias and Human Futures by Julia Leyda and Kathleen Loock
As the prognosis around global warming gets more urgent, pop culture has been taking notice, and “cli-fi” has emerged as its own storytelling genre. Leyd and Loock use the recent Don’t Look Up as a starting point, questioning what role — if any — films like these can hope to have in affecting actual activism and reform on climate change. How strong is the connection between art’s power to move us and tangible action?
Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb by Secret Base
No one is making documentary content quite like Jon Bois, Alex Rubenstein, and the rest of the crew at Dorktown. Bois is an artist who paints with data points and historical detritus, editing all this material together in a way that feels more forward-thinking than almost anyone else making films today — whether for the internet, television, or theaters. An epic four-part series on Dave Stieb, an also-also-also-ran of baseball history, sounds ridiculous. And yet Dorktown turns him into one of the most compelling characters of the year.
[Ed. note: Secret Base is part of SB Nation, which along with Polygon is part of Vox Media. This played no part in including the video.]
Deconstructing the Bridge by Total Refusal
This is perhaps the least “essay-like” video on this list. It’s more of a university-level lecture, but set in the least academic forum imaginable: a session of Battlefield 5. Such unusual ventures are the modus operandi of Total Refusal, a “pseudo-Marxist media guerrilla” which has used The Division to explain urban design, Red Dead Redemption 2 to explain class, and much more. Within the Battlefield 5 map is a re-creation of Dutch city of Nijmegen, the site of a decisive battle during World War II. Total Refusal takes viewers on a survey of the area in a virtual form, and in the process they delve not just into the history involved but also the entire concept of war tourism and re-creations, questioning how culture remembers these events.
Why Panzer Dragoon Saga Is the Greatest RPG Nobody Played by Michael Saba
If this doesn’t send the 1998 Sega Saturn game Panzer Dragoon Saga to the top of your must-play list, then I don’t know what to tell you. More than an intriguing look at a game that was incredibly ahead of its time and took years to find its audience, this video is a treatise on a pressing issue within gaming. See, if you want to play Panzer Dragoon Saga, you will almost certainly have to pirate it, which might stir ethical qualms in some. Saba mounts an impassioned defense of piracy as a form of archival practice and game preservation. Even if you disagree with such a conclusion, the problems he highlights within the industry cannot be denied.
Nice White Teachers, Bad Brown Schools: Hollywood’s Pedagogy on Urban Education by Yhara Zayd
Yhara Zayd makes her third consecutive appearance on our annual video essay list, and for good reason. Not content to retread ground covered by other pop culture video creators, she finds both novel subjects and interesting lenses on them. Here she scrutinizes the “inspirational” story trope of well-intentioned white teachers making a difference in urban environments, seen in the likes of Dangerous Minds and The Ron Clark Story. Most incisively, she contrasts the conventions of this genre with the stark realities and lived history of actual outsider intervention in nonwhite education.
Intimate Thresholds by Desiree Garcia
Less than four minutes long, this essay is nonetheless entrancing, thanks to Garcia’s continually inventive editing. Instead of a drawn-out exploration of the theme of female artistic competition in film, she contrasts two examples through visceral juxtaposition: 1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance and 2010’s Black Swan. With split screens, hazy picture-in-picture, precise cuts, and some remarkable use of captions, the essay makes its ideas intuitively felt rather than explaining itself through lecture.
Instagram Hates Its Users by Jarvis Johnson
The long story made short is that Instagram has continually sabotaged any actual enjoyment of using its app through trying to imitate whatever new trend has come down the cultural pipeline. But the long story, as relayed by Johnson, is so much more entertaining. We often forget the direct relationship between interface design and user experience, but this is a terrific deep dive into how that process works, pinned to an easy-to-grasp timeline of Instagram’s calamitous history.
Fixing My Brain With Automated Therapy by Jacob Geller
Jacob Geller is exceptionally good at drawing in a web of disparate sources to discuss ideas you might not have even thought about before. Here, the story of “the first chat bot,” the 2019 visual novel Eliza, and the app-based 2021 game UnearthU are used to explore the use of artificial intelligence in modern therapy. But as the title suggests, Geller goes one step further, testing out several different therapy apps that purport to help you improve your mental health without the need of any human therapists. His results, and what they suggest about the true intention behind these apps and the way therapy is incorporated into contemporary society, are… well, disquieting.
Parking lots are everywhere and nowhere by What’s So Great About That?
The concept of “liminal space” is currently popular in online culture discourse. But Grace Lee seldom tackles a topic from the same angle as everyone else. With reference points as wide-ranging as Seinfeld, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and the work of artist Guillaume Lachapelle, she discusses how parking lots appear in media, and in a wider view how they and similar urban-industrial spaces figure into our everyday lives. Lee’s essays demand your attention like few others; look away and you’re liable to miss a great little visual gag. Because of this, despite her videos seldom going longer than 15-20 minutes, they often pack in much, much more information than you’ll expect.
How Degrowth Can Save the World by Andrewism
Andrew Sage describes himself not just as an anarchist but as “solarpunk” — focused on solutions for a sustainable future for humanity. In this video he elucidates one of the key features of the destructive capitalist status quo: the idea of unlimited economic and industrial growth. Insistence of “degrowth” practices can often elicit fears of some vague loss in one’s standard of living. But Sage debunks this and many other arguments against degrowth, while building a more inspiring and hopeful vision for an environmentally sound, egalitarian existence.