Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2019


Having already conquered my list of favorite films of the 2010s, I found this list much easier to assemble. I knew my movie watching would take a hit when my son was born last February, and it did, though not as much as I expected. My logbook tells me I watched 63 films in 2019, which is only 10 fewer than 2018. Turned out my 9pm-12am baby shift was perfect for catching up on titles old and new (though I can’t say I was always fully awake for all of them). Props to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and my library card for making that happen.

10. Ad Astra. Apocalypse Now meets Gravity. Can’t say I endorse the use of narration, but Brad Pitt plus a lunar car chase plus a personal/cosmic quest more than made up for it.

9. Booksmart. Charming as hell.

8. Toy Story 4. What do you do when your worldview crumbles?

7. The Irishman. One day I’ll have time to rewatch this straight through rather than broken up over several days. I suspect I’ll appreciate it even more then.

6. Avengers: Endgame. There was a 1 in 14,000,605 chance this MCU saga ended well, and they nailed it.

5. Apollo 11. A fresh, intimate, and riveting perspective of a world-famous event.

4. Parasite. Had I made this list immediately after seeing this, it would have been lower. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

3. The Lighthouse. I watched this alone since I knew my wife wouldn’t enjoy it, but I showed her the first meal scene just so she could behold Willem Dafoe.

2. Knives Out. Rian Johnson knows how to make a movie. A little goofy at times, but the scenery-chewing fun and all-time ending made for an exhilarating ride.

1. Little Women. Yes to everything: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet together, Florence Pugh’s difficult yet delightful age-spanning performance, Desplat’s score, Chris Cooper as a good guy, Gerwig’s time-turning script that (compared to my beloved 1994 version) redeems Amy and enriches Beth, Gerwig’s direction of the Altmanesque ensemble scenes, the grand exuberance permeating this little world. Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t hit me as hard as it did others, but this one knocked me out.

Honorable mentions: Zombieland: Double Tap, The FarewellUs, El Camino, Knock Down the House, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Hustlers, The Report, Marriage Story, High Flying Bird

Favorite non-2019 films:

The Big Country
Hard Eight
Jackie Brown
Minding the Gap
A Clockwork Orange
Saturday Night Fever
Swingers
Cold War
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Wages of Fear

Categories
Family Life

The rules are there ain’t no rules

There’s a scene in Grease where Leo, the head of the rival Scorpions gang, says to Travolta’s Danny Zuko before they drag race: “The rules are there ain’t no rules.”

It’s one of the many random lines that has stuck in my head from a lifetime of movie watching. I think about it a lot now in relation to parenthood.

Bun (as my wife calls him) is almost one year old and my main takeaway from that time is that there is no normal. How he eats, how he sleeps (or doesn’t), how he develops. How we teach him, what we teach him, how much screen time we give him.

There ain’t no rules. And Leo wasn’t slinging empty threats. He repeatedly rams Danny’s car and gashes his side doors with spiked hubcaps.

All Danny (and we) can do is hit the gas and hold on.

Related: this tweet from Colson Whitehead:

Categories
Libraries

Survey says: Library visits rule

Gallup: In U.S., Library Visits Outpaced Trips to Movies in 2019

Some takeaways from this survey:

  1. Yay for libraries, duh.

  2. Every other activity included in the survey—including movies, sporting events, zoos, national parks, and museums—charges admission fees. If all of them were free to access, would there be a different #1?

  3. Maybe not, because another asset for libraries in this regard is their multitude of offerings for every conceivable demographic and interest. Libraries are for everyone, and “everyone” has a different reason for going to the library.

  4. Libraries and movie theaters are both competing with streaming services and other entertainment sources for people’s attention, but theaters don’t provide internet access or storytimes or computer classes or study rooms, etc. etc. (And I say that as a cinephile and librarian, whose ideal day would be comprised exclusively of eating, visiting a library, and going to the movies.)

  5. I’m not sure how the disparity in library use between men and women bears out in my own library, but my sense is the difference isn’t as large as the survey indicates.

  6. Based on my son’s enjoyment of our library’s storytime, I know which activity he’d pick:

Categories
Design

City roads turned into line drawings

Andrei Kashcha’s City Roads tool beautifully renders every road of any city in the world into a simple line drawing using OpenStreetMap.

I did my hometown of Madison (above), knowing its isthmus gives it a distinct look. I then did the city where I work and discovered that for some reason it includes a large chunk of the interstate that borders it:

(Via Kottke)

Categories
Books

Favorite Books of 2019

Compared to 72 books in 2018, I read a relatively paltry 24 in 2019. Between work, a new house, and a new baby, I just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to stick with as many books for extended periods. This resulted in a little more fluff than usual, including several Queer Eye-adjacent memoirs and tons of board books I didn’t even count.

Pickings for this list were slim since most of my reads weren’t from 2019. But here’s what I liked the most:

5. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Johnson

A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.

4. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

Probably could have just been a longform magazine piece, but I appreciated its evidence-based advocacy for an interdisciplinary approach to learning and life in general.

3. An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

A kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer, from the perspectives of the people most affected by it. “The shooting doesn’t end. Nor does the grinding poverty. Or the deeply rooted segregation. Or the easy availability of guns. Or the shuttered schools and boarded-up homes. Or the tensions between police and residents. And yet each shooting is unlike the last, every exposed and bruised life exposed and bruised in its own way. Everything and nothing remains the same.”

2. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

Newport’s definition of digital minimalism is “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” This certainly inspired me to ask some hard questions about how and why I use certain technologies. A key aspect of this approach is to have what Newport calls “high-quality leisure” activities ready to fill the space in your life formerly filled with mindless scrolling. Otherwise Mark Zuckerberg will win.

1. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” With his trademark incisiveness and critical insight, Gladwell dives into the gray areas surrounding the cases of Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, Sandra Bland, Brock Turner, Sylvia Plath, and other events and figures of recent history you only thought you fully understood. Dovetails nicely with the most recent season of Gladwell’s excellent podcast Revisionist History.

(Also interesting to contrast with Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet, a much more positive though less clinical take on similar territory.)

Other favorite reads

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)

Categories
Etc. Life

2019 in Review

The view from my New Year’s Eve.

This year in review is a little shorter than the last few, primarily because it consists of whatever I could do outside of work, having and raising a baby, and buying and managing a house—all of which took most of my time and energy. But here, roughly in chronological order, are some highlights from my trip around the sun:

Categories
Music

Favorite Albums of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and films of the 2010s.

Listed alphabetically by artist, here are the albums from the last 10 years that sustained and entertained me:

Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge. Favorite track: “City of Refuge”

The Book of Mormon Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “You And Me (But Mostly Me)”

case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs. Favorite track: “Atomic Number”

Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong. Favorite track: “A Little Bit of Everything”

Good Old War, Come Back As Rain. Favorite track: “Amazing Eyes”

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “One Last Time”

Ingrid Michaelson, Songs for the Season. Favorite track: “Auld Lang Syne”

Joe Pug, Messenger. Favorite track: “The First Time I Saw You”

John Mayer, Born and Raised. Favorite track: “Queen of California”

The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain. Favorite track: “Jack Sparrow”

Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams. Favorite track: “Ends of the Earth”

Lucius, Wildewoman. Favorite track: “Turn It Around”

The Okee Dokee Brothers, Through the Woods. Favorite track: “Walking With Spring”

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Favorite track: “First Snowfall”

The Tallest Man On Earth, The Wild Hunt. Favorite track: “Troubles Will Be Gone”

Categories
Television

Favorite TV Shows of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, albums, and films of the 2010s.

I spent a lot more time reading and watching movies over the last 10 years than watching TV, but here are the 10 series I enjoyed the most.

10. Catastrophe. For keeping it (brutally) real.

9. House of Cards. For the pulpy thrills of the first three seasons (the only ones I’ve seen).

8. Archer. For the many deep-cut references and H. Jon Benjamin’s voice.

7. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. For the breezy wit.

6. Big Mouth. For really going there (and crossing over with honorable mention Big Little Lies.)

5. The People vs. OJ Simpson. For making someone too young at the time to understand to understand.

4. Rick & Morty. For making me laugh more than anything else.

3. The Crown. For finding ordinary truths in extraordinary circumstances.

2. Parks & Recreation. For being the Breaking Bad of network sitcoms. (And very rewatchable.)

1. Breaking Bad. For being a perfect television show.

Categories
Books

Favorite Books of the 2010s

See also: my favorite films, TV shows, and albums of the 2010s.

This list happens to coincide perfectly with the period of time I began (1) reading for fun once I graduated college, (2) tracking my reading, and (3) reading a lot more.

This means I had tons of titles to consider. I forced myself to determine which books both expanded my mind and soul, and exhibited exceptional writing or creative vision. Not for nothing, almost all of the chosen ones got 5-star ratings on my Goodreads.

(My yearly best-of lists have a lot more gems that just missed the cut. Consider them honorable mentions.)

Here—listed alphabetically because I spent all my ordering energy on my movies list—are my favorite reads from the last 10 years.

Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson

Circe by Madeline Miller

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Here by Richard McGuire

How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

The Hunt for Vulcan: And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker

Station Eleven by Emily Mandel

The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century by Richard Polt

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Just missed the cut:

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us by Nicholas Carr

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and albums of the 2010s.

My initial list for this endeavor had 77 movies. After I barely managed to winnow it down to 50, I just couldn’t figure out how I’d get to that arbitrary yet appealing round number of 10.

But once I realized most of the movies could be grouped pretty cleanly into 10 different categories (some of which I devised myself), that allowed me to compare movies of the same genre or subgenre to each other rather than to movies doing something completely different. Using that system, my top picks of each slot fell almost immediately into place.

Note that the list ranks the movies, not the categories they represent. The categories made picking the top 10 easier, but the finalists in each one—consider them my honorable mentions—wouldn’t have necessarily ended up in the same ranking and often could fit in several of the categories.

As with all best-of lists, I strove to use an alchemy of my head and my heart to make the final determinations, consulting my yearly best-of lists and trusty logbook to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It was at once overwhelming and rewarding to consider all I’ve seen and decide both what has stuck with me the most and what best represents a decade in cinema.

Here’s what I got.

10. This Is Martin Bonner

this-is-martin-bonner.jpgA serene and sure-handed film about two men with a faith problem, which inspired one of my favorite blog posts.

Category: Quiet Drama

Finalists: Moonlight, The Rider, Paterson, Ida, Columbus, A Ghost Story

9. Arrival

arrival.jpgHow could I not love a movie exploring the intersection of language and love across the space-time continuum?

Category: Sci-Fi/Dystopian

Finalists: Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, Snowpiercer, The Lobster

8. Minding the Gap

minding-the-gap.jpgA stunning documentary about teen skateboarders that’s about one thing before it becomes about many others.

Category: Documentary

Finalists: Nostalgia for the Light, Tower, These Birds Walk, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, California Typewriter

7. The LEGO Movie

lego-movie.jpgWhat should have been just a brainless cash-grab brand-stravaganza was also a surprisingly rich, hilarious, sunnily dystopian meditation on creativity and existence.

Category: Comedy

Finalists: Coco, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, They Came Together, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris

6. Mad Max: Fury Road

mad-max-fury-road.jpg

Submitted without comment:

mad-max.gif

Category: Action

Finalists: Creed, Noah

5. Spotlight

spotlight.jpgThis video by Nerdwriter1 gets at what makes this movie so compelling and why I’ve returned to it repeatedly, despite the heaviness of the subject.

Category: Searing Drama

Finalists: The Florida Project, Like Someone In Love, Calvary, First Reformed

4. The Social Network

social-network.jpg
The final confrontation
between Mark and Eduardo might be the best scene of the decade. I’d wish for more collaborations between David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, but how would they top this?

Category: Creative Nonfiction

Finalists: The Founder, The Favourite, The Death of Stalin

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

spider-man-into-the-spiderverseAn electric, vivid, and original vision that I hope instigates a sea change in film animation and superhero movies.

Category: Superhero

Finalists: Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Wonder Woman

2. Lincoln

lincoln.jpgA biopic done right: not as a shallow, decades-spanning survey treated like a greatest hits album (cough Jersey Boys) with bad aging makeup (cough J. Edgar), but as a focused, intentionally contained story that captures its subject and his times with an appropriate mix of reverence and rigor.

Category: Historical Drama

Finalists: Selma, Brooklyn, Inside Llewyn Davis, Roma

1. Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-water.jpgBut me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”

Lots getting tangled up in this steely, ruggedly graceful, no-bullshit modern western: family, friendship, the past, the future, tragedy, redemption. A dangerous momentum drives the two bank-robbing brothers and the lawmen hunting them through a dust-choked Texas toward their fates. All we can do is buckle up and hold on.

Category: Family Drama

Finalists: Wildlife, Boyhood, Before Midnight