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
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
A 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
How could I not love a movie exploring the intersection of language and love across the space-time continuum?
Finalists: Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, Snowpiercer, The Lobster
8. Minding the Gap
A stunning documentary about teen skateboarders that’s about one thing before it becomes about many others.
Finalists: Nostalgia for the Light, Tower, These Birds Walk, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, California Typewriter
7. The LEGO Movie
What should have been just a brainless cash-grab brand-stravaganza was also a surprisingly rich, hilarious, sunnily dystopian meditation on creativity and existence.
Finalists: Coco, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, They Came Together, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris
An electric, vivid, and original vision that I hope instigates a sea change in film animation and superhero movies.
Finalists: Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Wonder Woman
A biopic done right: not as a shallow, decades-spanning survey treated like a greatest hitsalbum (coughJersey Boys) with bad aging makeup(coughJ. 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
But 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.
The primary function of my logbook is to document in a Google spreadsheet what I read and watch. But that’s not all it tracks. Among sheets dedicated to typewriters I own and words I like is one that charts my progress through several Top 100 film lists (see above).
I’ve been slowly endeavoring through the AFI 100 since high school. I then added Image’s Arts & Faith Top 100, the Time 100, and recently the BFI Critics 100 just cuz. There’s a fair amount of overlap between them, but enough differences for all of them to be useful sources of viewing suggestions.
Here’s where I’m at now on each list:
There’s a completist satisfaction in checking off titles and inching closer to 100. Though as close as I am to finishing the AFI list, there are a few remaining titles I’m in no rush to subject myself to, like Intolerance, A Clockwork Orange, and Sophie’s Choice. As with any movie I watch, mood has to align with opportunity and availability. Having lists like these ready to go ensures I always have good options for when the moment is right.
These lists are also great fodder for exploring cinema beyond whatever Netflix or other streaming services decide to make available at any given moment. Besides Kanopy, these services tend to have a recency bias. Everyone, but especially Kids These Days, should be exposed to older and lesser known movies. See Ty Burr’s book The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together for more ideas, or peruse your local library.
In case you haven’t heard, 1999 was a great year for movies. I don’t remember seeing any of them in the theater at the time (I was 12), but I fondly remember watching and rewatching many on VHS and DVD later on.
I really tried to rank them. But the exercise of ranking felt even more futile and arbitrary than usual when I considered all the candidates and how I loved them nearly equally for different reasons. And so:
Top 10 films of 1999 I love nearly equally for different reasons, in alphabetical order
This gets funnier the more you know about Watergate. Choice scene: Haldeman’s house
As a tween I babysat for a family that owned only a few DVDs, the only interesting one being The Matrix. Since the kids were always in bed by the time I arrived, basically I was paid to watch The Matrix. Choice scene: “I’ve been looking for you, Neo.”
Jake Gyllenhaal has been great for a long time. Ditto Chris Cooper, who had quite the one-two punch with this and American Beauty. Choice scene: “He isn’t my hero.”
For some reason I can’t explain, I didn’t make a list of my top 10 films in 2009. My filmlog did get a little sparse that year, but I’m surprised I didn’t at least throw a list together, since I’ve been making best-of lists since 2007. Regardless, once I noticed the discrepancy, I figured now, 10 years later, would be the perfect time to make one and add it to the rest of my best-of lists.
It’s hard to know how different this list is from what it would have looked like in 2009. Except for Sweetgrass, I would have seen all those movies at the time, so it probably would have been similar. Surprised by how many comedies and comedy-dramas there are, but I don’t hate it:
1. Inglourious Basterds
Choice quote: “Nah, I don’t think so. More like chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.”
2. A Serious Man
Choice quote: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the midterm.”
Choice quote: *sheep grazing*
Choice quote: “So until next time, remember: cardio, seat belts, and this really has nothing to do with anything, but a little sunscreen never hurt anybody.”
5. Star Trek
Choice quote: “What is necessary is never unwise.”
6. (500) Days of Summer
Choice quote: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.”
7. Away We Go
Choice quote: “OK, can that maybe be the last bit of parental advice we get tonight?”
8. I Love You, Man
Choice quote: “I will see you there or I will see you another time.”
9. The Secret of Kells
Choice quote: “I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.”
Choice quote: “You are not my mother.”
I also liked: Moon, Winnebago Man, Up, District 9, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Me and Orson Welles, The Princess and the Frog
Since June, when I found out I was going to be a father, I’ve been keenly aware of how fatherhood has been portrayed in this year’s crop of movies. What strikes me now, looking back on all of them, is the wide array of characteristics the 2018 Film Fathers represented.
There were men who weren’t fathers yet but pined to be (Private Life and Game Night) or despaired of their fatherhood (First Reformed).
There were men whose defining characteristic was their absence (the doctor in Roma, Apollo in Creed II, T’Chaka in Black Panther)
There were men whose children inspired in them unconditional love (Eighth Grade), desperate determination (Searching), painful grief (First Man), righteous if misguided zeal (Blockers), and a longing to stop time (Hearts Beat Loud).
And there were men whose family life, whether through inspiration or inertia, led them towards apathy (Tully), frustration (The Incredibles2), and flight (Wildlife).
Not all of these films made my best-of list, but I’m grateful to all of them for demonstrating just how consequential fatherhood can be.
On to the list…
1. The Death of Stalin
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s film about the machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at its sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its titular subject. (Review)
2. The Favourite
Rachel Weisz I’ve loved since The Mummy, Emma Stone since Superbad. But Olivia Colman is basically new to me, and she might have won this movie as a querulous, manipulative Queen Anne balancing the competing bids for favor from Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster barely missed my top 10 list in 2015, but he nearly conquered this year’s with this delicious, darkly comic period piece that takes “be careful what you wish for” to a delightfully daring level.
Stunning directorial debut from actor Paul Dano. A very well composed and controlled story of a 1960s family struggling against disintegration, experienced by the perspective of 14-year-old only child Joe. Everything felt so specific and slo-mo tragic, Carey Mulligan’s performance especially.
4. First Reformed
What to do about despair? As the priest of a small historical church, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller communes with it for a living, whether fighting his own ailments, struggling against professional obsolescence, or pastoring a young couple haunted by the specter of global warming. An intense portrait of the search for meaning, a reckoning with darkness and extremism, and a worthy entry into the “priest in crisis” canon (a personal favorite subgenre) alongside Winter Light, Calvary, and other gems.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
It’s a rarity for me to see a movie in theaters twice, but I was happy to do so for this one so I could see it with my wife. This could be the movie that changes superhero movies—in style, personality, and thematic exploration. If you haven’t seen it yet, go into it with as little foreknowledge as possible.
6. The Rider
A rodeo accident forces horse rider Brady off the saddle, leaving him in poverty with brain damage and an existential crisis. This lithe, mesmerizing, and richly empathetic film rides a fine line between fiction and documentary, as Brady and most of the characters are essentially playing themselves. Director Chloé Zhao has an eye for beautiful shots and tender moments.
I didn’t fully appreciate Roma until it was over, when I could see the full scope of Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical take on a year in the life of Cleo, a live-in maid in 1970s Mexico City. Still, from the first shot—a meditative long take of a floor being mopped—I cherished Cuarón’s ability to see grandeur in the granular, to magnify the minute details of a humble woman’s hidden but compelling life.
“Thriller whodunit that takes place solely on a computer” sounds like a cheap direct-to-video B movie, but Searching is shockingly effective at overcoming this supposed gimmick. Why is this story of John Cho’s David using everyday technology to track down his missing daughter effective? I think it’s the specificity of the tools—everything from Windows XP to Facebook and FaceTime—used in a panicked silence throughout. David could be any of us, alone at a computer clicking desperately against time.
Based on a true story of the first black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs infiltrating the local KKK chapter, with the help of a fellow officer, played by Adam Driver. True to a Spike Lee joint, it’s brash, cutting, funny, loose when it needs to be but solid at heart. The Birth of a Nation montage could be the scene of the year. John David Washington (son of Denzel) deserves not to always be compared to his famous father, but they share a compelling verve that bodes very well for John David’s career.
10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Not all of this Coen Bothers anthology’s six parts are equally good: “The Girl Who Got Rattled” and “Meal Ticket” did a lot of the heavy lifting (or gold digging?) to get to this spot. But this would have made the list for the Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck performances in “Rattled” alone. Like most Coen Brothers joints, I expect this to reward repeat viewings.
I also liked: Avengers: Infinity War, Leave No Trace, Tully, If Beale Street Could Talk, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Black Panther, Private Life, Game Night, Hearts Beat Loud, Annihilation, Widows
Here’s a digital browsing success story: I was on Hoopla (free with your library card) trolling through the new music releases and selected an album from an artist I knew and liked. Don’t even remember which it was, but I saw that the Similar Artists under the album showed a band called Mountain Man. Had never heard of them, but I figured a group with a name like that couldn’t be bad. Turned out I was correct. It’s a trio of women doing mostly a cappella folk serenades, and I can’t wait to play them as lullabies to my incipient child. Choice song: “Agt”
Goodreads tells me I read 72 books this year. Though I didn’t read as many as last year, with a baby on the way I’ve been trying to read abundantly while I can, for both quality and quantity. Here are the books published in 2018 that I enjoyed the most. (See previous best-of book lists.)
1. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson (review)
You might have heard good things about this book. I’m here to tell you all of them are true. The pleasure I felt from the first page on is a feeling I chase with all my reading. Your mileage may vary, of course, but this kaleidoscopic story of Oklahoma City is more than just a rote retelling of a city’s history. Anderson wraps the OKC Thunder, tornadoes, Timothy McVeigh, city planning, a truly insane founding process, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and much more into a cohesive, sure-handed, wry, and enlightening narrative.
Radar data, like starlight, is information about the past: it tells you about the distant object it bounced off seconds or minutes before. This can tell you a lot—that conditions are perfect for a big storm, that something is in the air—but it can’t actually look at the storm for you. For that, you still need people. Storm chasers provided the stations with what they call “ground truth.”
2. Circe by Madeline Miller
My highest-ever ranking of a novel, and it damn near took the first spot. A retelling of the story of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, this isn’t something I’d normally read, but the rave reviews made me give it a try. Boy am I glad I didn’t let my woeful lack of knowledge on Greek mythology stop me. I found Miller’s prose to be so rich and empathetic, powerful yet tender. Read half of it on audiobook and friggin’ loved Perdita Weeks’ narration. I just started reading The Odyssey for the first time; I sense it will be that much richer having gone through this odyssey.
Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.
3. Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs
Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, imagination—all come into play in this meaty and winding travelogue around North America to investigate notable Ice Age locations. Made me immensely grateful for our (not so) distant human ancestors.
We have all but forgotten how to inhabit this kind of fear. We gave up spears and skins and the weather on us day and night for cup holders and cell phones and doors that close behind us. What, I wonder, was lost?
4. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman
Picked this up on a whim and luckily was in the right mood for its meditative style and mix of mind-expanding ruminations on astrophysics, God, philosophy, nature, and the meaning of life. Do not read if you don’t want your worldview—or really, galaxyview—bent like spacetime.
[Earth is] a large family of noisy and feeling animals—the living, throbbing kingdom of life on our planet, of which we are a part. A kingdom that consecrates life and its possibilities even as each of its individuals passes away. A kingdom that dreams of unity and permanence even as the world fractures and fades. A kingdom redesigning itself, as we humans now do. All is in flux and has always been so. … Flux is beyond sadness and joy. Flux and impermanence and uncertainty seem to be simply what is.
5. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear
Learned about this when I stumbled upon the author’s Twitter, which proved to be quite the hotbed of interesting replies about people’s habits. The book does a great job laying out practical tools and ways of thinking about behavior, especially in how conceptions of identity and systems influence it far more than emotions and willpower.
You get what you repeat.
6. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (review)
From the author of The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, comes this new revelatory exploration of practical and transformative uses of psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics, I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind like Pollan. He explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.
Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.
7. The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together by Adam Nayman
A big and beautiful book of essays on the works of America’s most reliably excellent filmmakers. Nayman covers every Coen film from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar! and includes interviews with frequent collaborators. It made me appreciate the Coen Cinematic Universe much more.
8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Richly drawn characters in modern Atlanta dealing with a false imprisonment and how it upends life’s expected narratives. I think this is the second Oprah’s Book Club selection I’ve read while it was still reigning—the first being The Underground Railroad—so I’m 2 for 2 so far.
9. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson
Wouldn’t you know it, all I wanted to do after reading this was rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey.
10. Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew
Discovered Mari Andrew on Instagram. She packs so much insight, emotional intelligence, and artistry into deceptively simple illustrations, and has a great eye for the little things in life and how to turn them into art.
Honorable mentions:Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Word of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Favorite non-2018 books I read this year
On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
A Life In Parts by Bryan Cranston
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari