Categories
Books Review

Favorite Books of 2021

In 2021 I read 31 books. That’s 13 more than my record-low in 2020, so that’s nice.

Regardless, my prime directive as a librarian and reader remains to follow my own reading values. Don’t worry about the quantity. Read serendipitously and at whim. Don’t forget fiction. And heed the Pollanian reading maxim.

With that in mind, here are the books from 2021 that stuck with me.

10. The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter, creator of one of my favorite albums of all time, dropped his second novel this year and it was quite good. I read the audiobook, which was narrated by Ritter (and probably shouldn’t have been [professional musicians ≠ professional narrators]). But I still enjoyed the narrative voice of the main character, reminiscing about his time in the lumberjack era of early 20th century Idaho.

Choice quote:

Memory comes in to fill the spaces of whatever isn’t there. … Memory has a way of growing things, of improving them. The hardships get harder, the good times get better, and the whole damn arc of a life takes on a mystic glow that only memory can give it.

9. Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher

I can certainly understand the criticisms of this book, which examines literature through a utilitarian/scientific lens that can come across as reductive. But since books are technology (which Fletcher defines as “any human-made thing that helps to solve a problem”), then it’s perfectly legitimate and even necessary to explore them as such. Examples include the catharsis of Greek tragedies helping to purge fear (while mimicking the benefits of modern EMDR therapy) and riddles activating information-seeking neurons that trigger dopamine hits. The author’s appearance on Brené Brown’s podcast is a good introduction to what you can expect.

Choice quote:

Literature was a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and the pain of just being us.

8. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This was a late-year read after Malcolm Gladwell raved about it in his newsletter. Figured it was worth a try as I rarely read mysteries or thrillers. Indeed it was fun to go on the ride of a novelist who comes upon another writer’s plot, harnesses it into mega-fame, then deals with the fallout. As with movies, I didn’t try to figure out the ending as I went, so when the twist arrived it felt earned and as if it were there the whole time.

Choice quote:

Once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you, and not some other writer, and you paid that debt by getting down to work, not just as a journeyman fabricator of sentences but as an unshrinking artist ready to make painful, time-consuming, even self-flagellating mistakes.

7. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

This collection of essays originated as a popular podcast by the author, which “reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.” Topics include “humanity’s temporal range”, Canada geese, Indianapolis, and many other things you didn’t realize could make for viable essays. Green’s earnest, wending style and keen observational approach makes for very pleasant reading.

Choice quote:

All I can say is that sometimes when the world is between day and night, I’m stopped cold by its splendor, and I feel my absurd smallness. You’d think that would be sad, but it isn’t. It only makes me grateful.

6. Bewilderment by Richard Powers

After I gave up on Powers’ massive The Overstory, I was glad for a shorter story to glom onto. This one, set in my hometown of Madison, follows a recently widowed astrobiologist professor struggling to raise his perspicacious but troubled nine-year-old amidst increasing political, professional, and climatological turmoil. How do you look for life in the stars when it’s under threat on earth?

Choice quote:

Life is something we need to stop correcting. My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom. Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.

5. In the Heights: Finding Home by Lin-Manuel Miranda

For me 2021 was already the Year of Lin-Manuel Miranda due to his music in In the Heights, Vivo, and Encanto, and direction of tick, tick… BOOM! And yet I still managed to sneak in this book documenting the journey of Miranda’s first musical to the stage and screen (now in my top 10 of 2021), complete with Miranda’s characteristically vivacious libretto annotations.

Choice quote:

The rush of the final Usnavi section stays with me always, and my prevailing memory of performing it is the faces in the front row of the Rodgers Theatre: our $20 section, often filled with young people seeing their first musical on Broadway. I lock eyes with them, night after night, and as their eyes fill with tears, so do mine. I’m delivering these words, but I’m also trying to tell them: I’m home, and Usnavi’s home, and in this time you’ve chosen to spend with us, so are you. Welcome home.

4. Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell

Available only as an audiobook, this “audio biography” centers around hours of conversations between Simon and Gladwell about the genius musician’s life and career. It’s less a book and more a limited podcast series, which now seems like the only right way to do a music biography. Made me appreciate Simon’s work anew. (Review)

Choice quote:

Taste is the combination of memory and judgment.

3. Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins

Learned a lot from this history, which is primarily for 19th century American history nerds but is still refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. (Review)

Choice quote:

Despite the popular ‘Wild West’ narrative of self-reliant cowboys and pioneers, the real history of the region is one of big government: public land and national parks, farming subsidies and grazing permits, military bases and defense contracts. Arguably no other part of the United States has been so profoundly shaped by ‘the state’.

2. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

An approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with it. It’s like a self-help book that deconstructs the need for self-help books. (Review)

Choice quote:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

1. The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller

I’d never have heard of this one, let alone picked it up and read it, if it weren’t for a tip from my mother-in-law. This fictional cradle-to-grave memoir follows the misadventures of a caustic early-20th-century Swedish man who, disfigured in a mining accident, retreats to an Arctic archipelago for a self-imposed exile, only to almost accidentally collect a motley crew of friends (human and canine) and reconnect with family in surprising ways. Miller’s exceptionally crafted narrative voice and eye for harsh natural beauty made this a rewarding read.

Choice quote:

For now, take stock of yourself. This is the chance you waxed about so long ago. Listen for the voice that speaks when all others go silent. Be alone—be entirely alone. I am not saying you will find anything of worth there—certainly no cosmic truth—but maybe you will begin to feel as pared down, efficient and clean as a freshly whittled stick.

Non-2021 books I read this year and loved:

Categories
Film Review

Favorite Films of 2021


In 2021 I only saw three movies in theaters, which is two more than I saw in 2020. A personal historic low, it probably goes without saying. But ultimately I’m just grateful to be able to watch great movies, whether at the theater, on a streaming service, or with a library Blu-ray.

To that end, here are the 2021 movies that stuck with me.

10. Shiva Baby

This indie comedy had me cringing but also grinning at its fairly astounding tonal tightrope act, which follows a sardonic young Jewish woman navigating family, friends, and lovers during a shiva. Such a singular, confident debut from 26-year-old (!) filmmaker Emma Seligman.

9. C’mon C’mon

I was split on Mike Mills’s last two features: 2017’s 20th Century Women was as middling as 2010’s Beginners was marvelous. This feels like a return to form, with Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist caring for his estranged sister’s nine-year-old son during her absence. It’s a closely observed, touching, and tumultuous portrait of surrogate parenting, and echoes this line from the Richard Powers novel Bewilderment: “Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.”

8. Pig

Yet another self-assured directorial debut, this one from Michael Sarnoski about a reclusive former chef (Nicholas Cage) who embarks on an illuminating quest to recover his abducted truffle-hunting pig. It’s become pat to laud Cage for the roles in which he really Gets Serious (in contrast to the Go Crazy ones), but it’s nevertheless refreshing when he does tap into his innate performative greatness. And he does here to a quietly magnificent level.

7. In the Heights

With all due respect to Spielberg’s West Side Story, this was the superior NYC-set movie musical of 2021. Better songs, far better talent and chemistry among the leads, and a better overall story that nods to tradition while dancing to its own beats. The mark of a good musical: whenever I listened to the soundtrack (which was often), the songs would earworm me for days. Also recommend In the Heights: Finding Home, the book by Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators about bringing the stage and film versions to life.

6. Passing

This directorial debut from actress Rebecca Hall kinda knocked me out. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star as two African American women and reacquainted friends in 1920s New York City, one of whom is “passing” as white. Facade cracks of many kinds abound, and the film uses the fullest of its rather short runtime and black-and-white cinematography to pack a dizzying amount of portent through them.

5. The Green Knight

I went into this wholly ignorant of the source material but was eventually won over by the haunting filmmaking (by David Lowery, whose A Ghost Story was one of my favorites of 2017) and mesmerizing performances—specifically Dev Patel, whom I hadn’t seen since Slumdog Millionaire (meh). Ultimately it was the film’s perfect ending (maybe the best of the year?) that transformed a pretty good experience into something I knew I’d have to revisit.

4. Dune

Similar to The Green Knight, I went into this as a complete Dune newbie and emerged a fan, both of the world the film created and how Denis Villenueve went about it. Compared to Villenueve’s previous film Blade Runner 2049, which was pretty but alienating, Dune is gorgeous (in a deadly way) and mesmerizing—so much so I had to watch it twice in pretty quick succession. Not sure I’ll actually dive into the novels though.

3. Procession

This Netflix documentary features a group of men who were molested by Catholic priests as boys using drama therapy as a way to overcome their long-festering trauma, by making (non-graphic) short films dramatizing their experiences. Despite (or maybe because of) the heavy subject matter, it’s a really beautiful portrait of a brotherhood formed by shared anguish as these men help each other get through their emotional journeys together.

2. The Rescue

An extraordinary documentary from National Geographic (available on Disney+) about the 2018 Thailand cave rescue, which I remember happening at the time but hitherto knew very little about. Combining arresting firsthand footage with talking heads by the amateur British/Australian cave divers recruited for the job, the filmmakers expertly show how the massive operation’s inspiring cross-cultural cooperation and logistical creativity led to a near-impossible outcome. (I mean, just read the details of the actual rescue for a taste of how preposterous it was.) It felt a little like Arrival meets My Octopus Teacher—two other top-10 films for 2016 and 2020 respectively. Other dramatized versions of the story are coming, but be sure to watch this.

1. The Beatles: Get Back

This nearly 8-hour documentary from Peter Jackson telling the story of the Beatles’ January 1969 recording sessions spoke to me on many levels. As a former drummer in a rock band, I recognized the tedium, tension, and creative thrills that hours upon hours in the studio can engender. As someone interested in the creative process, I relished watching even certified geniuses inch their way from nothing to serenading London from a rooftop in less than a month. And as a huge Beatles fan, I treasured being able to spend so much quality time with the lads from Liverpool as they worked through a difficult period together. This film feels like a miracle, and I’m glad to have witnessed it. (Watched on Disney+, which is the wrong fit for this project. Even if it introduces a younger audience to The Beatles, the long runtime will put off just as many potential fans.)

Honorable mentions:

  • Licorice Pizza
  • Listening to Kenny G
  • A Quiet Place Part II
  • Bo Burnham: Inside
  • The Harder They Fall
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
  • The Lost Daughter
  • CODA

Haven’t seen yet:

  • Red Rocket
  • A Hero
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Summer of Soul
  • The Disciple

Non-2021 movies I watched and liked:

  • Klaus
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Crimson Tide
  • Showbiz Kids
  • Thief
  • Run
  • Palm Springs
  • Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President
Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2002

Looking at the full list of 2002 releases brought up lots of random memories:

  • going to Changing Lanes and Signs in the theater with my dad
  • seeing the original teaser trailer for Spider-Man on TV in fall 2001 that featured the World Trade Center towers
  • watching The Hours in a high school English class twice as an exercise in close-reading a film
  • rewatching The Hot Chick enough times with my sisters to have the “boys are cheats and liars” chant memorized

Ah, to be young again. This year also saw me transition from middle school to high school. My friend Tim and I were deep into making stop-motion and live-action short films using the LEGO Studios Steven Spielberg MovieMaker Set camera and software. Titles included Doctor Dreadful, The Penington Estate, and Dino Dan—all esteemed Oscar-worthy pictures.

One day I’ll excavate the DVDs full of these heavily pixelated treasures. Until then, on to the list…

1. Minority Report

This was one film, in addition to the LOTR trilogy, that really hooked me into the power and possibilities of film.

2. Catch Me If You Can

Only five years after Titanic made Leonardo DiCaprio a global sensation, this and Gangs of New York (released the same week) confirmed him as a sensational actor as well.

3. Signs

Man, the jump-scares of the aliens on the roof and in the Brazilian street got me real good in the theater. Though The Sixth Sense is great and Unbreakable is his best, this is peak Shyamalan.

4. In America

I’m glad I saw this later on, in college, when I was able to appreciate just how marvelous it is.

5. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Even the least of the LOTR trilogy has excellent moments, namely “Forth Eorlingas!” and “by rights we shouldn’t even be here”.

6. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Thanks to the late Michael Constantine, aka Gus, for several iconic catchphrases from this movie that I still deploy occasionally, including “put some Windex on it” and “so there you go”.

7. The Ring

This movie is sort of Patient Zero for my dualistic relationship with horror films: I don’t like willingly subjecting myself to horrific content that will disturb my mind and sleep, but I also greatly appreciate supremely crafted suspense films.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo

I’ll admit to not having rewatched this in a while, but my enduring impression is that it is, as Roger Ebert wrote, “the kind of adventure picture the studios churned out in the Golden Age—so traditional it almost feels new.” I also had a crush on Dagmara Domińczyk as Mercédès.

9. Jackass: The Movie

This and subsequent Jackass movies are in my Mount Rushmore of making me cry-laugh.

10. The Bourne Identity

Sure, it inspired too many mediocre shaky-cam knockoffs, but there ain’t nothin’ like Matt Damon and Clive Owen facing off in the countryside.

Honorable mentions:

  • Gangs of New York
  • Punch-Drunk Love
  • Road to Perdition
  • Panic Room
  • We Were Soldiers
  • Spider-Man
Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2004

I’m creating my annual movie lists retroactively. See all of them.

As a freshman/sophomore in high school, this year provided me several memorable theater experiences, including the last great M. Night Shyamalan movie, some surprisingly excellent sequels, and a romance that inspired one of my very first blog posts.

But chief among these theatrical outings were Anchorman and Dodgeball. Both were instrumental to the development of my comedic sensibility (for better or worse), having hit me and my peers at the exact right age for maximum effect and quotability. A shocking amount of lines remain lodged in my subconscious to this day, just waiting to be deployed—much to my wife’s puzzlement or annoyance.

I can’t defend everything about them. A recent rewatch of Dodgeball confirmed just how much of its comedy wouldn’t survive into today. But dammit, if “We’re better than you, and we know it!” and “I immediately regret this decision!” and countless other references are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

On to the list…

1. Before Sunset

The Before series is one of four trilogies I own on DVD, the others being Back to the Future, Die Hard (4 and 5 don’t count), and Lord of the Rings. Unlike with those series, this second movie is the best of the trilogy.

2. The Incredibles

This is at #3 in my Pixar rankings, behind WALL-E and Toy Story. Such a beautiful, exhilarating vision from Brad Bird.

3. Shaun of the Dead

I think about this film essay on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy a lot. While my opinions vary on his films, there’s no denying his filmmaking prowess, which is nearly Wes Anderson-esque in its distinctness.

4. The Village

The last great M. Night Shyamalan movie. I know the twist is divisive, but it worked for me, as did the gorgeous James Newton Howard score, the crackling chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and the murderers row of character actors.

5. Anchorman

Within Pewit’s Nest gorge in Baraboo, Wisconsin, you can wade down Skillet Creek and jump off small cliffs into pools within the creek. I was there several years ago with a few people when I clambered up one of these cliffs and, right before jumping, delivered Ron Burgundy’s poolside monologue to those nearby, punctuated with a cannonball into the water just like in the movie. To my chagrin, no one understood the reference and therefore probably considered me a disturbed weirdo. I should have capped it with “Don’t act like you’re not impressed…”

6. Collateral

Tom Cruise needs to play more villains.

7. Miracle

Not all live-action Disney sports movies work, but this one just straight-up does. And like most good sports movies, you don’t need to know much about the sport.

8. Ocean’s Twelve

Saw this with a group of friends, and we decided to get dressed up for a fancy night at the movies just to emulate the suaveness of the cast. This is usually ranked last in the trilogy, but it’s not far behind Thirteen.

9. Friday Night Lights

The show was good, but this was great. My introduction to the music of Explosions in the Sky.

10. I, Robot

This holds up, not only as sci-fi dystopian action but as a Will Smith vehicle during his late prime.

Honorable mentions:

  • National Treasure
  • Team America: World Police
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Vera Drake
  • 50 First Dates
  • Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • The Notebook
  • Shrek 2
  • Spanglish
  • Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2005

I started making annual top-10 movie lists in 2007, so I’ve been going backwards from there to create lists for each year retroactively. See all my best-of lists.

I really enjoyed kicking off my back-in-time film rankings series with the 2006 slate.

Most of my indelible memories from this moviegoing year involved the late, lamented Westgate Cinema, a rundown strip mall theater in Madison that showed the arthouse flicks I was really getting into at this time as a high school junior and senior. I saw several of my top 10 films there.

Looking at the box office from that year reveals a now-familiar dominance of franchises, though only one superhero movie. The only two original concepts represented in the top 10 were Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Hitch—one of which made my own top 10 and the other just missed out.

As for the Oscars, the bit that sticks out (besides the surprising-but-not-really Best Picture triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain) was host Jon Stewart’s quip after Three 6 Mafia won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow: “For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one.”

On to the list…

1. Brokeback Mountain

True story: when I started teaching myself how to play guitar around this time, the first two songs I learned were “Blackbird” by The Beatles and “The Wings” from the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Partially because they happened to share a similar riff (and, I realize only now, theme: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”), but also because they’re both gorgeously evocative in their own ways.

2. Good Night, And Good Luck

There’s a cozy intimacy this film accomplishes that sets it apart from other star-studded period dramas. Maybe it’s the smooth-jazz score, the black-and-white, or the short runtime. Or maybe it’s the contrast of big issues—freedom of speech, the power of the press—being teased out through small conversations in unassuming rooms.

3. Grizzly Man

I’ve seen and enjoyed many Werner Herzog documentaries, but this one still reigns supreme.

4. Batman Begins

Ah, the halcyon days of when a gritty superhero reboot was a novel concept.

5. A History of Violence

The fight in the diner. The stairway sex scene. The final shot.

6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Let’s save the discussion about the cancelability of mid-2000s comedies for the 2004 list (Anchorman, Dodgeball) and say for now that this felt like a sea change at the time, not only for the humor but also for the ultimately positive portrayal of virginity.

7. The New World

I remember going to see this with some friends who were expecting something closer to Pocahontas than the slow, meandering, meditative epic this actually is. Needless to say they didn’t like it, but I did.

8. Walk the Line

At my high school, seniors were allowed to make a big raucous commotion between classes on their last day of school to celebrate graduating. My contribution to this day was hoisting my boombox above my head and playing this movie’s soundtrack on repeat while I walked the halls.

9. Four Brothers

An underrated winter movie, crime movie, family drama, and ensemble piece, with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s truly chilling turn as the sadistic, fur-spangled crime boss Victor Sweet as a bonus.

10. Mr. & Mrs. Smith

We now know how Brangelina would turn out, but at the time the chemistry of Pitt and Jolie was as incandescent as this movie’s alchemy of action, humor, and romance.

Honorable mentions: Broken Flowers, Fever Pitch, Hitch, In Her Shoes, Just Friends, King Kong, The Squid and the Whale, War of the Worlds

Categories
Film Life

Favorite Films of 2006

My annual top-10 movie lists begin in 2007, so I thought it would be fun to start going backwards from there and create lists for each year retroactively.

First up is 2006, which is now 15 years ago and a notable year for me in several ways: it’s when I graduated high school, went on tour with my band (RIP Ice Cap Fortune), entered college, and started this blog.

I also have a lot of movie-related memories from that year, including:

  • seeing Brick at my beloved Hilldale Theatre in Madison not long before it closed permanently
  • going to my first and last midnight screening (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
  • suffering through some truly awful movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water)
  • starting to write about movies (Quinceañera, The Prestige, the 2006 Oscars)

But the abiding memory from 2006 was the day I saw five movies in a row.

My mediocre movie marathon

This may be a common occurrence for film festival-goers or professional critics, but for me it was something I did just to see if I could pull it off—both as a tactical feat of avoiding detection by the theater staff and as a moviegoing stunt.

I walked into Marcus Point Cinema in Madison, WI, for a 12pm showing and reemerged into the darkness just before midnight (paying for only one ticket—yes, I was a teenage scofflaw). It’s not the best lineup, but here’s what I saw:

  1. The Pursuit of Happyness
  2. Rocky Balboa
  3. The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
  4. Blood Diamond
  5. The Good Shepherd (my dad joined me for this one)

I never did this again and would not recommend it. By Blood Diamond my eyes were getting blurry and my butt hurt, so I don’t think I could fully appreciate that or The Good Shepherd. But it was bucket list cross-off and gave me a story to tell on my blog 15 years later.

Anyway, on to the list…

Top 10 of 2006

I suspect this won’t continue to be the case as I move back in time, but I saw almost all of the films in my top 10 in theaters at the time. By then I was an ardent cinephile with a job and a car, so I was able to see a lot of movies. And there were a lot of great ones. Here are my favorites:

  1. Children of Men
  2. Brick
  3. Tell No One
  4. Casino Royale (review)
  5. Inside Man
  6. Stranger Than Fiction (review)
  7. The Departed
  8. V for Vendetta
  9. Pan’s Labyrinth
  10. Jackass Number Two

Honorable mentions: The Prestige, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine, Idiocracy, Half Nelson, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Monster House, Old Joy, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Mission: Impossible III

Categories
Film Review

Favorite Films of 2020

Along with all the other lamentable things that happened (or didn’t happen) this year due to COVID-19, I mourn the movies I missed out on seeing on the big screen. The last time I was in a theater was in late February to see Little Women, which ended up being my favorite film of 2019.

But I’m also aware that I probably wouldn’t have done much moviegoing this year anyway with a toddler at home. That makes me very grateful for the plenitude of at-home viewing options available to me. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Disney Plus, and library checkouts, I was able to see most of what 2020 had to offer and then some.

My logbook tells me I saw a total of 78 films in 2020, 34 of those being 2020 releases. Here’s what stuck with me the most.

10. Greyhound

This got a lot of “meh” reviews, but I found it to be a gripping, well-made, and admirably brief thriller, written by and starring Tom Hanks as the Navy commander of a destroyer protecting a convoy of Allied merchant ships in the U-boat-infested waters of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic. (An unexpected benefit of having to get a new iPhone recently was getting a free one-year trial of Apple TV+, which is the only reason I was able to see it. So shout-out to my first-gen iPhone SE for crapping out!)

9. Dads

A sweet and insightful documentary from Bryce Dallas Howard that celebrates modern fatherhood, with talking heads from her father Ron Howard, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, and other celebrities interwoven with the stories of four everyday men and their parenthood journeys. (Watched on Apple TV+.)

8. Wolfwalkers

In the tradition of previous Cartoon Saloon animated films Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, this is a resplendently illustrated magic-infused folk tale set in 17th-century Ireland with some familiar story elements (rebellious daughter, stern but loving father) embedded with many surprising and delightful turns. (Watched on Apple TV+.)

7. Soul

In the last five years, Pixar has hit the bullseye with only Inside Out, Toy Story 4, and Coco. It’s those films that Soul echoes the most, with its jazz musician protagonist undergoing a metaphysical (and physical) journey rediscovering his own life and purpose. Kids will like its zanier bits, but only adults can fully appreciate the worldview-tilting wonder in this ode to finding meaning in “regular old living.” (Watched on Disney Plus.)

6. First Cow

In 1820s Oregon, two men hatch a scheme to steal milk from the area’s only cow to make and sell biscuits at the local outpost. Sneaks into something very different than what you expect initially. A classic western and American tale of enterprise gone wrong, with a blend of sparseness and depth that only Kelly Reichardt can pull off. (Watched on library Blu-ray, but also available on VOD.)

5. The Assistant

Julia Garner (whom I first discovered in 2012’s Electrick Children) stars as an office assistant of an unseen and unnamed Harvey Weinstein-esque Hollywood producer, whose malignant presence nevertheless follows her as she navigates workplace gaslighting, emotional abuse, and a crisis of conscience. The film’s oppressively hushed tone creates a horror/thriller atmosphere that’s fitting for the psychological menace she has to endure. (Watched on Kanopy.)

4. Driveways

While a woman fixes up the house of her recently deceased hoarder sister, her shy son develops a sweet friendship with the elderly neighbor, played by Brian Dennehy in his final role. Really enjoyed seeing Hong Chou in a different light compared to her role as Lady Trieu in HBO’s Watchmen. And Dennehy’s quiet, abiding presence culminates in a touching monologue that captures the ache of end-of-life regret. (Watched on Kanopy.)

3. My Octopus Teacher

I already wrote about this documentary, which captures a freediver’s unexpected encounters with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. It’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer. (Watched on Netflix.)

2. Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed (previously known to me from Nightcrawler) plays a drummer and former addict who suddenly loses his hearing and finds refuge at a community for deaf recovering addicts, led by a deaf Vietnam vet (played by a riveting Paul Raci). His struggle to regain his hearing and old life clashes with new insights, and make this a stunning, humanist portrait of addiction and transformation. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)

1. The Vast of Night

The Twilight Zone meets Super 8 in 1950s New Mexico, where a young switchboard operator and a radio DJ discover a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial audio frequency. Their search for answers around their small desert town alternates between vexing, exhilarating, and downright eerie. No other 2020 movie captured my imagination and attention as much as this debut feature from writer-director Andrew Patterson, who displays an impressive one-two punch of technical prowess and storytelling panache—with a no-name cast and tiny budget to boot. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)

Honorable mentions: One Night in Miami, Downhill, Tigertail, Blow the Man Down, Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Hamilton: An American Musical, Da 5 Bloods, Boys State, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Yes God Yes

Haven’t yet seen but want to: Minari, Nomadland, Another Round

Other non-2020 films I enjoyed:

Only Lovers Left Alive
Magic Mike
Kramer vs. Kramer
A Night to Remember
Margin Call
The Firm
A Hidden Life
The Last Temptation of Christ
Waves

Categories
Books Review

Favorite Books of 2020

In his year-end summary of reading, Seth Godin wrote: “Books are an extraordinary device, transitioning through time and space, moving from person to person and leaving behind insight and connection. I’m grateful every single day for the privilege of being able to read (and to write).”

I read 18 books in 2020. For some people that might be a lot, but for me it’s an all-time low and a continuation of a downward trend since my peak of 80 books in 2016. The global pandemic had something to do with it, as once I started working from home I lost the time I had previously spent reading during my daily commute and lunch break.

But that’s OK. Like Seth I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to read at all, let alone whatever I want. Of what I was able to read this year, here (in alphabetical order) is what stood out.

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz

While I’ve been a fan of Dazed and Confused for a while, I knew next to nothing about its making aside from Richard Linklater’s freewheeling filmmaking style. This book is a good mix of context-setting commentary from the author and contributions from everyone involved with the movie. (The funniest part is everyone dumping on one insufferable actor who thought he was the next Brando.) Rewatched the movie after reading and appreciated it anew.

Choice quote:

Every few years, as a new crop of high schoolers graduates, new generations discover Dazed. The fact that it doesn’t really have a plot means it holds up better with repeat viewings. You aren’t watching for the story. You’re watching to hang out with the characters.

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

I took the online Jeopardy! test back in March after I started working from home. It… didn’t go well. But that made me appreciate the show and its contestants all the more, along with how televised trivia has managed to remain not only relevant but beloved for so long. This book digs into all of that and more with a combination of concision and panache that Alex Trebek (RIP) would appreciate.

Choice quote:

The real Jeopardy! is not the machine. It’s the show, the thirty minutes of pleasant syndicated reassurance that the machine produces five times a week. Jeopardy! isn’t in a chilly California soundstage; it’s in your home, as you yell answers at the TV screen or furrow your brow during a tense Daily Double. … The real Jeopardy! is the illusion of simplicity: Alex Trebek, three contestants, roughly sixty answers and sixty questions. The real Jeopardy! is the magic trick.

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Set in a dystopian future, this short novel follows a man and his daughter forging a lonely existence in the wilderness. What begins as a rugged, sparse tale soon combines with elements of magical realism, and that’s what really made it sing. Makes me eager to read more Krivak.

Choice quote:

The wood you burn to cook your food and keep you warm? The smoke that rises was once a memory. The ashes all that is left of the story.

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs

Jacobs’s writing is very influential to me. His blog is a constant source of bemused, no-bullshit commentary about politics, religion, culture, and the life of the mind. His latest book seeks to make the case for “temporal bandwidth”—the idea of widening your understanding of the present by engaging with old books and ideas that provide an “unlikeness” to your own assumptions. This means accepting good things about the past along with its baggage. It’s a short but punchy book, the third in a trilogy (along with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and How to Think) that together puts forth a commendable vision of intellectual engagement.

Choice quote:

If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Nestor’s previous book about freediving really spoke to me, so I was eager to see where he went next. His immersion journalism takes him into the surprisingly deep terrain of respiration, especially timely this year given how central breathing is to Covid-19 transmission. Obviously breathing is important to your health, right? But it’s fairly astounding how just breathing deeply through your nose can improve your overall well-being. This book taught me a lot, but mostly it made me more attentive to the aspects of our humanity we often take for granted.

Choice quote:

Everything you or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years. This wayward matter has been split apart by sunlight, spread through the universe, and come back together again. To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and The Village meet Home Alone. Though I read Brooks’s previous book World War Z, it didn’t stick with me nearly as much as this one, which treads similar realistic sci-fi territory. Because the main event is right there in the title, the dramatic tension builds so exquisitely throughout the book. It was one of those stories that delightfully defied prediction, and managed to end on a tantalizing yet satisfying note.

Choice quote:

They all want to live “in harmony with nature” before some of them realize, too late, that nature is anything but harmonious.

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson

One of my favorite authors, Johnson nailed it again with this riveting historical epic that weaves together 17th-century seafaring, the surprising culture of pirate ships, the dawn of the multinational corporation, and much more. Johnson’s magic trick is being able to stuff so much fascinating information into a crisp narrative without making it seem stuffed. It really feels like a rewarding reading journey.

Choice quote:

Ancient history is always colliding with the present in the most literal sense: our genes, our language, our culture all stamp the present moment with the imprint of the distant past.

Go to Sleep (I Miss You): Cartoons from the Fog of New Parenthood by Lucy Knisley

This laugh-out-loud hilarious cartoon collection is a short, sweet, and stunningly accurate depiction of the small moments and observations new parenthood allows. Though mostly geared toward the experience of mothers, so much of it resonated with me. Really glad to have stumbled upon this at my library’s New Graphic Novels shelf.

Choice quote:

Dude, I love you so much… but could you *please* stop discovering the infinite wonder of the world for, like, two minutes?

Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss (review)

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories: how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war; and how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground. I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations. But if you share my interests in librarianship, archives, history, and World War II, you’ll dig this.

Choice quote:

The war challenged these librarians, archivists, scholars, and bibliophiles to turn their knowledge of books and records toward new and unpredictable ends. The immediacy and intensity of their experience tested them psychologically and physically. Whether soldier or civilian, American-born or émigré, these people’s lives changed as they engaged in this unusual wartime enterprise. They stepped up to the moment, confronting shifting and perplexing circumstances armed only with vague instructions and few precedents to guide them.

Favorite non-2020 books I enjoyed

  • Meditations on Hunting by José Ortega y Gasset (review)
  • The Night Lives On: Thoughts, Theories and Revelations about the Titanic by Walter Lord
  • One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee
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
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”