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Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas


Movies

 

It was a fruitful movie-watching year for me, partly because I had a lot of long flights on United Airlines, which has a surprisingly terrific film selection. Plus, my Cinema Paradiso and MUBI subscriptions always have an enticing offering. The only "A" I gave out this year was to Paul Newman's The Verdict, but Aftersun is the one I'll never forget.

 

Aftersun (2022, Scotland)

Red Rocket (2021, USA)

The Florida Project (2017, USA)

Past Lives (2023, South Korea, USA)

Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA)

Eastern Promises (2007, USA)

Stories We Tell (2012, Canada)

The Verdict (1982, USA)

Andrey Zvyagintsev's Russian films [Elena (2011), The Return (2003), Leviathan (2014), and Loveless (2017), Russia]

The Quiet Girl (2022, Ireland)

Paterson (2016, multiple)

The Big Chill (1983, USA)

 

Audiobooks

 

I'm not sure if this is a hot-take, but I would hold up Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy alongside some of the other great and epically-long stories of the last hundred years, whether it's LotR or the Game of Thrones books. There is so much drama, history, and psychological insight packed into those novels. I cannot recommend the audiobook experience more. Ben Miles's voice brings so many (and there are many) characters to life.

 

The Killer Angels (1974, USA)

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy (2009-2020, UK)

 

TV

 

The Bear (Season 2)

Poldark (the 1975 version)

 

Books

 

I read more for research than pleasure this year, so my recommended books list is thin. I returned to a few favorites that, to me, have stood the test of time.

 

LoTR

Pride and Prejudice

Freedom




Christmas Book sale

 

For American readers, I've held a little Xmas sale this past week over my social media accounts. I was delighted to make over 20 sales and disencumber myself of about 50 books. I thought I'd extend the same offer to blog readers.

 

If you want to get a last-minute order in, and for the package to arrive in time, please send me an email asap. I'll be happy to personalize as you like.

 

Walden on Wheels - $15

Trespassing across America - $15 (hardcover $20)

This Land Is Our Land - $15

McCandless Mecca - $7

Walden on Wheels (CDs or MP3) - $10

 

If you buy four, you get $5 off of total. Transactions can be made using Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, or by check. Postage varies per order.




A Year in Review - 2023

 

2023 is the year I turned 40. The age-change is arbitrary, but I think I'll look back on 2023 as a significant year, largely because it was the year I finally got fed up with being a writer/speaker. (I embrace the vocation, but can't bear the unstable and stressful finances.) This all had me contemplating a mid-life career pivot (which hasn't happened but probably will).

 

2023 is also the year when my "Alone" reality TV show dream died, which mercifully brought me some clarity of mission. My daughter is four and our house ("shabby abbey") grows less shabby by the year. I put some more roots into Scottish soil, literally and figuratively. My town has built a new train station. My softball team improved and ball hockey team regressed. My health has been without flaw except for poor nasal breathing. (I breathlessly await my appointment for an NHS-sponsored septoplasty.)

 

I finished a draft of my memoir Out of the Wild, which contains some of the funniest and most insightful lines I've written. It's the tonal sequel to Walden on Wheels, even if OotW's theme is more about relationships than career & finance. This was my third year of work on it, so it was mostly a labor of creative editing, which is the best sort of literary labor. It hasn't yet been shopped to publishers, so no news there.

 

And even though I sort of want out of the literary life, at the last minute I got an idea for a polemical book that would be an easy sell. I get a handful of book ideas every year. It isn't clear to me if what I have is a "real thing" or just a passing whim.

 

2023 is the year I told the world. "You won. I need a real job." Yet, with a completed draft and a new idea, it remains to be seen if 2024 is the year I put this resolution into action.




Films

 

Past Lives (2023, US & South Korea) - Just go ahead and give this the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s a beautiful movie about romantic love—the secondary loves who fit into our lives and the soulmates who don't. A-

 

Red Rocket (2021), The Florida Project (2017), Tangerine (2015) — All of these Sean Baker movies are outstanding. Baker belongs in a class with Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Nomadland). They each find stories to tell in the lands in between the over-represented cities of NYC and LA. Both Baker and Zhao often employ non-actors, who are so good they make you wonder if we ever needed professional actors in the first place. Baker’s movies are set in the dingy fringes of America, where people live beneath the shadow of industry, are assaulted by (or assault themselves with) noise, and who malnourish themselves to death with cigarettes and donuts. Their downtrodden towns might be grimy, but a few splashes of pastel joy speak to an indomitable American hope and an up-against-the-odds fierceness of spirit. A-

 

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) - This movie was infuriatingly dull and long (3.5 hours!), but let me say nice things about it first. It did an admirable job documenting the step-by-step crimes committed by small-town mobsters against the Osage Nation. The movie seems determined to get us to remember a tragedy that was never properly remembered. I only wish this movie felt more like a story than a docudrama, with its tedious accounting of crimes committed by an endlessly long cast of characters, whose motivations are never explored and backstories never developed. The acting is great, but there’s hardly a likeable character or a trade of interesting dialogue in the film. Scorsese neglects to capture something meaningful, sublime, or Shakespearean—something story-ish. Instead, he seems obsessed with the smallest of details behind every crime. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is an interesting comparison. Schindler’s is also about evil, but Spielberg managed to make something beautiful with content that doesn’t get any darker. Spielberg took some creative risks, found poetic beauty in a story of genocide, and allowed himself a Shakespearean soliloquy or two. Scorsese, in fastidiously keeping things as true to life as possible, may have counterproductively made his movie and the memory of the Osage murders forgettable. C-  

 

The Killer (2023) - It’s interesting how some of our great directors (Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon and Ridley Scott, Napoleon) are stumblingly taking on sweeping epics in the final stages of their career, while David Fincher has chosen to tell a much sleeker and specific story—about an assassin seeking revenge. I strain to figure out if this movie is trying to say anything or just be a more cerebral John Wick. To be generous, it’s a critique of the ascetic self-mastery — as well as the whole “quantified self” trend — which can shield us from the feelings that get in the way of accomplishing a hard task. That’s all well and good, but I just wasn’t buying it: There was no way Michael Fassbender’s robotic contours contained enough of a beating heart for him to keep a sweetheart in Central America. C+

 

Audiobooks 

 

The Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara - This is historical fiction, from which the film Gettysburg was adapted. The author’s trick of telling each chapter from a different character’s point of view is effective, especially in capturing the Confederate and Union psyche. A-

 

A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou (2021) by Seth Kantner - A wonderful mini-memoir about a man’s lifelong (and ever-changing) relationship with caribou. Kantner’s relationship must evolve alongside technological innovation in weaponry and snow travel, as well as state hunting politics and an Alaska now baking under the heat of climate change. It wrestles with the question, “How should we be with nature in the 21st Century?” B+

 

Books 

 

Encounters: Experiences with Non-Human Intelligences (2023) by D.H. Pasulka — I enjoyed the first 3/4ths of this book, in which the author introduces a whole bunch of interesting concepts (such as how a growing body of UFO sightings and other inexplicable encounters are manufacturing a new and interesting spirituality). But I wish the content was curated a bit more vigorously. I can take in stories about UFOs better (with the many documented sightings legitimized by stodgy institutions like the Pentagon and NY Times) than the unsubstantiated freaky bedroom encounters with St. Michael.

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