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Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas

Updated: Mar 13

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978, *audio*) I’m not sure if The Sea, the Sea is a good book. It’s a haphazard, crazy, bonkers book. It felt as if Murdoch was making it up as she was going along. But sometimes a story is worthy if it’s simply an entertaining ride, and The Sea, the Sea may have been my most enjoyable audiobook experience ever. The book is fun and ridiculous and atmospheric. But most of the praise should go to actor Richard Grant for his astounding voice acting performance. If there’s an annual best “narrator” award for audiobook narrators, it ought to have gone to Grant.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) This is a book about an epidemic of memory loss in a post-war Arthurian Britain. I admire Ishiguro for cheekily playing with Arthurian legends—Merlin may have been engaged in dark sorcery; Arthur may have sought peace via brutal means; Sir Gawain wrestles with internal demons from his warring past. The book brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, in which one ethnicity vied against the other. (The Buried Giant is about the aftermath of the Briton-Saxon wars.) Memories breed anger which breeds revenge, and the violent cycle continues. One can imagine how forgetfulness can be a salutary disease under such circumstances, and I like how Ishiguro played with these themes. The “buried giant” — you could say — was simply the memory of the war atrocities that would, if unearthed, wreak havoc on Britain.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) One of my favorite things about this book is how flawed Stevens, a self-denying English butler, is as the narrator. There is something boyish and endearing, if pathetic, about how persistently self-deluding Stevens is. Once you see this as a reader, the reading experience changes, because you can now see through Stevens and begin to tease out the truth for yourself.

Beverly by Nick Drasno (2016) I love Drasno’s two graphic novels, set in Anywhere, USA. The illustrations are likely deliberately bland: blank expressions, boring bodies, neat suburbs, and undecorated interiors. It all suggests a lack of spiritual richness in the characters’ lives. These characters are victims of a soulless and impoverished American culture: bad TV, recreational binge drinking, advertisements everywhere, media-generated paranoia…These characters seem to be wandering through these boring landscapes, searching, but rarely finding, connection or understanding. It all sounds so dreary, but there’s humor on every page. Drasno’s books are some of the best critiques — or diagnoses — of American culture, and the alienation, loneliness, and “something’s missingness” so many of us feel.

Gotta Get Theroux This by Louis Theroux (2019, *audio*) I’ve long been a big fan of Theroux. There’s a casual wisdom in this memoir, which covers everything from boyhood, to marriage, to his career. (It’s mostly about his career.) He spends an inordinate amount of time on his interviews with Jimmy Saville (who later turned out to be a serial pedophile), but I found myself enjoying this theme, and I suppose the continual fascination with the subject says something about Theroux. I strongly recommend the audio version, as Theroux is a gifted speaker.

Best books read in 2020

Best books read in 2019

Best books read in 2018

Best books read in 2017

Best books read in 2016

Best books read in 2015

Best books read in 2014

  • Ken Ilgunas

Updated: Jan 13

Warrior (2011, USA) I am no fan of MMA, but the acting from the three leads (Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte) was exceptional enough to make me overlook all of the sport's unsavory barbarism. It’s not normal when the “final game” scene in a sports movie is unpredictable. Yet this scene was. I might go as far to say that the ending was not only the greatest sports movie ending, but the greatest ending of any movie ever.

Honeyland (2019, Macedonia) Beautiful documentary about beekeepers in rural Macedonia. Documentaries often have to stray from conventional storytelling structure because the filmmaker can only work with whatever content they have on film. So I was impressed with how novelistic this documentary felt. It was as if these real people were acting out a beautifully written story that fits together so perfectly it could only be fiction.

Margaret (2011, USA) This was my Kenneth Lonergan year. I’m embarrassed that I’ve long overlooked one of the great American writer-directors. I came across Margaret on Richard Brody’s (of The New Yorker) “best films of the 2010s” list. Margaret certainly belongs.

You Can Count on Me (2000, USA) Another Kenneth Lonergan film inhabited by characters with punchy East Coast attitudes and soft souls.

A Star Is Born (2018, USA) There is nothing about this movie's plot (alcoholic country musician falls in love and is tempted to reform) that intrigued me, but I found no reason to discontinue watching. By the end, I had to grudgingly admit that I loved the movie. The best thing the movie had going for it, in addition to Bradley Cooper's performance, were the musical performances in front of real and huge audiences. It was easy to feel the energy of the actors/musicians on a stage in front of real crowds.

Nomadland (2020, USA) I thought Zhao captured the vandwelling lifestyle wonderfully—everything from impromptu bathroom emergencies, to worrying about people harassing you, and to feeling snug under your covers as rain gently drums against the van's metal roof. I hope Zhao, who recently directed a superhero movie, goes back to making movies about the unseen peoples of America.

Dune (2021, USA) My main gripe about Dune is that the filmmakers did nothing to freshen up Herbert's writing. Herbert lacks a sort of earthy humor and wit that George R.R. Martin has in abundance. Why not hire a few good writers to lighten up a few scenes with a touch of humor? Or just make the writing feel less stilted? Weaknesses aside, Dune was a visual spectacle with some of the most inventive world-building we've seen in film: from the moisture-proof suits, to the cool ships, to the body armor, to the curvy sand dunes, to the costumes. Plus, some of the actors were all-in on their characters, such as Stellan Skarsgård as the creepy Harkonnen floating guy, and I thought Paul's mother (Rebecca Ferguson) gave a strange and outstanding performance. (It was nice to see a mom run like an Olympic sprinter.) I was completely immersed in this fictional world, but the movie didn’t stick to my ribs. It left my system as soon as I left the theater; my only remaining impression is of the terrific visuals.

Paper Moon (1973, USA) The writing remains funny and sharp for a movie from 1973. I have a little girl now, making me a sucker for father-daughter movies. (I just watched the trailer to Father of the Bride and teared up.) I agree that Tatum O’Neal’s performance belongs in the “best kid actor performance ever” conversation.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982, USA) I’m surprised this movie hasn’t experienced a second life with the Millennial generation, as I found so much of the story relevant to the 21st Century dating scene. The two male protagonists, who are officers in training at a miltary base, must morally navigate their "flings" with local working-class women. They must determine if and how to end things. This is something that young folks, who are serial-dating with apps like Tinder or Bumble, must deal with all the time.

Manchester by the Sea (2016, USA) I watched this shortly after it came out on video years ago, and I found the movie forcefully melancholic and the dialogue inauthentically folksy. But after watching and loving Lonergan’s two other films, I had to revisit Manchester by the Sea. I can’t think of another re-watch in which my opinion had flipped so significantly. This time around, it was easy for me to appreciate the subtle humor, the folksy (but not inauthentic) dialogue, and Casey Affleck’s outstanding performance as a man whose life-spirit has almost been drained by grief.

Another Round (2020, Denmark) A group of male friends getting drunk every day at work as a philosophical and existential exercise sounds like a bad Seth Rogan/Jud Apatow movie, but Another Round succeeds in Thomas Vinterberg's hands. (See also, The Hunt.) Despite the silly premise, it's ultimately a serious movie about reinventing yourself, escaping middle-age torpor, and seeking to reclaim a vivacious life.

The Father (2020, France, UK) I loved Nomadland and it was a good-enough selection for Best Picture at the Oscars, but I think we’ll remember The Father as the better movie in 25 years, helped by some exquisite film editing. It is hands down the most accurate and artistic cinematic depiction of memory loss. Hopkins’s final scene is one of his greatest.

Honorable mentions

The Sound of Metal (2019, USA)

Borat II (2020, USA)

The Nest (2020, UK)

First Cow (2019, USA)

Minari (2020, USA)

The Sisters Brothers (2018, France, USA)