My favorite films, books, and shows - 2022
Movies The White Ribbon (Germany, 2009) - Director Michael Haneke may be making the case that Germany’s descent into 20th Century madness had deeper roots than mere top-down psychopathy. We see, in a pre-WWI village, authoritarian parents, overbearing religion, and inexplicable moral monstrosities—the diseases supposedly rotting Germany’s core. It’s bleak, but more watchable than it sounds. An innocent courtship at the heart of the movie adds sweetness to what may have otherwise tasted like medicine. Paradise Trilogy (Austria, 2012-13) - All three Paradise films (Love, Faith, Hope) are terrific, though you’ll never forget the first, in which an Austrian lady goes to Africa on a misadventurous sex holiday. Top Gun: Maverick - I try to culture myself by picking movies from pretentious top-100 lists. But I am also happy to turn my brain off to enjoy an audio-visual spectacle. A few hot takes: 1. Could Tom Cruise — with his stunt work in movies that largely scorn CGI — be doing more than anyone to bring back live action and wean us off of CGI? 2. Could Tom Cruise — dancer, actor, bartender, pool player, rock climber, helicopter pilot, and twenty other things — be the most skilled person alive? 3. Is Tom Cruise the world’s best learner? Moonfall (multiple countries, 2022) - A critical failure and box office bomb, Moonfall was nevertheless one of my most enjoyable watches of 2022. I watched this movie with two savagely-critical friends, and the experience of Moonfall gave me my biggest bellylaugh in ten years. Moonfall may have been “the worst movie I’ve ever seen!” (hysterically exclaimed as early as the 30-minute mark), but if something’s objectionable, it doesn’t always follow that it’s unenjoyable. Project X (USA, 2012) - I didn’t say these were the best films. I said they were my favorite films. Watch this one when you’re depressed, and with alcohol. As the movie suggests, hangovers are sometimes worth it. Stillwater (USA, 2021) - I feel like this unnoticed and unprofitable movie didn’t get the acclaim it deserved. It’s loosely based on the father from the real-life Amanda Knox story. I was expecting a rehashing of that whole ordeal, but Stillwater turned out to be something completely different. In a very sly and light-handed way, Matt Damon’s character’s reluctant embrace of European culture is an indictment of American culture’s empty core. The Act of Killing (Indonesia & other countries, 2012) - A documentary about a genocide will never be an easy watch, but could this be the most fascinatingly structured film ever? The filmmaker tells the story of the genocide by having the executioners act as themselves in a movie inside the documentary. Honorable Mentions: Jesus of Montreal (Canada, 1989), The Turin Horse (Hungary 2011), The Souvenir (UK, 2019), Capernaum (Lebanon, 2018), Little Children (USA, 2006), The Assassination of Jesse James… (USA, 2007), Avatar 2: The Way of Water (USA, 2022), Maria Chapdelaine (Canada, 2021)
TV The Beatles: Get Back (2022) - Earlier in the year, my two-year-old daughter started to cry upon hearing the song “Yesterday.” (Could there be a greater testament to the timelessness of a song than the primal tears of a toddler?) When my daughter exhibited the same emotions the next time the album whirled back to “Yesterday,” it was confirmed that the first cry wasn’t a fluke. So began my “Beatles Year,” in which I tried to learn about the origins of timelessness. I watched three Beatles documentaries and read a giant biography (which I’ll get to later). Get Back — Peter Jackson’s 8-hour cut from one of the Beatles’ final studio sessions — was a terrific introduction to the band. I have plenty of praise for the series, but I’ll merely share my strangest reaction. Early on, we see footage of Paul McCartney strumming the potential beginnings of a song (which would later become the hit single “Get Back”). There was something mesmerizingly repulsive about seeing a song in its nascent state. In McCartney’s violent strumming, in his incoherent mumbling, in his hunched back-and-forth rocking, we see a song in its embryonic state— a coiled and sodden chick not yet ready to crack through its vibrating shell. It’s ugly but real. Earthy but gross. Unformed but forming. We must first get beyond the messiness of conception and gestation — fornicational fluids, squishy placentas, and all — before we can enjoy creation's fluffy perfection. Andor (2022) - While the Internet debated whether to give the new “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Rings” series the championship belt for top TV series, the Star Wars spin-off Andor (by far the best from the three juggernauts) sneakily slipped it around its waist when no one was looking. Wolf Hall (2015) - I put this series off for seven years because I was irritated by the endless glut of cliche English costume dramas, but I gave Wolf Hall a shot after the many memorials to the late Hilary Mantel, whose books inspired the miniseries. I will defend Wolf Hall — which pays no heed to cliche — as one of the greatest TV series ever. Alone (seasons 8 and 9) - They haven’t tweaked the formula because they haven’t had to. As nature rubs raw ten (oftentimes stoic) people, facades fade, personas evaporate, and egos are chastened. The individual unadorned is exposed, revealing a human with existential clarity, a spirit renewed, and words that crackle next to a spitting fire with earthly poetry and homespun philosophy. The show knows that you don’t elicit the best human drama by putting a bunch of loud people in a room. No, just send them off alone to the Canadian wilderness and watch them become their most human. Honorable Mentions: The Bear (2022)
Books We Know Nothing and I Wrote This Because I Love You (2012, 2018) by Tim Kreider. When I read, I read mostly out of a sense of obligation—to do the work of being a worldly citizen, to be suitably informed/cultured, etc. It’s rare to find a book that I struggle to put down, that makes me want to stay up beyond my usual falling-asleep hour, or that makes me want to prioritize *reading that book* over everything else in my life. I experienced all of the above when reading Kreiders’ books, where the crude and blunt blend naturally with the literary and enlightened. There is knowledge and wisdom baked into every page. There are a few big, smart words, yet the style is always colloquial, always friendly, always down-to-earth. We men so rarely write about our romantic relationships (something that is always on our minds yet rarely to be found on page), so I couldn’t help but cherish this rare glimpse into the male psyche. Good writing is easy enough to find. But good writing that is also relevant to our lives is nothing short of a gift. Tune In (2013) by Mark Lewisohn. Because there are so many Beatles biographies, picking one was hard. But I had specific questions that this book —which covers the Beatles’ childhoods up to their first hit song — seemed ideally suited to answer. 1. Was it a freak accident to have John and Paul and George grow up next to each other? 2. Was there something special about Liverpool? 3. Was their superstardom a result of innate creativity, natural talent, or hard work? I got these answers and more. Tune In is a slow-burn rags-to-riches story, which is my favorite sort of story. It is so much fun reading about teenagers who have no idea what success awaits them. Abbott Awaits (2011) by Chris Bachelder. This is a funny and sometimes moving series of vignettes about the banality of parenting. Each paragraph is meticulously crafted and whittled down to the bare essentials. Bachelder plays with form (we see the father character through the eyes of a repairman in one chapter), and there’s a chapter that talks about Charles Darwin’s children which may be one of the most intelligently structured pieces of writing I’ve seen—not only that, but it gave me a much-needed slap on the forehead. Of Boys and Men: Why the modern male is struggling, why it matters, and what to do about it (2022) by Richard Reeves. A very compelling data- and research-driven book that proposes sensible policy solutions. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (2021) I give it four out of five stars because any book that makes you want to alter your life (I wish to improve my health via better breathing) deserves a spot on your best books list. But I remove one star because Nestor adds too many novelistic details about the breathing experts he brings into the book, embloating the book beyond its natural dimensions. I want to know what they’re researching, not what they’re wearing. Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel. When you read about Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, you become Thomas Cromwell. You’re the smartest, savviest person at court. You see people’s weaknesses, understand their motivations, and quietly plot your revenge. That’s why the book is so fun to read or, in my case, listen to. It’s interesting how the book's characters view Cromwell (always as a ruffian, a striver, a bully) and how Mantel, herself, views him (a genius, a kind father, a loyal servant, a lover, even a forward-thinking progressive). I don’t know what Cromwell was like in real life, or how historians think of him, but, as a literary character, I love and admire and wish I could be as wise as Mantel’s Cromwell. Honorable Mentions: The Power of Geography (2021) by Tim Marshall, Why the Germans Do it Better (2020) by John Kampfner, The Splendid and the Vile (2020) by Erik Larson
What should I consume in 2023? Please help broaden my horizons by recommending something good to me—perhaps from a medium I’m less familiar with. A PC game? An album? A graphic novel? Works of art?