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2017 in Review: Entertainment and Literature

2017 Arts and Entertainment in Review

 

It’s time to list my annual favorites in literature, film and television.  If you missed them, here are my 2016 and 2015 picks.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2017

As always, I read quite a few books during the year, but I’ve only chosen to list the more memorable/enjoyable ones.

7) The Age of Myth, by Michael J. Sullivan: Another book from the fantasy/sci-fi genre that deals with caste systems, and the downtrodden overcoming the well to-do.  In this case, the upper class are literally considered gods, so when one dies at the hands of a commoner, there’s hell to pay.  I enjoyed this book, but admit that now, many months later, few of the details linger in my memory banks, so it’s slid down the list a bit.  The sequel is already out, so I’ll have to see if I can rediscover whatever magic I felt this one had.

6) The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin: The first two books in this series won the Hugo Award in back-to-back years.  I guess I can see why.  The premise of this world, which is ripped asunder by calamities and natural disasters every generation or two, is unique, as is the “earth magic” that drives the story and characters.  But I found it all wanting a bit.  The tale is well-written, but the characters aren’t particularly likable, and the third and final volume of the trilogy is a notch below its predecessors.

5) Alex, by Pierre Lemaitre: Well, this was different.  First, it’s a French detective novel (translated to English)… and it happens to be the second book in a trilogy.  This was recommended as the best book of the trilogy, and a mystery that stands on its own, and that proved to be the case.  Though not as well-written as a Jo Nesbo murder mystery (see below), the plot was full of a number of twists that took the story in some completely surprising directions.  After reading so many mysteries and detective novels in recent years, that was a refreshing change.

4) The Brilliance Trilogy, by Marcus Sakey: A modern day thriller with a touch of sci fi, the Brilliance trilogy explores the idea that a small portion of humanity has begun to evolve and develop mental abilities that allow them to get a step up on the rest of humanity.  More importantly, the story tackles the inevitable fallout when the rest of society starts to feel left behind.  It’s a standard government/detective/terrorism thriller, but with a bit of a sci fi twist that keeps things interesting.  And I felt the entire series stayed consistently entertaining to the conclusion.

3) The Thirst, by Jo Nesbo: Norwegian detective Harry Hole is back in another mix of murder, intrigue and battles with alcohol (yes, Hole—pronouned Hooleeis sort of a standard troubled protagonist).  Though I had figured out the twist part-way through, that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Nesbo’s latest mystery.  Alex may have been much less predictable, but Nesbo’s writing puts this novel higher up on my list.  If you’re looking for a solid, consistently enjoyable detective series, the Hole books are a great choice.

2) Babylon’s Ashes, by James S. A. Corey: The sixth novel in The Expanse series, Ashes picks up immediately following the dramatic and catastrophic events that unfolded in Nemesis Games (one of my favorite books from 2016, and my favorite entry in this series).  It’s hard to live up to the drama of its predecessor, and this book starts slowly.  Perhaps rightfully so, as the solar system is still recovering from recent events, but it does take a while for the action to pick up.  When it does, the second half of the book really takes off, and it wraps up in a fun and action-packed conclusion.  When I read this, it felt like the series could stop after this book.  That wasn’t the case, with the late 2017 release of book seven, but there is quite a separation between the end of this novel and its sequel.

1) A Man Called Oveby Fredrik Backman: Far and away my favorite book this year, Ove centers on a retired, grumpy codger from Norway, and how he relates to his neighbors.  I first heard of the story when the film (below) was nominated for a foreign language Oscar last year, but I chose to read the book first.  Good choice, as it’s a funny and moving tale (and far better than the film, in case you only want to choose one).

 

My Favorite Movies Seen in 2017

I was fortunate to see quite a few films this year despite the new presence of a baby in our house.  I missed plenty others of course.  Below are the standouts and favorites.

10) A Man Called Ove: A few months after reading the book (above), I had a chance to watch the movie (free on Amazon Prime), and it’s quite enjoyable, with plenty of humor and touching moments carried over from the novel.  The only downside is that it lacks a bit of the depth of the book, and the flashback scenes aren’t quite woven into the story as well as on the written page.  Nonetheless, it’s a fine film with some wonderful performances, and worth seeing if you don’t plan on reading.

9) Coco: I’m a fan of nearly any Pixar film that doesn’t revolve around cars (and maybe dinosaurs), and I enjoyed Coco.  The first half of this film about a boy’s visit to the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos seems somewhat formulaic, which kept me from ranking it higher.  But things pick up quite a bit in the second half, and the meaning of family and one’s legacy suddenly take on new meaning and importance, adding some real drama and emotion to the tale.

8) Captain Fantastic: I saw this 2016 release early in the year.  The film tells the story of a man who raises his children in the wilds of Washington, teaching them to live off the land and question the establishment.  When his wife passes away and the kids push to attend her funeral (held back in “civilization”), he is confronted with the scary prospect of exposing his kids to all of the social evils he’s preached about all their lives… and is ultimately forced to question whether his parenting has adequately prepared them for real life.  It’s a funny and poignant film, and though it wraps up a bit too tidily, it was an entertaining ride.  Viggo Mortensen and some of the younger actors give excellent performances.

7) Spider-Man, Homecoming and Thor, Ragnarok: I enjoy most of the Marvel films, but both of these were pleasantly surprising and different from many of the recent comic book movies.  Particularly in the humor department.  Thor’s humor may not have been too surprising, given the track record of its director, Taika Watiti (who directed one of my favorites last year, Hunt for the Wilderpeople).  But Spider-Man was filled with a lot more humor than a standard Marvel movie too… and happened to have a better villain than most of them.

6) The Big Sick: Based on the courtship between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his eventual wife, this highly entertaining film combines consistent laughs with real life drama, as illness and cultural clashes threaten to keep the lovebirds apart.  Though the romantic connection between the two isn’t explored quite well enough to convey a true connection, it’s still an enjoyable ride.

5) Blade Runner 2049I’ll admit it.  I nearly fell asleep.  And I know some people in my row did.  This movie is long and slow.  Much like at least three or four of the different cuts of the first Blade Runner film.  But I still found it far more compelling than the original (this is a sequel, not a remake, by the way).  But man, is this is a beautiful film.  Will Rodger Deakins ever win an Oscar for his cinematography?  He deserves it (again) for this visual masterpiece.  It’s one of the best-looking movies ever made.

4) The Shape of Water: I got this in just under the wire, seeing it on New Year’s Eve.  Guillermo del Toro’s love story (between a mute woman and a fish man!) is a gorgeous film, highlighted by excellent performances by Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and especially Sally Hawkins, who deserves an Oscar nomination for her work.  I’ve been lukewarm about del Toro’s past work, but this is one movie of his that I felt finally matched the hype.

3) Baby DriverSome folks are simply obsessed with Edgar Wright.  To me, he churns out solid, entertaining films pretty consistently (including one of my all time pleasant surprises, Scott Pilgrim), but I sometimes find the fawning to be excessive.  Baby Driver deserves the praise.  It helps that I love heist films, but this one’s really fun and entertaining.  Oh, and loud.  It’s a unique film that incorporates and emphasizes its musical soundtrack as part of the story-telling process without ever being anything close to a musical.  Another winner from Edgar Wright.

2) Sing Street: Another 2016 release that I missed last year.  At first I wasn’t sure about seeing this independent hit about an 80s youth rock band.  After all, I’m not a fan of musicals… but if I could watch and enjoy La La Land, surely I could endure this film, which received rave reviews.  As it turned out, I had nothing to fear.  It’s not a traditional musical, but is heart-warming, funny and has some surprisingly high quality Eighties-sounding songs written specifically for the film.  It’s a bit of a pity that none of them landed an Oscar nomination.

1) DunkirkChristopher Nolan’s war movie bothers some because we don’t get to know the characters very well.  Split between three intersecting stories across three timelines, there’s not much time to devote to character building.  And yet, the tension is high throughout the film… so you can’t tell me we need to flesh out some personal backgrounds to make the stakes seem higher.  It’s also different from most war movies, avoiding excessive brutality and gore.  Again, the way the tension builds there’s no need to elicit more of a visceral reaction from the audience in order to engage them.  And, not surprisingly, Dunkirk is beautifully shot.  The wide, minimalist scenes depicting air battles were gorgeous and stirring.

Wish I’d Seen: Get Out, American Made, The Florida Project, The Disaster Artist, Lady Bird

 

My Favorite Shows That I Watched in 2017

The Golden Age of television continues!  With a slightly reduced travel schedule, I finally had an opportunity to catch up on some shows I missed last year, both familiar and new.  There’s so much good TV right now that it’s impossible to watch everything, but I still had a lot of excellent shows to choose from.

10) Top of the Lake – China Girl: Top of the Lake debuted in 2013, and remains one of the best modern detective programs produced in recent memory.  So I was excited to hear about the sequel.  Jane Campion returned to direct China Girl (which she also co-wrote).  Though it doesn’t match the lofty standard set by the original series, it’s highlighted once again by excellent performances, a fairly interesting mystery, and the odd bit of quirky humor that made the original such a different and pleasant surprise.

9) MindHunter: Like Top of the Lake, Netflix’s show about early FBI investigations into serial killers is another example of an accomplished movie director taking the reins of a television program and coming up aces.  David Fincher co-produced the show and directed four episodes.  It’s cinematic, and sort of a slow burn, not unlike Fincher’s Zodiac film, but it’s pretty compelling stuff.

8) Twin Peaks, The ReturnSurely one of the strangest TV shows ever made.  But in a good way.  I think.  I had just rewatched the original series, and was coming off of the pretty awful mess that was Season 2 (in which the weirdness seemed forced, and usually for the sake of comedy that ultimately fell flat).  The Return is overly long, completely self-indulgent filmmaking by David Lynch, and Episode 8 may be the most bizarre episode of television to air since Wonder Showzen… but strangely, it worked.  After a prolonged, strange trip, the show comes full circle and ends on a sufficiently creepy note that harkens back to the memorable horror elements of the classic first season.  I hope we get more.

7) Master of None: The second season of Aziz Ansari’s comedy is a bit scattered, set in different locations and filmed in different styles while loosely maintaining an ongoing storyline.  But it’s beautiful.  Thankfully, Ansari never relies on “uncomfortable humor,” and as a result his show maintains a pleasant, airy feel even when the characters are struggling with the challenges of love and family.  The Thanksgiving episode is a classic.

6) Atlanta: I finally got around to watching Atlanta, which debuted on FX last year to critical acclaim.  What a great show.  Like Master of NoneAtlanta is a subtle comedy that shines in many of its more serious and contemplative moments.  It’s extremely well-written.  Though on the surface the show appears to center on black culture, it’s a refreshing take on anything from race to money to love.  Creator (and star) Donald Glover’s biggest success may be the way he’s conveying the struggles of a young father trying to establish a new career while providing for his child.

5) The Leftovers: This show debuted with a thud on HBO, but was renewed for a second season (which was tremendous) and given just enough slack by HBO to wrap things up in Season Three.  The story of a planet that suddenly lost 2% of its population (they simply vanished) doesn’t conclude with any concrete answers, instead relying on the viewer to decide what really happened (Was it The Rapture?  Can we “cross over?”).  It’s at times abstract, bizarre, touching and funny.  The intense performances by Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon are marvelous, and some of the episodes are simply wild (a lion, God and an orgy play a prominent role in a single episode, for example).  If you can get through the somewhat slow first season, it’s really worth checking out what some consider one of the best recent shows on television.

4) Halt and Catch Fire: Another show that started slowly and lost most of its initial audience, Halt and Catch Fire somehow lasted four seasons.  Those that stuck with it are glad it did, as it got better and better.  I was fortunate to cram in the last two seasons of the show this year (after not having the time last year), so I enjoyed bonus viewing.  Focusing on a small group of tech workers in the 1980s computer industry, the show depicts their evolution alongside the advancing digital age… personal computers, laptops, the Internet, chat rooms, gaming, search engines.  By the time things wrap up we’re in the 90s and as viewers we’re much more interested in the personal stories than another failed (or sometimes successful) business venture.  A death scene late in the series was particularly moving, proving to me at least that I’d made a worthwhile emotional investment in the show.

3) The Handmaid’s Tale: It was a good year for Elisabeth Moss.  She headlined Top of the Lake: China Girl and The Handmaid’s Tale, and delivered excellent performances all around.  I think this is her best work to date.  It felt different from her past (mostly wonderful) performances.  She presents a character that’s more assured, candid, and haunted than what we’ve seen.  More importantly, Margaret Atwood’s tale of a modern day authoritarian theocracy is downright scary… mainly because it seems so real.  The show suddenly seems less like fiction and more like prophecy given the renewed emphasis on religiously-driven politics and the attempted marginalization of women in our country.

2) Better Call Saul: Like Halt and Catch Fire, I had some catching up to do on Saul.  So I got a quick reminder about what a pleasant surprise this show is.  As a prequel/spinoff from Breaking Bad, I’m not sure anyone really expected it could be this good without Walter White and all the drug drama in that show.  The series gives us a bit of that when it concentrates on crusty and efficient tough guy Mike Ehrmantraut (played by the wonderful Jonathan Banks) and his dealings with the criminal underworld, but I didn’t really expect the Saul side of Saul—that is, all the lawyer stuff—to be as compelling.  Yet it is the best part of the show, thanks in large part to the excellent acting by Bob Odenkirk, Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn and Patrick Fabian.

1) The Expanse: The biggest overachiever on television.  The solar-system-wide, politically-heavy, Belter-babbling plot and dialogue should sink most shows, especially ones on a network like SyFy, but The Expanse does a tremendous job of adapting the S. A. Corey books (which have shown up in my favorite literature lists the last few years).  The story’s been called Game of Thrones… in Space, and it really can be that complex at times, but I continue to be impressed with how they combine the complicated storytelling with such gritty realism.  Overall, it may not be a better show than Better Call Saul or some of the others on this list (when a lead actor is the weakest link, it’s hard to call the show perfect), but it’s the show I most looked forward to seeing each week in 2017.

 

Other Shows I Enjoyed: Fargo, The Tick (seriously, only 6 half hour episodes?), The Americans, Game of Thrones, Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, The Defiant Ones, Catastrophe, Legion, GLOW, Sneaky Pete, Stranger Things 2, The Punisher, Godless, American Vandal, The Crown

Most Disappointing Show: Sherlock continued its downhill slide in early 2017.  Despite some excellent actors capable of marvelous work, the story remains too convoluted and outdoes itself trying to be too clever over and over again… a Steven Moffat hallmark if there ever was one (his Dr. Who has suffered the same issue for years).  As eagerly-anticipated as this show has become each winter, it can’t escape mediocrity.  It may just be the most overrated show on television.  Netflix’s The Iron Fist deserves a special mention because not only was it by far the worst of Netflix’s Marvel shows, but the Iron Fist went on to bring down The Defenders later in the year as well.

Performances I Enjoyed: K. Todd Freeman (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Tom Hardy (Taboo), Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), Patrick Fabian (Better Call Saul), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Fargo), Marc Maron (GLOW), Tom Cavanagh (The Flash), Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick), Costa Ronin (The Americans), Jermaine Clement (Legion), David Dencik (Top of the Lake: China Girl), Toby Huss (Halt and Catch Fire), Camron Britton (Mindhunter), Jack Farthing (Poldark), Jeff Daniels and all the horses (Godless), Claire Foy (The Crown)

Wish I’d Seen: Brockmire, The Deuce, Happy Valley S2, Broadchurch S3, the rest of Mr. Robot S3Big Little Lies

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