At the end of each year I like to do a quick review of my favorites in entertainment and literature, for fun, before I get to all of the photography-related retrospectives. You can see my lists from 2017, 2016 and 2015 here.
The Best Books I Read in 2018
As always, I managed to get in a healthy amount of reading throughout the year, and while most of the books I read were entertaining, only a few were memorable in any sense. Here are my favorite reads:
7) Iron Gold, by Pierce Brown: Somewhat unexpectedly, a fourth book in the Red Rising series was published. It’s the start of a second trilogy, set ten years after the events of the solar system-wide conflict that played out in the futuristic caste society of the first three books. Those were dramatic, action-packed and entertaining, and for the most part Iron Gold lives up to the same standard. But it’s not quite on the same level. And this book is plagued by the same issues as the previous volumes: unless you’re reading them all back-to-back, it’s too easy to forget half the characters! With the exception of a few of the lead characters, most of the rest of the cast sport names from ancient Rome, and it gets pretty muddled trying to recall who is part of what caste, and on which side… and even on what planet.
6) The Kremlin’s Candidate, by Jason Matthews: The final book in the Red Sparrow spy trilogy maintains the brisk and occasionally harrowing pace of the first two volumes. It wraps up the story of a Russian and American spies who fall for each other fittingly… really, the only way it could. However, I did find that the book works much better as a spy novel than as a romance. The lovers’ repetitive acknowledgement and consternation over their forbidden love really becomes a bit tedious. Luckily, the spycraft more or less makes up for it.
5) Impossible Owls, by Brian Phillips: I’ve written before about Brian Phillips. In fact, he’s still the only writer I’ve taken time to blog about outside of these year-end lists, so it’s a bit redundant to tell you that I admire his work. Impossible Owls is his first collection of essays, primarily pieces he wrote while working for online entities like Grantland and MTV, but it includes a couple of new works as well. My favorite essays from this collection were, in fact, some of the older articles, covering subjects such as the Iditarod and sumo wrestling in Japan. His piece on tiger safaris in India hit home (Phillips had better luck than I did over there) and every essay had a common link that I could also relate to: owls! From aliens to Oklahoma oil heiresses, Phillips’s writing meanders between his chosen subjects and some of his personal stories, but it remains entertaining throughout.
4) Foundation, by Isaac Asimov: A classic sci fi story that I finally decided to tackle. I read the entire Foundation Trilogy (of what eventually expanded to a seven book series), but the story began to drag half-way through Book Two. Before that, I found it engrossing. In some ways reminiscent of another sci fi classic, Hyperion, in that it’s essentially a collection of short stories, telling the generational history of our futuristic society. Every one of the stories in the first book is an entertaining look at the development and/or regression of human society.
3) Children of Time, by Adrien Tchaikovsky: Speaking of a tale told of the rise and fall of empires over several generations, Children of Time was my favorite science fiction story I read this year. In this case, Tchaikovsky’s novel depicts the crumbling of human society and the subsequent rise of a community of… spiders? Yes, spiders. And they’re by far the most interesting part of the story.
2) Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng: What a treat. Sure it’s about midwestern family drama, but it’s extremely well-written: an “easy,” comfortable read for storytelling that’s anything but simple. It’s funny at times and even the “little fires” (family conflicts) are compelling… a perfect mix of drama sprinkled with doses of humor.
1) A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles: In the vein of my 2017 favorite A Man Called Ove, this is a book of fiction—no, not fantasy, sci fi or even crime drama—set in Europe, focusing on a fellow who (by the end of the book at least) is in his later years. The protagonist in this case, Count Rostov, is sentenced to live out the rest of his life in a Moscow hotel by the budding Communist government of the USSR in the early 1920s. The story follows Rostov’s life over the decades as the new republic outside the hotel continues to develop and change, changes which slowly seep inside the hotel’s confines and begin to affect a man who continues to believe in the good of the nation, regardless what it’s done to him and his friends. How entertaining can a historical tale set in a single building over the course of decades be? Immensely, as it turns out. Rostov is quite a character, and the book is infused with the right amount of humor to accompany his many (indoor) adventures over the years.
My Favorite Movies Seen in 2018
10) Three Identical Strangers: A wild documentary about three triplets separated at birth and later reunited in adulthood. That alone makes it a must-see… but then it takes a shocking, darker turn that makes the story even more compelling.
9) Mission Impossible, Fallout: The last three Mission: Impossible films have been fantastic action movies, and somehow this sixth edition kicked things up a few more notches. But I think what really made this installment great was that it told Ethan Hunt’s most personal story since M:I III, leaving us caring a bit more about our hero and his team than we normally would.
8) BlacKkKlansman: I’m not sure how many Spike Lee films I’ve seen since Inside Man, but this was the most entertaining since that heist flick. But also a heck of a lot more disturbing. Much of the 1970s story of a black police officer “infiltrating” the KKK was infused with humor. The horrific racism and actions of the Klan and David Duke are portrayed as plainly ridiculous to the point where it becomes something to laugh at much of the time. But then Lee throws cold water on the audience by ending the film with real life footage of present day examples of the same type of racism, from footage of Duke lauding the rise of Donald Trump to the horrors of Charlottesville. It’s a chilling reminder that this is anything but fiction, and that the racists and bigots are only emboldened by our current government.
7) The Favourite: A darkly comic period piece about England’s troubled Queen Anne and two rivals for her affection in court. Though it’s well-directed and looks great as any Oscar-worth period piece inevitably does, this is one of those films that stands on its performances. Olivia Colman is one of the best actors on film and television, and keeps delivering in her role as Anne. Oscar-winners Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone excel in the supporting roles. I wouldn’t be surprised to see all three nominated for Academy Awards.
6) The Death of Stalin: Who knew that post-War Soviet political intrigue would be the subject of one of the year’s funniest films. Featuring a prominent cast of English and American actors in the roles of the Soviet power players fighting over their nation following the death of Josef Stalin, the performances and writing are top notch.
5) The Florida Project: Another 2017 film that received some awards acclaim, and which I was finally able to watch (partially) on a flight, and then back at home when it was released on Amazon Prime. This is a low budget picture focusing on a family living in the slum hotels of central Florida. It mainly spends its time following the adventures of a 6-year-old girl, her wayward mother, and a few of the other kids and families struggling to survive. It’s a lovely and eye-opening film highlighted by some excellent performances, particularly by Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite (who play the daughter and mother), and Willem Defoe as the well-meaning but frustrated hotel manager trying to keep things in line.
4) Avengers Infinity War: Big, bloated and long… and I loved it. That wasn’t a given. I’ve enjoyed most of the Marvel films since we started with Iron Man ten years ago, but there have been some ups and downs along the way. There was no guarantee the culmination of all these stories would tie together in an entertaining product, especially when forced to jump all over the galaxy and follow about two dozen major characters we’ve gotten to know over eighteen films. But I felt it paid off. Not only did one of the weakest Marvel villains to date (Thanos, who has hardly done anything until now) turn out to be plenty imposing and daunting as a Big Bad, but the enormity of the stakes—and the loss—depicted in this movie were depicted quite well. Some call it the Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Cinema Universe, and in some ways it’s a worthy comparison.
3) Widows: Severely underappreciated, at least if you go off the box office numbers. This is the deepest and most nuanced heist film since Heat. Led by some outstanding performances from its largely female cast and directed by 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen, this probably won’t get much awards love, but it certainly deserves it.
2) Wind River: This 2017 release starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen takes place in territory that feels familiar: the western Rockies of Wyoming (not far from my stomping grounds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem). It’s a gritty and fast-paced murder mystery set in the unfriendly winter confines of an Indian Reservation and neighboring drilling land, where the murder may have taken place and the locals are anything but cooperative. Renner does well in his role as a troubled wildlife tracker for the Fish and Wildlife Service, while Olsen holds her own as the inexperienced FBI agent assigned to investigate the crime. I enjoyed the film more than expected thanks in large part to the brisk storytelling, which ratcheted up the tension and packed a lot of action together into its 1:51 runtime.
1) Get Out: I finally had a chance to watch Jordan Peele’s directorial debut early in the year, and loved it. I’m not a huge fan of horror films (perhaps because their quality is often subpar), and while Get Out isn’t true horror it is a departure from what I normally watch. Nonetheless, it hit all the right notes–thrilling, funny, smart, well-acted) and it’s nice to see a different style of film get some awards recognition. I always felt Peele was the less-appreciated half of Key & Peele, but his talents are on full display here.
Other Films I Enjoyed: Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse, War for the Planet of the Apes (a special mention for the astounding visual effects… by far the best digitally-created animals put on film to date!), The Incredibles 2, You Were Never Really Here, Black Panther, A Quiet Place, Lady Bird
Wish I’d Seen: First Man, Roma, Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse
My Favorite Shows That I Watched in 2018
So much good TV. We stepped away from a few solid series that felt a bit too depressing (Handmaid’s Tale, Man in the High Castle, Mr. Robot), perhaps due to their all-too-familiar reminders about the nastier aspects of our current society—so much for escapism—but stuck with some other dramas that were quite rewarding and even improved on their previous runs.
10) The Americans: The final seasons of one of the decade’s best dramas was a near-return to form after a plodding penultimate run of episodes. The Eighties Cold War spy show featured some over-the-top violence (once again), but ultimately it closed its run with a satisfying (if not entirely pleasant) conclusion.
9) Better Call Saul: One of the most consistent shows on television continues to hum along as it tells the story preceding Breaking Bad. We continue to gain insights in the development of the Saul Goodman character and the relationship between Mike Ehrmantraut and drug lord Gustavo Fring. The only thing I missed this year was Michael McKean’s Charles McGill, our protagonist’s brother and excellent foil throughout the first couple seasons.
8) American Vandal: Netflix’s faux teen crime documentary series returns. This time, the focus is scat humor when a prankster unleashes a laxative-induced “brown out” on a prep school. Poop is funny, but Season Two builds on the themes that made its last season interesting, depicting the fallout and consequences of teen pranks have both on the kids and adults.
7) Sharp Objects: HBO’s haunting southern murder drama relies on some fantastic performances from its female leads, and more great direction from Jean-Marc Vallée (see #2 on this list). Oddly, this story by Gillian Flynn puts its murder mystery on the back burner, and is driven by the unsettling family drama surrounding Amy Adams’s Camille Preaker and her mother, played by Patricia Clarkson. The murder mystery is eventually solved—you really need to watch through the credits of the final episode—but many of the other questions that arise throughout the show have equally unpleasant answers.
6) GLOW: Netflix’s female wrestling drama was good in its first season, but wasn’t exactly highly-anticipated this time around. Yet somehow it got even better and made a mark. Though it largely bills itself as a comedy, some of the more dramatic storylines surrounding the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” its management, and the women that make it work make the show much more interesting than an Eighties era comedy should be.
5) Succession: Normally I’m not a fan of stories about terrible people doing stupid things (I’m looking at you, Girl on the Train), but succession was somehow totally absorbing. A story of corruption, power and greed intertwined with family disfunction and incompetence—centered around Brian Cox’s media mogul Logan Roy and his four heirs—this is one of the best dark comedies of the year. The depictions of the Roy offspring stumbling over themselves to grab a piece of his empire is cringe-worthy, yet highly entertaining.
4) The Deuce: I didn’t get to this show when it debuted in 2017, so it was one of the first items on my viewing list in the new year. The Deuce comes from author George Pelecanos and David Simon, creator of The Wire. It’s a gritty, engrossing depiction of early 1970s New York City, specifically the local sex trade at a time when decency laws were being loosened and the porn industry was about to take off. It’s an intriguing, well-researched look at the life of prostitutes, their pimps and the vultures looking to profit off the burgeoning sex industry (including both police and the mob). Maggie Gyllenhaal knocks it out of the park in a show full of excellent performances. Season Two jumps ahead a few years and continues the story of some of the major characters, nearly all of which remain compelling.
3) Killing Eve: This wonderfully entertaining assassin dramedy is highlighted by two great performances from Jodie Comer (the killer) and Sandra Oh (the agent out to stop her). But the real star is writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who has a knack for writing dramas infused with a lot of humor… or perhaps humors infused with a lot of drama (see 2016’s Fleabag). The only time the show falls short is in the final episode, when it tips the scales toward too much humor and wit. And it leaves things open for what is probably an unnecessary second season. But I’m still looking forward to it.
2) Big Little Lies: Another 2017 HBO release that I caught up on early in the year, Big Little Lies tells the story of a murder in a small, wealthy seaside town. The murder itself is one of several mysteries that come to light early in the season, but in many ways it’s secondary to much of the personal drama between members of the community (mostly parents at the local school). The show drew attention for its all star cast (headlined by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern), and the performers deliver across the board. This season, based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, is only seven episodes, all directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. It’s beautifully shot, and the shorter run of episodes works really well to ratchet up the tension all the way to the climax. Though it wasn’t difficult to guess the answers to many of the mysteries before the finale, I still found myself drawn in by the intense, well-acted storytelling. For some reason, HBO is going to release a second season in 2019, but it really doesn’t need it. This season could (and should) stand on its own.
1) Atlanta, Robbin’ Season: Smart, funny and all over the place. Though Atlanta’s story line is loosely tied together and focuses on Donald Glover’s character Earn, my favorite episodes from this season concentrated on the shows supporting characters: the creepy and haunting Teddy Perkins (featuring Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius), the somewhat surreal German celebration in Helen (Zazie Beets’ Van) and Barbershop (the fantastic Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi).
Other Shows I Enjoyed: Brockmire, Somebody Feed Phil, Barry, Ugly Delicious, The Expanse, Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, The Good Place, Babylon Berlin, Daredevil (Season 3), Homecoming
Best Scene: The show-stopping night club sequence in Episode 2 of Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s German import about Weimar Era Berlin, was the most memorable scene on TV this year. (Warning, this scene depicts scantily-clad female dancers.):
Performances I Enjoyed: Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Deuce), Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies), Hank Azaria (Brockmire), Peter Kurth (Babylon Berlin), Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta), Anthony Carrigan (Barry), Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh (Killing Eve), Mustafa Shakir (Luke Cage), Brian Cox and Kieran Culkin (Succession), Patricia Clarkson (Sharp Objects), Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil), Stephan James and Shea Wigham (Homecoming)
Word of the Year: FRANGIPANE. I’d never ever heard of the stuff, a cousin of marzipan (which I detest), but suddenly I was hearing it eight times a night while bingeing The Great British Baking Show (which I’m ready to give up on, after their terrible selection of the champion in Season Two). I think I’ll be fine if I never hear the term again for the next forty-two years.