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 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 here.
The Best Books I Read in 2019
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read quite as many books as usual this year. Sometimes when I travel a lot, I have more time to read on the road, but that simply wasn’t the case during this year’s trips. Here were the standouts:
6) Spirit Bear, by Charles Russell: This year marked the tenth anniversary of my first visit to the Great Bear Rainforest. I’ve now been six times, and every time I visited I’d heard about Charlie Russell and his book about the spirit bear. I never got around to reading it until this year’s trip. It’s a quick read, only about 150 pages, but it’s fascinating. Russell, whose fascination with bears dates back to his childhood years in the Rocky Mountains, let the world in on the secret of the Great Bear Rainforest and its unique white bear that’s found nowhere else on earth. Written nearly thirty years ago, Russell’s book details being part of the first major documentary expedition tasked with studying and filming the behavior of the spirit bear. Though I have now had my own share of sightings of this beautiful bear—including at the spot where Russell’s crew set up camp decades ago—to me the book is a fascinating look into the region before the tourists started coming in earnest. Though the First Nations do a pretty good job regulating visitation in their territory these days, Russell’s account almost feels like it was written during “frontier days,” when so little of the area had been described or documented outside First Nations culture. There are few places on earth where tourists haven’t descended in hordes, and it’s amazing to think this spot was still like that a mere three decades ago. The area still remains relatively unspoiled, but hearing stories about it before the tourist rush lets one imagine an environment that’s even more pristine.
5) Dark Age, by Pierce Brown: The Red Rising novels by Pierce Brown consistently make my favorites list whenever they come out, despite the fact that I’m constantly frustrated by the zillions of characters that are mostly impossible to remember after waiting a year or more between reads. The previous volume, which kicked off a new trilogy ten years after the events of the first, possessed plenty of what Brown does best—political intrigue in a futuristic sci fi setting—but still seemed to lack the fire of the previous novels. Fortunately, Dark Age brings some bite with it. The usual machinations, betrayals and plot twists are all there again, but this volume packs an extra punch with a number of action and battle set pieces that kept my attention and led to a couple of late nights of reading. If I had one gripe (aside from the familiar refrain of “Wait, who’s that person again?”), it’s that the ultimate showdown that may be coming in Book Six looks like it will have our protagonists face off against one of the least interesting characters in the saga.
4) The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller: This is a post-apocalyptic story that’s almost written as poetry. It reminded me in some ways of Station Eleven (my top book pick in 2015). There’s human drama, there’s the usual desperate need to survive at times… but there’s little in the way of gore. Oh, and no zombies. The style of this first-hand account by a narrator who has abandoned properly-written English during the ten years since the apocalypse can be hard to digest at times. But it’s still beautiful, balancing thoughtful, languid moments with the desperate, heart-pounding ones. Ultimately, there are hints at bigger goings-on in the world at large, especially at the end of the story, but we never quite get there. It seems to leave things open for a potential sequel, but ultimately, that’s not necessary. The book stands on its own just fine.
3) The Good Rain, by Timothy Egan: I love where I live, but despite being based in the Pacific Northwest all of my life, it turns out I know very little about the region. With my attention focused further afield with my photography work and love of travel, I’ve done a pretty poor job of getting to know my own back yard over the years. This has changed more recently, with more photo outings in and near western Washington, and even more local touristy ventures (I didn’t take the Underground Tour of Seattle until a few years ago when a friend visited from out of town). The Good Rain is another step toward educating myself about my home. Timothy Egan’s collection of Pacific Northwest (non-fiction) stories are steeped in cultural and natural history. I learned much more about this beautiful area than I’ve ingested in all the years since my seventh grade Washington State History class (and I don’t remember anything from that). This book is well-written—Egan is a National Book Award winner and a columnist for the New York Times—but sadly most of the lessons on our local history are not pleasant. While singing the praises of the natural bounty of the Northwest, the book is obligated to point out how so much of it (especially timber and salmon) has already been lost due to the greed of the early settlers, businessmen past and present, and government actions. That’s compounded by the horror stories describing how the local indigenous tribes were treated for a century-and-a-half by the U.S. government… this beautiful region definitely has an ugly past. The Good Rain is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest. As an added bonus, it now offers double historical insight. Written nearly thirty years ago, the book offers a view of Seattle and the surrounding region at the start of the Nineties (close to the time I was entering high school), which I found fascinating. As an added bonus, you’ll be able to pick up on a few more of the inane references Bill Walton makes during a basketball broadcast.
2) Tiamat’s Wrath, by James S. A. Corey: The penultimate (supposedly) installment of The Expanse is one of the best books of an already-great series. At this point, the last four volumes have played out as consecutive duologies. Book Eight finishes the story started by the previous installment, telling the story of mankind’s rebellion against its new (human) overlords, while a greater (non-human) threat continues to simmer in the background. To date, this series has succeeded in melding action, politics, adventure and thrills, and science fiction into a tale spanning—literally—time (decades) and space (multiple solar systems). I can’t wait for the final volume.
1) Educated, by Tara Westover: This is a non-fiction tale that intrigued me based on its premise of a woman raised apart from society due to strictly religious (and overly paranoid/conspiracy-theorizing) parents, and how she had to overcome the lack of a formal education and adjust to modern society. I thought: “oh, a fish out of water story… like Kimmy Schmidt.” Of course, I was wrong. Yes, Westover’s story about propelling herself into college without having formal schooling, climbing onward and upward toward a doctorate is amazing. But that’s not what drives the memoir. Instead, it reads almost like a horror novel, as the author recounts her years of oppression and abuse by her family. The psychological obstacles that mount due to her harsh upbringing prove to be much more challenging to overcome than any lack of textbook knowledge, and Westover’s story is as gripping as any fictional thriller. The writing is superb (especially from someone who, until her college years, only wrote essays based on her readings of religious texts and scripture), and is a real page-turner. I have a feeling that readers will take different things from this story… some may find it uplifting, others troubling. Some may focus on the negative experiences brought on by religious zealotry (the author insists the story is not about religion), others may be touched by the pervasive emotional and physical abuse in her family… while some people may choose to highlight the incredible story of self-discovery and the difficult road to achieving self-reliance. It’s the type of tale that can touch readers in a variety of ways. Simply superb.
Honorable Mention: Not a book, but this essay by Joe Posnanski about Tiger Woods’ victory at the Masters was one of the best things I read across any medium this year.
Other Books I Read This Year: The Late Show, Dark Sacred Night, Kitchen Confidential, The Goldfinch, Under Heaven, The Woman in the Blue Cloak, Knife, Where the Crawdads Sing, The Night Fire
My Favorite Movies Seen in 2019
10) Long Shot: A comedy that flew under the radar earlier in the year. This one pairs Charlize Theron’s aspiring presidential candidate with Seth Rogen’s… well, Seth Rogen type character. It’s another mismatched couple movie in the spirit of Knocked Up, but it’s a winner in large part due to its ability to allow Theron’s character to let loose. Stories with characters who abandon the yokes of responsibility and decorum are common, but they don’t always find those fun moments without requiring their protagonists to descend to a slovenly, absurdist level. Long Shot remains fairly smart and realistic all the way through.
9) Booksmart: Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a solid teen comedy. It hits all the right notes while telling the story of two straight-A students who realize almost too late that they want to experience the funner side of high school before graduation. That in itself is not a new or unique premise, but the film is funny and entertaining, and smart (it doesn’t need to rely on much raunchy humor). To be honest, it doesn’t stand out from some of the other teen films from recent years (with movies like The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, etc., the genre’s doing quite well, actually), but it’s superior to a lot of the recent adult comedies (Game Night, Blockers) I’ve seen.
8) Toy Story 4: Give Pixar credit. They somehow manage to get their Toy Story sequels right every time. I can’t say that about all of their follow-ups. Two of my favorite Pixar films, The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc. were followed by entertaining but not-quite-stellar sequels… and don’t talk to me about the Cars franchise (the second and third of which I have yet to see… even with a young child in the house who loves them!). The fourth movie about Woody and—to a lesser extent this time—Buzz is pitch perfect once again. It also ends just the right way… of course, we thought that with the third film, but still ended up with a sequel. So I guess if a fifth Toy Story movie ever comes along, I’ll be happy to go see it.
7) Jojo Rabbit: Taika Waititi has landed on my year-end lists before with his clever comedies (and also produces one of my favorite TV shows this year… see below). Jojo is a comedy about… Hitler? And about the absurdity of the fanaticism behind one the most horrific periods of human history, which our young protagonist starts to question. The film hits all the right comedic notes (as one might expect from this director) through about 80% of the story, but it gets predictably more serious at the end. Eventually the absurdist humor gives way to a mellower, comforting ending to combat the surrounding horrors of war, so it loses a bit of its punch, but overall it’s quite fun.
6) Knives Out: Rian Johnson’s murder mystery is so much fun. I never thought I’d say that about a story that possesses so many familiar elements from common TV murder mysteries, right down to the heavy exposition by the lead sleuth at the end (it even pays homage to these by showing us Murder She Wrote in Spanish at one point). But it’s smart, funny, and has some fun characters and performances by the all star cast. So familiar, yet so different from most of the films we see in the theaters these days (which, at least in this genre, are generally so dark and brooding).
5) Avengers: Endgame: The culmination of 22 films in the MCU had to nail the landing, and I feel it did. I felt last year’s Infinity War was perhaps more tense, and certainly more action-packed, and it delivered an emotional wallop in its own right. But Endgame cranks the emotional moments up even further, and it becomes much more about the relationships between the Marvel Universe’s mightiest heroes than any big battles or the rematch(es) with Thanos. The last film was billed as Thanos’ story, and you realize how true that is when you see this one. Our heroes’ second chance against the Big Bad takes a back seat to the reunions and farewells sprinkled throughout the three hours… and I felt that was just fine. This was unlike any cinematic experience we’ve ever seen—a decade-long sprawling tale featuring so many likable protagonists—and it’s important to be able to see their stories through, at least to end of this particular chapter. In many ways the MCU has accomplished what the Star Wars universe failed to pull off: one epic, fantastical, decade-plus cinematic arc absent any major slip-ups. Talk about a (super)heroic achievement.
4) Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino’s nostalgic look at late Sixties Los Angeles is perhaps his most easy-going, and probably his least violent film. It’s an interesting look at fading Hollywood figures (wonderfully played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), intertwined with quiet personal moments in the life of the late Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)… along with the creepy vibes of the nearby Manson Family. Much of the film seems somewhat aimless, perhaps even slow, with fascinating little vignettes (particularly those focusing on DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton), but then it all comes together and pays off with a memorable ending reminiscent of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. It’s part bromance, part nostalgic snapshot of fifty years ago and part typical Tarantino picture. Hollywood is a story roughly told but imbued with just the right level of nostalgia, humor and tension to make it entertaining. The more I think about this film, the more fondly I look back on it.
3) Parasite: Director Bong Joon-ho has a pretty good track record in recent years, and has been making more waves internationally with wider releases such as Snowpiercer and Netflix’s Okja. Parasite may go down as his masterpiece, at least if you believe the widespread acclaim. It is great, though I’m still processing it and trying to figure out where exactly it belongs on my list. Of the 2019 releases on my list (both of the films below came out last year), it’s the best thing I’ve seen in theaters this year. Mixing comedy, thrilling moments, a little bit of horror, and some pointed depiction of modern society’s widening class division, Parasite sticks with you. It won the top prize at Cannes and will likely be a (deserved) major player come Oscar time.
2) Free Solo: The Oscar winner for Best Documentary is in some ways reminiscent of another Best Doc recipient (which I also loved), 2008’s Man on Wire. Both focus on a thrilling, death-defying feat and the daredevil who made it happen. The difference is that Free Solo was filmed while the stunt was actually being pulled off, rather than being recreated as a thirty-year-old retrospective and reenactment. The results are much more dramatic. Alex Honnold’s no-safety-line ascent (a “free solo”) of the 3000-foot granite wall of El Capitan in Yosemite is a nailbiter, in no small part due to the fact that we get to experience the angst and fear of Honnold’s camera crew and loved ones as he tries to accomplish something in which the only two results are perfection… or death. Free Solo slowly builds up to the climax. We get to know Honnold, not an entirely sympathetic figure due to a disengaged personality, as well as the monster wall itself. We get to know the problem areas in the ascent and live through Honnold’s failures—at least two falls with ropes that result in major injuries—which heighten the tension even more. Most folks go into this film knowing the outcome, but it doesn’t make it any less terrifying.
1) Roma: Alfonso Cuaron’s passion piece about 1970s Mexico is simply gorgeous. But I sort of knew that coming in, based on the advanced buzz and the snippets seen in trailers. The black and white cinematography (helmed by Cuaron himself) is incredible, with numerous showstopping compositions and long takes allowing the eye to explore the frame for lengthy periods. The varied light and tones are evocative of a super-saturated color film, but in monochrome. What I wasn’t sure about going in was the story. It focuses on a maid who works for a wealthy family, and initially at least there seems to be little in the way of a plot connecting all the magical visuals. But slowly the story emerges, and becomes more personal, emotional and even harrowing. I was surprised how touched I was by this film, even by scenes that typically don’t move this sappy movie fan. Roma is ultimately an emotional tale of family, loss and conflict that feels deeply personal. Cuaron’s ode to his childhood experiences is a rousing success.
My Favorite Shows That I Watched in 2019
10) The Deuce: The third and final season of HBO’s sex and porn drama brought things to a close in a wistful and somewhat dark, but ultimately satisfying way. The story of sex industry workers and the power brokers and politicians behind the scenes is ultimately an unhappy story when it comes to most of the characters involved. The final season, set in the mid-Eighties, immerses us in the AIDS crisis, as well as the evolving adult entertainment and prostitution industries… all of which produce multiple casualties throughout the season. I felt the final episode—a sentimental set of contrived character interactions and retrospectives—missed the mark a bit. This show was most effective and pointed when focusing, unflinchingly, on the connections between the industry and the people involved in it. Seeing lives fall apart (occasionally rebuilt by the end of the story, but ending just as often) due to the toll taken by the brutal environment of The Deuce was truly powerful. I think it’ll go down as one of HBO’s most underrated dramas.
9) Sex Education: Netflix has a good track record lately with teen romantic comedies that offer a surprising amount of depth. This is another British production, which usually means you get some good performances and a truncated number of episodes that help trim the storytelling fat and bloat of many American shows. Sex Education succeeds on both of these fronts, and is highlighted by a great young cast. On the surface it’s about teens and sex (a student becomes a sex counselor for his school peers), so the comedy aspect is sort of a given. But shows like this (and Netflix’s American Vandal) really shine when they strike a balance with more personal and sometimes dramatic tales. In this case, many stories about the students (and sometimes their equally awkward and confused parents) are told with great depth and care, elevating this show beyond normal Teenage Sex Comedy levels. By the time the eight episode run wraps up, a number of story lines are left unresolved (or at least seem dissatisfying), so a second season seems almost necessary. Luckily, Netflix appears to have renewed it for another season.
8) Schitt’s Creek: A cult favorite produced in Canada, this comedy was hiding on the Pop Network until Netflix picked up the first few seasons and word of mouth spread. Focused on the riches-to-rags Rose family (forced to live in a motel in the town of Schitt’s Creek), the show is consistently upbeat and funny. It’s highlighted by the comedic genius of improv vets Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, as well as strong supporting work by Daniel Levy, Annie Murphy and Chris Elliott. For anyone looking for a smart, mildly sassy (but still feel-good) comedy to watch, this is the one.
7) Succession: The second season of HBO’s family-of-A-holes drama keeps the momentum from Season One going. Loads of business intrigue, family drama, and a trainwreck of a family that is somehow captivating the entire time. I blame the excellent writing and performances. It’s not often that a story full of so many loathsome characters can remain compelling for this long.
6) Chernobyl: HBO’s five part mini-series on the 1986 nuclear disaster works best as a straight horror show. The first four episodes in particular are absolutely terrifying, and by most accounts, it’s largely an accurate portrayal of what happened in Soviet Ukraine all those years ago. The show is highlighted by its powerful storytelling and some outstanding performances from a mostly-British cast. It only bogs down a bit toward the end, when it transitions quickly from a horror film to a courtroom drama in the final episode, but overall it’s a riveting tale from start to finish.
5) Chasing the Moon: PBS featured this American Experience documentary over three nights leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of man’s first visit to the moon. It contains six hours of footage, interviews (including from the Soviet perspective) and content on the entire space race of the Sixties. Covering both the highs and lows of the race to the moon, the documentary is both an uplifting and harrowing experience. Best of all, it can be streamed for free online here.
4) Watchmen: Two dramas debuted on HBO around the same this year—Watchmen and His Dark Materials—both based on sci fi/fantasy works that I found somewhat overrated. While His Dark Materials is a direct adaptation, the Watchmen show is more of a sequel to the 1980s cult comic. Perhaps that’s one reason I really liked the latter, but not the former. Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) has a knack for telling complex, compelling tales with a sci fi bent. Longtime fans of Watchmen may have reacted adversely to Lindelof’s interpretation… but I loved it. Packing the right balance of action, sci fi, and familiar characters from the comic series (though one really doesn’t need to have read it to enjoy/understand this show), Watchmen is ultimately an intense look at race relations in America, even if it’s an America set in a different timeline. The imagery, writing and cast are all top-notch.
3) What We Do In the Shadows: Taika Waititi’s adaptation of his satirical vampire movie is actually an improvement on the original material. There may be a limited shelf life for this type of humor, but I sure found the entire season satisfyingly hilarious. If you’re looking for a little more dark humor on TV, this may be just the thing.
2) Russian Doll: We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a recent run of shows that finely balance comedy with more dramatic moments (Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve and Fleabag come to mind). Russian Doll is another success in this vein. Natasha Lyon’s partly-autobiographical comedy/fantasy/drama hits all the right notes as her character Nadia tries to sort through an existence that’s cut short by Death. She’s literally dying over and over, then waking up in the exact same spot to start the loop all over again. Watching the journey, as this acerbic New Yorker tries to make sense of a Groundhog Day scenario in which nothing is quite ever the same each time around, is captivating and thankfully quite humorous. Though I’m not sure I could put up with Nadia’s bombast for too long in real life, it was a fun ride over eight episodes.
1) Fleabag: Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one of the best writers in Hollywood. Sure, she stars in this show (which landed on my Best Of list back in 2016 after the first season), but it’s the writing that makes her work so consistently great. What I noted back in Season One (and later, when she ran the first season of Killing Eve) is that nobody seems to balance comedy and drama so adroitly as Waller-Bridge. The first season was mostly laughs, with a dark undercurrent that ultimately bubbled to the surface. This second season isn’t quite as dark, but expertly balances the (many) funny moments with the emotions surrounding family drama and forbidden love. In theory, this is the last we’ll see of Fleabag, but in twelve episodes it’s proven itself to be one of the lasting shows of the “second” Golden Age of Television.
Other Shows I Enjoyed: Documentary Now!, Catastrophe, Game of Thrones, GLOW, The Boys, The Mandalorian, Barry
Best Looking Show: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which came out on Netflix, was not something I was looking forward to a great deal. I’d seen the Jim Henson film back when it came out in the theater, and most of my somewhat vague recollections of that movie are tinged with darkness. Which probably shows how effective it was, even if it wasn’t terribly popular (and certainly not a favorite of mine). So I only watched Age of Resistance due to my wife’s urging (she’s a big Eighties geek). Though it struggles at times to hold one’s attention—maybe because the puppets are never quite smooth enough and don’t emote well—this prequel series is downright gorgeous. The production design, puppet costumes and practical effects are pretty incredible. The amount of work that went into pulling off a full season of beautiful puppetry is obvious, and you don’t have to be a fan of the original film or even the fantasy genre to appreciate it.
Best Scene (on probably the Best Episode on TV all year): The Documentary Now! episode “Original Cast Album: Co-op” spoofed an early 70s documentary on the making of a Sondheim musical. I never saw the original doc and, um, I don’t like musicals, but I though this episode was brilliant. It was filled with hilarious writing and excellent musical performances. My favorite song? Probably “Cocaine Tonight.” Warning: contains adult language.