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2023 in Review: Entertainment and Literature

Favorites in Art & Entertainment in 2023

It’s time for my latest list of favorites from the year in literature, movies, and television. Note that the list may contain titles seen or read in late 2022 (after the last list was published), and it isn’t confined to titles released in 2023.


The Best Books I Read in 2023

I tried to be a bit better about reading, but still got bogged down too often. The list is, once again, disappointingly short.

10) Killing Moon, by Jo Nesbo: This is the 13th book in the Harry Hole detective series. Hole (pronounced “Hooley”) is Norway’s foremost crime solver and serial killer expert. And he’s an alcoholic. These are familiar tropes, but Nesbo always keeps us on our toes with some solid writing, and plenty of twists. He almost overdid it this time. Perhaps a couple extra twists and a few too many red herrings or dead ends… but I still enjoyed the major reveal at the end.

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght9) Children of Memory, by Adrian Tchaikovsky: Five years agoChildren of Time landed on my favorite reads list. The story of humans and spiders co-evolving and existing in a post-apocalyptic universe was fascinating. I only learned later that Tchaikovsky wrote a sequel… and then another. This year I read both. Memory is the third book. The second, which introduced evolving octopi, was a bit too abstract for my tastes. The third book was more straight-forward and spent much less time delving into obscure interspecies communication. But it still told the story through a somewhat skewed lens that left much of the mystery about a dying planet intact throughout. I’m not sure if I’ll go further down this path should additional books come out in this series, but I was able to approach this volume as a fitting end to the human-arachnid-cephalopod drama.

8) The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman: My mother-in-law had loaned me this book a while back, but I never got around to reading it, so I returned it… and later discovered that I had purchased a Kindle copy anyway. It’s an enjoyable, laid back yarn. Nothing too exciting about the mystery itself. Instead, the book’s strength (and why, I suspect, it’s turned into a popular series) lies in its characters. The distinctive personalities of its core team of senior citizen sleuths make it quite fun.

7) Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz: As far as murder mysteries go, the mystery here isn’t anything too deep or extraordinary (much like the preceding book on this list). However, what makes this story a bit more unique is the mystery inside a mystery. A book editor reads through the final manuscript from her famous literary client (we read along with her), but soon she has to become a detective in her own right and answer questions that go beyond the page. I appreciated this different take on the standard mystery novel… and was pleasantly surprised to discover a sequel while I was prepping this blog post.

6) Owls of the Eastern Ice, by Jonathan C. Slaght: I don’t read many science or natural history books, believe it or not. I suppose it’s because I prefer to escape the natural-world-heavy theme that entwines everything else I do throughout the year. But it was sort of inevitable that I’d finally get around to reading that “owl book” everyone keeps bugging me about. I’ve been aware of Eastern Ice’s existence since it was published around the time I joined Science Twitter, so this was certainly overdue.

Anyway, the book covers Slaght’s research on the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, the world’s largest species. It’s typically found in Japan (most photos of the Blakiston’s come from human-stocked ponds set up for photographers there), and in the inhospitable expanse of eastern Russia. That’s where this book takes place, thankfully. Navigating some seriously rugged wilderness and the remote communities scattered throughout adds to the mystique of this adventure. Well, it appealed to me in that way, at least. I always get tingly thinking about far-flung, infrequently explored territories, and with a little-known wildlife subject at the heart of this story, I enjoyed it even more. The book offers keen insight into the scientific process, capturing and banding operations, and the triumphs and failures that accompany wildlife surveys conducted by largely independent and unsupported scientific crews. Most of the events in the book took place well over an decade ago, when even less was known about these owls. Like Charlie Russell’s Spirit Bear, it feels like a tale from another era.

5) Lightbringer, by Pierce Brown: Pierce Brown keeps cranking out top notch sci fi drama in his Red Rising series. Past books from this space opera have made my list, and this latest installment brings the same good and bad qualities. Good: the action, twists and turns are non-stop. It’s so entertaining! Bad: too many characters, with very similar names, so it’s difficult to keep all the supporting players straight when you’re reading each installment only once every two years. Lightbringer really was fun, though I have to say that the unexpected twists start coming so rapidly by the end that they become expected. The author might need to slow things down a bit!

4) Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel: By the author of Station Eleven, my favorite book on this list several years ago (upon which perhaps my favorite TV show of the last decade was also based), it’s a time travel mystery. I’ve read plenty of those, so the base content is nothing new, but the writing is serene. The only problem? It wrapped up waaay too quickly. A bit too tidy as a mystery, but the flow of words on the page was too good to be bothered. There are very few fiction writers that I would follow faithfully. I choose my books based on story, typically. But certain writers (e.g., Ishiguro) are so consistently good that I’d be willing to open any of their works sight unseen and give them a try. St. John Mandel may be reaching that level for me.

Circe, by Madeline Miller3) A Promised Land, by Barack Obama: So… it took me three years to complete this one. Yup. Three years. Why? Well, I got it on audio book. This is a good time to mention that I don’t really listen to audio books (or podcasts, for that matter). Certainly not in my free time. So the only way I got through this was during long road trips to and from Yellowstone. And despite that, it still took a few different trips. The audiobook version is 29 hours long! Despite that monumental length, this actually only gets you through the end of President Obama’s first term (something I didn’t realize until I was about five hours from the end).

Okay, but what about the content? I’ve read my fair share of presidential biographies, so despite my lack of interest in politics, I appreciated the insight in this autobiography. More importantly, I think it actually worked better in its audio version. Obama’s dictation, always so measured, rhythmic and steady, is perfect for this format. And it also drives home how much more intelligent and eloquent he is and was compared to the presidents that immediately preceded and followed him. While my eyes glazed over at times during long discussions about policy and diplomatic meetings, there’s a lot of good insight into both his early political days, as well as some of the most important, defining moments of his early presidency. The most vivid of these is the inside look at the beginning of the worldwide financial crisis in 2008, and the meeting called together by George W. Bush that included both presidential candidates in the upcoming election, Obama and John McCain. The sheer ineptitude and unpreparedness from the Republican campaign on how to tackle the looming crisis is stunning… yet also the epitome of how that side of the aisle has functioned in recent years when it comes to aiding the American people during times of hardship.

2) Circe, by Madeline Miller: Miller’s previous work, The Song of Achilles, landed at #2 on last year’s list. What she does with Greek myths is pretty fantastic, fleshing out backstories and seemingly minor characters in complex storytelling. The stars of the myths we learned as kids become bit players, much less fascinating than the nuanced characters at the heart of Miller’s tales. In this case, we learn the tale of Circe, the witch who waylaid Odysseus and his men during one of their many misadventures on the way home from Troy. Like so many figures at the center of these myths, Circe is shaped by tragedy and unfair circumstances, but learns to transform herself into a powerful and independent being, carving out an existence that ultimately frees her from the burden of her involuntary exile. I preferred this to Achilles, perhaps due to the greater sense of triumph that comes about at the end of this character study.

1) Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy: I was in the middle of this book at the end of last year, one reason I got a slow reading start in 2023. It’s not exactly pleasant material. The wildlife on earth has largely perished, and the character at the center of the tale is obsessed with tracking the final colony of migrating Arctic terns during their journey across an empty ocean. Oh, and she’s possibly suicidal, and there may be murder in her past… Boy, this is heavy stuff. Nonetheless, I feel this was the best-written work I read this year. The oppressive grayness of this book somehow works, as it intertwines a complex, well—she’s not a heroine—uh, lead character with her fascinating co-conspirators (a role they inadvertently find themselves in). The idea that someone would chase a species with no future, which is tied with the dark past she’s trying to outrun, is oddly uplifting at times. I suppose that’s the strange contrast this book presents. I shouldn’t have felt better for having read it, but I did.

I also read: Children of Earth and Sky, Children of Ruin, Her Final Breath, and probably a few more I’ve forgotten.

 

My Favorite Movies Seen in 2023

10) Past Lives: One of several films I was fortunate to catch on a plane long after its theatrical release. This was widely discussed as one of the better movies of the first half of the year, but I missed in theaters. It’s a What If? story, showing what happens when childhood friends are separated for years, come tantalizingly close to reuniting, and then continue living until finally seeing each other decades after their separation. What sort of love lingers over such a long time? How does it endure, and if realized, how can it affect the rest of those we love in our new lives? This film takes its time to tell this story and ask those questions, without any loud or dramatic moments, but does it really well.

9) Barbie: Yes, I caught Barbenheimer (not back-to-back). I thought Barbie was great. I was actually the one pushing to see it in our house. After seeing the trailers, I knew the sense of humor would be just perfect. Plus, Greta Gerwig can’t go wrong right now. Her past two directorial efforts were excellent (Little Women made my list last year). My only quibble—which means little since I write this from a male perspective—is that the big dramatic monolog at the end of the film seemed superfluous… primarily because the subtle and pointed humor throughout the rest of the film expressed the same points so cleverly.

8) Glass Onion: Rian Johnson’s sequel to the hit whodunnit Knives Out was released just after I published my 2022 list… so it lands here. I was sad to miss its limited theater run in November. It’s such a fun movie that it really deserved a shared experience. In some ways, Onion echoes the twists and turns of its predecessor, but it adds a few extra turns. For a while I was questioning the long expository second act, but even that ultimately paid off. If anything, Johnson’s skewering of not only the rich elite, but specific moguls who are elevated to undeserved lofty intellectual standards, really ended up being timely given Elon Musk’s late 2022 Twitter purchase and subsequently online meltdown. Perhaps in later eras, this film won’t feel quite as on point, but the mystery, humor, and intelligence make it a timeless winner.

7) Asteroid City: A bounce-back film for Wes Anderson, in my book. We couldn’t make it through The French Dispatch, and had a couple of false starts with Isle of Dogs. This felt much more on brand. Delightful and quirky, with some amazing art and production design. It’s Anderson’s best since The Grand Budapest Hotel.

6) Spider Man: Across the Spiderverse: The sequel to 2018’s Into the Spiderverse lived up to its predecessor’s high standard. After a second viewing in the theater, I felt it may have surpassed it. The story is rather bloated (my son could barely sit through it), but it hits on a deeper and much more emotional level than the first film. The animation is still incredible. There’s simply nothing like it, visually, except for the first film. It’s a two-hour acid trip curated by top artists (many of whom reportedly quit the production after being put through the wringer). Despite the long runtime, I wasn’t expecting to be left with a cliffhanger at the end, but I guess I’ll be happy to wait another five years for Part Three.

5) Avatar: The Way of Water: There’s plenty to criticize about Avatar films. The story and writing don’t really stand out. It really comes down to the spectacle, and the artistic and technical achievements being pulled off. Over a decade after the first film took the world by storm, there were questions as to whether the sequel would a) interest audiences, and b) show us something new and interesting. It seems to have mostly succeeded in that regard. I chose the largest IMAX screen possible, as well as 3-D (probably my first time seeing a 3-D movie since Avatar and Hugo came out all those years ago), and it paid off. The 3-D wasn’t a big enhancement, though it did enhance the feeling of motion in many of the set pieces. In some ways, it may have even shrunk the massive screen I was watching this on… a detriment, I suppose.

Regardless, this film was a visual masterpiece. The effects (the movie is 90% CGI) were a massive improvement over the initial film. Perhaps more crucially, James Cameron made a bold (and wise) move, taking the story to the ocean. Cameron spends long stretches just showing off the beauty of his made-up aquatic world. A full quarter of its three-hour runtime plays like a nature documentary… which was right in my wheelhouse. I though it was great!

I suspect that after the dust settles and I put more time between my viewing and the final list (I’m writing this the day after I saw it), I may think less of this film. But for now, it feels fresh, bold, and like something I wouldn’t mind seeing again in the theater soon.

4) Killers of the Flower Moon: I felt obligated to see Martin Scorcese’s latest, which is probably how most cinephiles felt. Despite only a trickle of publicity and advanced marketing, the early word on this film was full of praise. It lived up to the hype. Telling the story of the early Twentieth Century Osage tribal members who got rich off of oil reserves found on the little land they were left—and the subsequent barbarity and theft of said possessions by white Americans—this film is harrowing and angering. Leonardo DiCaprio gets a lot of plaudits for his turn as a less-than-admirable character, but Lily Gladstone and especially Robert DeNiro really shine in this one.

3) Aftersun: Am I the only one in my circle of acquaintances who saw this? It was a bit of a festival darling last year, also marking the directorial debut of Charlotte Wells. Centered around a Mediterranean vacation undertaken by a single father and his pre-teen daughter, it resonated powerfully with me as a father. Paul Mescal’s character does everything he can (which really isn’t much) to make the best memories possible for his daughter. He stumbles and fails at times, and it’s apparent that he faces outside struggles that may eventually jeopardize his relationship with his child. But in this moment, for these few days he has with her, he tries to create something lasting in his own flawed way. I suppose that’s a worthy goal for any parent to strive for.

2) 63 Up: I believe the Up series is the most important and powerful documentary that’s ever been created. Roger Ebert called 28 Up one of the ten most important films of the last century, and the series taken as a whole holds up as such. Started in the 1960s with help from director Michael Apted, the series follows British school children from different backgrounds and parts of society. Every seven years, Apted returned to interview his subjects as they continued their education, entered the work force, and started families. It’s a fascinating long-term study of individuals and society. This installment was released right before COVID hit, so I’ve been waiting for years to see it (sadly, it’s only available on Amazon’s Britbox service). It may be the final episode, as one of the cast members passed away prior to 63, another has died since, and Apted has passed on as well.

1) Oppenheimer: I didn’t know what to expect. Yes, Christopher Nolan makes huge tentpole films which, for the most part, impress. Over the years I’ve found myself having mixed reactions to many of them, admittedly because my own expectations are often too high. I’m not a fan of The Prestige (I just rewatched it and confirmed that feeling), and I was actually let down a bit by Interstellar and even The Dark Knight, even though I find both films rewatchable and highly entertaining. Dunkirk was probably the most pleasant surprise, and topped my list a few years ago, but is probably not high on my rewatching list. Same thing goes for Oppenheimer. Based on subject matter alone, I wasn’t sure how much I’d be engrossed in this one. And while we managed to find a really big screen for it, and were rightfully blown away by the sheer visual and auditory scope of it all… the story really was engrossing, even the political stuff. Watching the laborious creation of a monstrous thing is tense and stressful, and Nolan’s storytelling and pacing nails it. It doesn’t hurt that an all star cast lives up to their billing, and tackles even the smaller bit parts successfully at every turn.

For a much more entertaining and well-written take on Oppenheimer, read this piece by Brian Phillips.

Other films I enjoyed: RRR; Triangle of Sadness; Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3; The Menu; Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret; The Killer; The Marvels, Fire of Love, Senna

 

My Favorite Shows That I Watched in 2023

Not nearly as good of a year as 2022, which was capped by three all-timers (and another one of the best shows of this decade, listed again below). I feel somewhat letdown, but that probably has more with the fact that I didn’t finish or get to a lot of shows on my watchlist this year.

10) Deadloch: A fresh combination of murder mystery and silly humor, this Aussie show flew under the radar this year. It sometimes struggles to find the right balance—the goofy side really is fun, but it’s sort of forgotten as the mystery starts to unravel—but overall I enjoyed this fresh take on a familiar genre.

9) American Buffalo: The documentary from Ken Burns wasn’t something I was longing to see, despite the obvious area of interest, but I watched it dutifully, and came away very impressed. Burns and his team delve deep into the fall of the American bison, but what emerges is not just a historical nature documentary, but an eye-opening and moving reveal of the sheer devastation that ran concurrently—and helped contribute—to our nation’s oppression of native American tribes across the continent. It’s a moving tale of the bond between not just two species, but of kindred spirits, both pushed to the brink.

8) What We Do in the Shadows: Our favorite comedy returned with a bit of a bounce-back season. It’s impossible not to love the idiots at the heart of this hilarious vampire mockumentary. The more Matt Berry in my life, the better. Baaaaat!

7) The Last of Us: HBO’s big new show, with Game of Thrones taking a break. This one was based on a video game I never played, but the story holds up pretty well across a full season. The hefty budget pays off in a robust and sometimes spectacular production, but the heart of the series comes from the performances. Bella Ramsey’s turn as the young heroine in a post-apocalyptic world is dynamite.

6) Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: Another TV scribe, whom I respect immensely, compared this show to Atlanta, the recently-concluded masterpiece. His comparison between popular sci fi and a socially-pointed dramedy was apt: both shows aren’t afraid to take chances with unorthodox storytelling. Strange New Worlds was already better than any other recent Star Trek fare created in the last two decades. This year, they bounced all over the place, incorporating animation and even doing a full musical episode. It was delightful. A dramatic show that produces consistently compelling narratives and characters while not taking itself too seriously is something to be cherished.

5) Silo: In the last fifteen years, there are only a few books or shows I can point to that, while not being life-changing per se, were memorable enough to stand the test of time. When it comes to books, I’m not quite sure that the content itself always holds up (I’m probably a more sophisticated reader now than I was two decades ago, and therefore may not like a lot of my old favorites as much a second time around). But the Wool book series was something I discovered very early in its run, and spent the next couple years trying to convince all my friends to read. Finally, an adaptation made it to the screen. Because it took a while, enough time passed to allow me to forget a lot of the nuance and finer details of the story. I remember the big reveals, the secrets behind the silo, and all that… but everything in between had faded. Fortunately, Apple got their hands on it, so the budget was enough to support some excellent production values and a solid cast. I really enjoyed my return to this world.

4) Severance: Another Apple drama with a sci fi bent. If you haven’t noticed, they do sci fi pretty well. I actually avoided this show for a long time, because I thought it was a basic workplace drama. But the more word of mouth spread, the more I learned about it. The sci fi angle intrigued me, and with enough positive pub I was ready to finally give it a try. No regrets, as the slow unveiling of the mystery at the heart of an evil futuristic corporation made for a fun ride.

3) Reservation Dogs: This probably will be pointed to as one of the best things to come out of this decade of television. Started as a collaboration between the always zany Taika Waititi and Sterling Harjo, this tale of Native American teens finding their way in life has continued to mature under Harjo’s leadership. Though I felt Season 3 was even more outstanding, Dogs sticks the landing in its final stanza. I somehow balances the confusing, frustrating, depressing and occasionally often funny moments associated with teen angst far better than most other shows. Res Dogs was always reliable entertainment, never let you down, and it will be missed.

2) Detectorists: This should be everyone’s favorite show about metal detecting. It’s probably the only show about metal detecting, right? After reading some scuttlebutt about this British production (three seasons of which originally started airing nearly a decade ago), I gave it a try, and quickly buzzed through all three seasons (at six half-hour episodes each, that’s not much of a feat). Anyway, yes, it’s about the aforementioned hobby, which in my mind seemed much more prominent back in the 1980s. The story focuses on two friends, played by Mackenzie Crook (who also wrote and directed) and Toby Jones, members of a tiny club of detectorists in England. If you don’t think much happens in three season of metal detecting action, you’re absolutely right… so it’s well-suited to the quiet, leisurely pace of storytelling. Their hunt for gold and other precious items is never intended to produce much drama (despite the welcome inclusion of some villainous rival detectorist club members). Instead, we’re treated to peaceful walks in the grass, the occasional dig—“Whatcha got?”—and lots and lots of old pull tabs. The mild humor, social awkwardness of our heroes, lingering shots of the outdoors, and peaceful guitar music all combine to make an almost meditative experience. It’s the most peaceful show I watched all year.

1) Succession: The best show about awful people is finally over. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a hard time wrapping my head around stories centered on terrible human beings. This often meant I’d put off watching Succession, or had to take breaks from time to time. This is not a bingeable show. But we made it through this final season, which was as slimy and dastardly as ever. And yes, maybe we can feel a wee bit of satisfaction seeing how the bumbling, despicable, idiotic rich don’t always get what they want. Succession may not always go down easy, but it was delicious to the last bite.

Other shows I enjoyed: Three Pines, Mythic Quest, Ted Lasso, Muscles & Mayhem, Arnold, Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, Loki (total redemption for a show that bombed in s1), The Wheel of Time (another Season 2 redemption!), Doctor Who (more redemption after years of bad writing!)

Shows we sadly didn’t finish or didn’t get to: Justified: City Primeval, Barry, The Great, For All Mankind, Sex Education, Slow Horses, Fargo

 

More Year in Review Content

2022 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

2021 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

2020 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

2019 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

2018 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

2017 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

2016 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

2015 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature

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