final ruminations on 2019
When I looked back over my notes from the past year, I was shocked that some of my favorites were actually from 2019, not 2018; it seems so long ago when I read or watched some of these.
I guess it’s been a very long year.
Thankfully, the content has been tremendous. Last week I posted my favorite films. Here’s the rest of my “Best of 2019” in no particular order or genre:
I had not yet seen 1917 when I did my best of film post last week. I was a little reticent to see this movie, thinking the technical virtuosity (even more jaw-dropping than I anticipated) would overshadow the emotional side of the story. Not at all. I was deeply, deeply moved by 1917, less a traditional war movie than a ticking clock thriller within the war genre. 1917 is a wildly audacious, risk-taking film… against all odds, everything works brilliantly. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins deserve many accolades but my overwhelming shoutout goes to George MacKay as a soldier tasked with a dangerous mission. If this actor wasn’t perfect, the entire movie would fall apart. MacKay carries the movie on his considerable shoulders. See this in the theatre if you can.
Fleabag – Season 2
The note I give my screenwriting students more than any other is “You’re writing about polite people acting politely. Lovely… and completely boring.” Great storytelling, whether comedy or drama, comes from savage conflict and troubled characters. Look no further than Fleabag. I know some have a hard time getting past the opening of Season 1, the literal definition of “in your face.” I implore you to continue. Season 1 is terrific. Season 2 is one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen. With the brilliant addition of Andrew Scott as the second lead, playing a devastatingly attractive priest, and the surprising addition of God as the third lead, the second season of Fleabag is hilarious, devastating and complex.
Creator/writer/actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Scott are both incredible. Equally genius are Sian Clifford as Fleabag’s sister Claire and Olivia Coleman as a truly evil stepmother. It was also wonderful to see Kristen Scott-Thomas (sigh) being given such a meaty, wonderful guest starring role. How cool is it that with all the accolades and awards, Waller-Bridge decided to stop the series at the end of Season 2 rather than extend it on and on, as do so many other shows. The last episode is perfect. As is the rest of the series. I love me some Fleabag.
Dignity by Chris Arnade
Dignity will break your heart. Then get you off your butt to go do something. A moving look at displaced and forgotten people of all races all across America, Dignity has been criticized by some for being too empathetic. Fuck you critics living in a bubble. This is a profound book about people with devastating stories who struggle to survive, often with a strength that should put these shameless critics to shame. If you check out only one piece from my list, make it Chris Arnade’s book.
Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard
This wonderful novel chronicles the courtship of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. Author Louis Bayard kept Jane Austen in mind when writing this historical fiction; Austen’s influence is clear… you really begin to worry Mary Todd and Lincoln won’t end up at the alter. That Bayard can keep us in delirious romantic suspense, even though we know the outcome, is only one of the many reasons Courting Mr. Lincoln is one of my favorite novels in many a year.
The book is told from two perspectives: Mary Todd’s as well as Lincoln’s best friend, Joshua Speed. Bayard restores Mary Todd’s reputation in this novel. She is a smart, witty, terrific romantic heroine, struggling to find her place and her love. Bayard’s depiction of Speed, whom many, with good historical reason, believe was in love with Lincoln, is just as compelling. The actual letters between these two men are extremely intimate. Bayard creates a David and Jonathan type relationship, borne out by the men’s letters. His Lincoln stays true to the man, a funny, wise, enjoyable person ultimately very difficult to get to know, which makes Bayard’s decision to keep us from Lincoln’s own perspective a smart choice. Courting Mr. Lincoln is warm, generous, insightful, funny, heartfelt, emotional and delightful.
What else is there to say about Chernobyl? It’s one of the most powerful pieces of television ever created. If you haven’t watched it, you must. Though you might not sleep. It’s brilliantly crafted and impeccably acted. Television — or, well, art — doesn’t come much better. A chilling masterpiece.
As much as I love Fleabag, I think I love Catastrophe even more. It’s not just that the two leads are stunning. Or that the supporting cast is equally amazing. It’s not just that the show is outrageously, painfully funny. It’s that Catastrophe throws two people together who barely know one another and shouldn’t ever be together, and shows them slowly, beautifully fall in love with one another over the course of four short seasons. If you watch this wonderful show, you might find yourself surprised by how emotional and powerful the final season becomes. I’ve seen the whole thing twice and will watch all of this modern love story yet again. I love Catastrophe.
Me by Elton John
Relatively early in Elton John’s autobiography, Me, he describes his suicide attempt in his twenties. I was on the floor convulsing with hysterical laughter. You will be, too, if you make the smart decision to pick up one of the most entertaining reads in years. Seriously, this book is incredible. Elton John is shockingly, brutally honest, about himself more than anyone else. Self-effacing is an understatement when it comes to his approach in the book. His insight into himself, the people around him, and the world in general is sharp and illuminating. Because he worked with or met just about everyone, the glimpses we get into the rarified world of music and celebrity is eye-opening. But the book is never gossipy or mean. He simply tells it like it is with a bracing honesty that is as funny as any comedian at The Improv. If you’re looking for a entertaining read with depth, this is the book.
Market Cooking by David Tanis
I love cookbooks. They comfort me. I often go to sleep with one in hand and read 30 or 40 a year. David Tanis’s Market Cooking is by far my favorite cookbook this past year. Tanis, who cooked for years at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, has written two of my favorite cookbooks already, A Platter of Figs and Heart of the Artichoke. His recipes are purposefully simple; I’ve never cooked a recipe of his I didn’t enjoy. Laid out in encyclopedia fashion, centered on ingredients you’ll find at the farmer’s market, Market Cooking is his best yet.
Barry is another show I was forced to watch at gun-point, only to then think, “What the hell was my problem?” This show is awesome. Very, very funny and occasionally very, very bloody, Barry starts as a satire of everything from acting and entertainment to assassins and mobsters, only to evolve into something much richer. I’m amazed how after just two short seasons the show has caused me to care deeply about the characters, many of whom are less than admirable. Chalk this up to remarkable performances by Henry Winkler, Anthony Carrigan (!!) and Sarah Goldberg, who has a monologue in season two that made leap up from the sofa in awe. And then there’s Bill Hader. I didn’t much care for Hader before Barry. “What the hell was my problem?” He’s amazing in Barry, and not just as an actor. His writing and directing can be astounding. Take the now famous “ronny/lily” episode that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on TV ever. Kudos to Hader, I’m now an Uber-fan. Barry is terrific.
Shadowlands by Anthony McCann
Another book attacked by some for being too empathetic and even-handed (such are the ridiculous times in which we live) Anthony McCann’s Shadowlands is a deep dive into the 2016 Oregon occupation that transfixed the country. McCann is a poet; his writing is beautiful, insightful and searching. It’s a remarkable book, the kind of reporting I wish most journalists today would emulate. Highly recommended.
Something Wonderful by Todd Purdum
Something Wonderful is actually from 2018. I somehow forgot to include one of my favorites when I did my end of year post a year ago. If you like musical theatre, or just like Rodgers and Hammerstein, you will love this beautifully researched and written book about their lives and careers, together and apart. Something wonderful, indeed.
Game of Thrones
The best show in the history of television came to a conclusion last Spring with a brilliant, controversial final season. I’m tempted to repeat my comment about critics from above. I’ll refrain. But for those who complained, what I will say is I don’t know what show you thought you were watching all these years. Anyone, for instance, who didn’t think Dany was going to turn bat-shit crazy by the end had their head stuck in the sand ostrich style. (If you named your baby after her, or tattooed her name on your arm, you got what you deserved.) I refused to watch GOT until after Season 3, when I then became one of the show’s biggest fans. I still am. I love the show, love the final season and can’t wait one day to start all over again. It’s that damn good.