Last year I wrote most of my yearly retrospective, and got mostly depressed while writing the personal wrap-up (honestly, last year wasn’t great!), so I never published what I wrote. But as I was getting ready to write this year’s, since I’d already written A LOT, I thought maybe I would share, sans the personal update.
So here it is!
When I looked over my Letterboxd I noticed a good number of favorite movies on my watchlist. I got burnt out on the habit of revisiting favorites a long time ago, so it’s rare for me to be rewatching movies that I’ve loved for years. But this year I rewatched the Tony Leung section of Chungking Express three times (the whole movie twice). I rewatched Young Girls of Rochefort, Speed and the original West Side Story (twice!) with family and friends. I came in near the end of Strangers on a Train on TCM, watched the incredible carousel scene, and then went back to start from the beginning again. I promised myself I would watch A Star is Born until “The Man That Got Away,” a promise of predictable self-delusion — I never turned it off.
Even favorite new-to-me movies of the year are the ones that were familiar or connected to old favorites. I’ve always thought Alien was a great movie — this year I watched (for the first time) Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant, partly because of Blank Check’s Patreon series, and partly because returning to this world, with a slightly different philosophical inquiry each movie, felt cathartically habitual, almost trustworthy in its predictability. Thief, True Grit, and 2046 were all new movies to me by directors whose work I already know and love — my love for those movies was mostly preordained. Housekeeping is an adaptation of one of my favorite authors, and even if I hadn’t loved the movie, I would have been fascinated by the adaptation quality itself.
Literary adaptation played a determining factor, I’m sure, in my favorite new releases of the year. I saw two movies in theaters twice — The Green Knight and West Side Story. West Side Story is not primarily a literary adaptation, of course, but one of the things I loved about the new West Side Story was the way Tony Kushner infused moments and lines from Romeo and Juliet into his newly revised script, both with fidelity and with witty rearrangement. I teach Romeo and Juliet, so I know it pretty well, and I’m a lifelong enthusiast of the music of West Side Story, which is, for me, its own foundational text. The artistry and reverence Spielberg and Kushner displayed for these works may not have worked for everyone, but it worked perfectly for me. I loved it even more the second time I saw it — a favorite movie of my year.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a text that I was assigned to read in college, and did not read when it was due, I’m assuming because of reasons related to having a double major. When I was asked on a test/quiz what gifts the Lady gave to Sir Gawain, I felt compelled to write something down, so I wrote, “Eggs,” an answer so brazenly incorrect that I got back the highly sought-after HA! margin note from my teacher. I don’t have any particular attachment to the text (even after reading it!), so I didn’t mind its treatment of (and departures from) the themes and events of the original; I was more than happy to linger in the movie’s mystical, dawn-of-civilization world. Dev Patel always plays ingénues (I simply do not know what he will do when he gets old) but that tendency is used beautifully here, as the path of man’s maturity is shown both as a quest and as a moment of moral courage. Instead of being a shallow or a limiting trait, Patel’s ingénue quality (ingénuity, as it were) becomes the soul of the movie: that soft, silky matter being woven into a cord that connects the past and present, the pagan and the Christian, a youth with his adulthood. It is a favorite movie of the year.
A movie that potentially could be my favorite of the year is The French Dispatch, but I haven’t had the chance to rewatch. I know that it will not imprint on me the way Grand Budapest Hotel did, but I loved it anyway. The critiques people make of Wes Anderson make no sense to me — I cannot begin to comprehend watching these movies and thinking Anderson is a style over substance guy, or that there is something stilted or repressed about his work. I was thinking about Anderson using form like a sieve, when I realized my simile was insufficient. He also uses form like a chisel, like a needle and thread, like a whisk, even, occasionally, like a hammer — it is a tool. The tool is as cherished an artistic object as it is a utilitarian one — a silver tea set or Bronco Henry’s saddle (I’m getting to it!). But Anderson’s movies, for me, are tools that always get the job done, and by “the job” I mean, the job of framing experiences that provide insight and truthfulness about humanity with sensitivity, wit, rage, and grace.
The Power of the Dog is also my favorite movie of the year. I didn’t need to see it twice to know I adored it, because the first time I watched it I did a literal fistpump in the air when the credits rolled. I can’t quite chart my love for Jane Campion. Back when Bright Star came out, I had seen only The Piano. In the twelve years since, I’ve seen all the rest, including most of her shorts. I’m maybe late to this, but my experience with watching Campion is that this was the first time I fell in love with a director’s oeuvre, not just their individual films. It’s the first time I watched movies, caring less about the effect of the film itself, and more about each film revealing the director’s vision, thematic pool, insight about the world, etc., in ways that fit with their other works. There’s a particular pleasure in watching a film with that mindset, rather than evaluating it contextless, on reaction alone. Not only do I understand the movies better, but I like them better, too. If ordinarily I might be annoyed by an adaptation of Portrait of a Lady so far removed from its text, when I see the way it functions as a Jane Campion insight about the world, I’m free to analyze the way James’s and Campion’s ideas intertwine, overlap, or run contrary to each other. It’s far more interesting than wondering if the adaptation is good or bad, faithful or not. The work becomes a conversation I get to experience. I love it.
This almost sounds as if I’m damning her work with faint praise, as if my love for Power of the Dog is just a reflexive familiarity. But no, this movie is great! And not just great in a “gives valuable context” way, but in a “make you sit on the edge of your seat in dread because you simply do not know what will happen next” way. I feel fortunate I did not know the book before I saw this movie, because, other than a few key premise details (which I was mostly mistaken about — I had thought Jesse Plemons and Benedict Cumberbatch were having an affair), I went in as a pretty blank slate. As each unsteady or nervy moment built that simmering, then smoldering, dread, I waited for whatever moment of violence would set it all on fire. Thus the fistpump.
Other movies of note for me were Licorice Pizza, Matrix Resurrections (kinda good, right?!), and Card Counter (excellent, but less excellent than First Reformed). I liked Spencer okay when I watched it, and it has gone down in my estimation every time I have thought about it; I now dislike it more than it probably deserves. When I watched Last Duel, I thought it was a fascinating mess. I was surprised, then, by how many times this year I felt driven to defend it, not because I grew to think the film better or more successful, but because I was driven absolutely batty by the insistence of feminist resistance twitter who refused to watch the movie and insisted that the arguments they made against a film they had never seen were both error-proof and virtuous. Not since my childhood days in fundamentalism have I seen a group of people more irredeemably committed to misguided rectitude — a simply unsalvageable position.
The best book I read this year was Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, the kind of book that takes an established wisdom and critiques it in a paradigm-shifting way, but a really beautiful paradigm shift — not a jarring shift, but a settling-into-place-correctly shift. The book is primarily about writing workshops but it has enormous consequence for the way we teach story and plot, the way we assess literature and culture, the way we address student need in the classroom. It’s not a book for all audiences, but much of it has great relevance for people outside of writing workshop instructors. It also helped me get serious about writing workshop incorporation in my high school classes, in a way that has tangibly improved student work.
The best fiction book I read this year was The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a book a cut above the rest of le Carré’s already great work. Le Carré composed a cynical, bleak, precise book, but it’s never a false cynicism — the book is full of a righteous fury. It is not comforting, but it is truthful, and if we believe C.S. Lewis — and I do — we are better off trusting the latter than the former.
The other best fiction book I read this year (and it is better than the latter) was Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. It’s hard to describe the book without falling into murky metaphors about dusk and water and homespun virtue. The book is full of water, though, in all of its symbolic mysticism. (I may also have been — what’s the right Robinsonian word here? — predestined to like a book centering a strange and introverted girl whose name is Ruth.) I loved it and its film adaptation, which may get close to Age of Innocence’s greatest literary adaptation status.
Other memorable books: Jesus and John Wayne — pretty familiar stuff, but filled in a few gaps for me; Franny & Zooey — a little overwrought, but full of sibling dynamics that made me, uh, wryly smile; Reading While Black — a black Christian writes about interpreting the Bible in a way that is free from the bonds of white supremacy, and my favorite rereads — Great Expectations and Possession. I also listened to a bunch of old favorites on Audible — the Jonathan Cecil-read Jeeves and Wooster books. Never has there been a more perfect marriage of narrator and material. Never has the laughter inspired by Bertie Wooster’s nonsense felt more necessary.