2018 in Books

reading banner 2018 b.jpg

Even if not for movies, 2018 turned out to be a great year for reading. Per my accounting on Goodreads, I read 95 books—a personal record. Most of it was good, a few things were great, and very few stinkers made it into my reading. You can see everything I counted toward my Goodreads reading challenge here.

For this year-in-review rundown of my reading, I’m going to try to keep things positive and focus on favorites. I use the word favorites purposefully—I’m not declaring these the “best” books of the year, but the ones I enjoyed, benefited from, or stopped to think about the most, with plenty of overlap in those three categories.

I will address the two worst books I read this year, but I’m going try to keep it brief. Because that’s all they deserve.

I’ve sorted things into three broad categories: fiction, non-fiction, and kids’ books. And because I can’t keep these things to a set number, you’ll find a top ten—in no particular order—with a few runners up in most of them. I also have a list of things I revisited.

Enjoy! If y’all are looking for something good to read in 2019, I hope you can find something in these lists.

Ten fiction favorites:

last stand at saber river.jpg

Last Stand at Saber River, by Elmore Leonard. An excellent western, pitting a Confederate veteran returning from the war with his family against a pair of brothers attempting to steal his land with the Union as their excuse—all of which an amoral storekeeper works to manipulate to his advantage. This might sound like a collection of western staples, but the plotting, pacing, characterization, and the strength of Leonard’s writing set this apart. A really good good guy, some really bad bad guys, and a wonderfully realized western setting. I enjoyed this immensely.

The Line that Held Us, by David Joy. A gripping tragedy set in the mountains and hollers of Jackson County, North Carolina. Dark and suspenseful but with some hope of redemption. This is one of the best novels I read this year; I’ve picked up Joy’s two previous books and hope to read them soon, too. Read my full review here.

Unknown Soldiers, by Väinö Linna, trans. by Liesl Yamaguchi. One of the best war novels I’ve read, Unknown Soldiers follows a Finnish machine gun company through the Continuation War against the Soviets (1941-44) and has a huge flock of finely drawn, interesting characters. Linna evokes every bit of the pathos and tragedy of modern warfare in a moving and action-packed novel. Read my full review here.

Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard. It is apparently the incorrect opinion among Leonard fans, but so far I don’t actually like his crime novels as much as his westerns. This is the exception—and I loved it. Freaky Deaky follows a pair of ex-hippie ex-lovers who try to revive their Weather Underground-style terrorism for fun and profit. A parallel plot follows Chris Mankowski, former Detroit bomb squad technician turned sex crimes investigator, as he begins a new relationship and crosses paths with the terrorists. It’s hard to summarize, but it’s wonderful to read and really funny. Here’s Leonard himself reading the first chapter.

Above the Waterfall, by Ron Rash. Perhaps my new favorite novel by Rash. Read my full review here.

The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh. Think Barton Fink crossed with Bernie. One of the funniest, blackest, most shocking comedic novels I’ve read, a blistering send-up of Americans’ unhealthy refusal to confront death. This was just the second book I read this year, and it was never in danger of being unseated from among my favorites. Read my full review here.

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. I don’t think I’ll ever make myself watch the movie, but an old episode of the First Things podcast featured an interesting segment on the spiritual power and sacramental physicality—often manifested as grossness—in this novel. It’s not the best written piece of fiction you’ll pick up, but it’s gripping and powerfully creepy, building a deep sense of dread because of human weakness in the face of supernatural evil. Father Karras’s struggles with his own faith should prove familiar to a lot of readers, and the subtle grace that comes through and finally offers salvation and redemption makes the book moving as well. To summarize from my short Goodreads review: “Brutal, gross, terrifying, and—surprisingly—uplifting.”

The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. The most delightfully and wonderfully weird book I’ve read in years. Part Chaucer, part Narnia, part Lovecraft, the novel follows Chauntecleer, king of a barnyard full of animals, in a struggle against Wyrm, an ancient force that threatens to wreck creation. A strange and gripping meditation on good and evil, love, beauty, creation, leadership good and bad, and populated with strange and memorable characters. Perhaps my favorite is Mundo Cani, a depressed dog almost pathetically devoted to Chauntecleer but who possesses a surprising reserve of courage. If you want to read a fresh, beautifully written fantasy that is by turns charming and dark, but beautiful and weird throughout, definitely pick up The Book of the Dun Cow.

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. A classic. I had only read the abridged, illustrated version as a kid and finally got around to the real thing this summer. That’s probably providential; it’s so good that if I had read it before I wrote Griswoldville I might not have tried. Read my full Goodreads review here.

Favorite of the year:

good shepherd.jpg

The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester. I picked this up because it’s the basis of Tom Hanks’s forthcoming film Greyhound. I’d never read anything by Forester—creator of Horatio Hornblower—and was blown away by this book. The story, set in World War II, follows Commander Krause, captain of a US Navy destroyer on convoy duty in the north Atlantic during the height of U-boat activity. As the novel begins, he comes to the bridge after a few scanty hours of rest. After his convoy blunders into the middle of a wolf pack, Krause will barely sit down, much less sleep, for the next several days.

The novel is intensely interior, with almost no characterization or backstory for anyone else on the ship. Even his own backstory—with a dead end position in the navy, a tragically failed marriage, and a transfer from San Diego—doesn’t come in until over halfway into the book. Things come to the reader as they come to Krause. Throughout, the reader thinks through what’s happening with Krause, doing the hard work of calculating speed, fuel, distance, the number of ships and depth charges remaining, where the U-boats are, how fast their torpedoes can travel—and on and on. It’s an incredibly cerebral novel that is also physically exhausting. I was tired when I finished it, a sensation I haven’t experienced since reading Deliverance ten years ago. It’s a rare accomplishment for a work of fiction.

The Good Shepherd is a great look at the guts and endurance it took to ferry supplies across the Atlantic during World War II, but the primary reason to read it is that it’s an excellent and unusual novel. It also has some wonderfully evocative religious overtones, as scripture springs uninvited into the devoutly religious Krause’s mind, sometimes in the middle of torpedo attacks. Check it out if you’re at all interested in the underappreciated side stories of World War II, or if you plan to see Tom Hanks’s film adaptation this spring.

Runners up:

scoop.jpg
  • Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. A withering satire of the modern press, c. 1938, Scoop follows William Boot, a young man mistaken for his fashionable novelist cousin and sent to the impoverished African state of Ishmaelia to cover a war. Scathing in its critique of the media, modernism, statism, and propaganda, and also laugh-out-loud funny. Comparable to the earlier Black Mischief, which is also blisteringly satirical toward European hubris, but even funnier.

  • A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh in a more morally serious mode, dramatizing the disasters unleashed on both the innocent and the guilty by selfishness and infidelity. Read my full review here.

  • The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog, by Dave Barry. A hilarious dose of lighthearted, touching Christmas nostalgia from a kid’s-eye perspective—if that kid is young Dave Barry. A lot of fun to read aloud; I had to stop a few times to catch my breath, I was laughing so hard.

  • Fools and Mortals, by Bernard Cornwell. An interesting departure for Cornwell, from sociopathic historical hardasses to the world of Shakespeare. Engaging, a brilliantly detailed historical world, a good plot, and, importantly, a lot of fun. I’ve previously blogged about it here.

  • Gunsights, by Elmore Leonard. I believe this is Leonard’s last western, and he goes out with a bang. Exciting action and suspense, believable character-centered conflict, and a realistically detailed and well-realized historical setting, plus some barbed commentary on the way the media attempts to shape events in the name of coverage.

Ten non-fiction favorites:

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw. An excellent look at Dante’s work by a scholar with a lifetime of experience, winsomely presenting Dante’s genius and beautifully written.

The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, by Carolyne Larrington. An excellent guide and introduction to the religious and mythic landscape of the Norse, with a careful presentation of often tricky or widely misinterpreted material by a good scholar. The best book of its kind that I’ve come across. Read my full review here.

Semmes: Rebel Raider, by John M. Taylor. A shorter version of Taylor’s biography of Raphael Semmes, a commerce raider for the Confederate navy whose activities severely disrupted Northern shipping and business. I enjoyed this little biography so much I wrote a very long review of it here last month.

12+rules.jpg

Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen. A strong, much-needed, perceptive diagnosis that most of our proposed cures for the illnesses of our time are actually just part of the illness. Deneen daringly questions Lockean liberalism, especially the concept of the autonomous individual, and convincingly argues that both “sides” of our political divide today are fighting over the same vanishing patch of turf. I’ve previously blogged about this book here.

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of England, by Marc Morris. A detailed and deeply researched new biography of Edward I. Worthwhile if you’re at all interested in High Medieval Britain, Scotland and Wales, or medieval kingship and military history at all. Read my Goodreads review here.

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. A lyrical, wistful recounting of the author’s youthful walk across Europe from the English Channel to Constantinople. (This volume, the first of three, ends with his journey into Hungary.) Especially interesting as Fermor made his trip just as the Nazis rose to power, so this travelogue takes the reader through a lost world in more ways than one. You can read my thoughts on the book while I was reading it, with some generous excerpts of my favorite passages, here.

Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, by Helen Castor. An excellent entry, brief but insightful, in the Penguin Monarchs series. Read my full review here.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. I mean to review this more fully at some point, but this is a rewarding dig into what makes human beings tick and how to resolve some of the issues that plague anxious modern people. 95% common sense, eloquently expressed, supported, and argued for, with about 5% Jungian hoodoo that is nevertheless interesting. I think it says more about our culture than Peterson that he has become controversial.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, by Alan Noble. A much needed meditation on Christian accommodation of the prevailing culture, resulting in a thin, shallow, brittle, commercialized, commodified faith that will not disrupt the world but follow after it, pulling on its apron strings. Concludes with calls for “disruptive” habits—personal habits, including even simple things like prayer before meals, and church habits, like more regular and more heavily emphasized sacraments and giving greater space to solemnity, reclaiming worship from the rock concert. Resonated quite a lot with what I had already read by Deneen (see above) and Scruton (see below), and with James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, which I read a few years ago. Noble gave me a lot to think about, especially as troubled as I’ve been by the state of American Christianity for some time.

Favorite of the year:

How to Be a Friend, by Cicero, trans. Philip Freeman. In the words of Albert Finney’s elderly gamekeeper in Skyfall: “Sometimes the old ways are best.” This is a new translation, in a nice bilingual edition from Princeton UP, of Cicero’s essay De Amicitia (On Friendship). I’ve been meaning to do a full review and recommendation since I read it, but unfortunately I finished it at about the busiest time of the semester. Suffice it to say that Cicero offers a lot of wisdom here that we could stand to recover or, at least, refresh ourselves on. True friendship is a discipline, something purposeful, and cannot demand evil, immorality, or injustice in its name. True friends should help each other to virtue—iron sharpening iron—which means that they should be devoted to something larger than themselves: truth. Good friendships, in Cicero’s estimation, must be founded on truth. In our “post-truth” age, this ancient message is the healthy counterprogramming we need. Pick this up and read it as soon as you can.

Runners up:

scruton.jpg
  • On Human Nature, by Roger Scruton. An excellent series of lectures examining what it means to be human—that is, crucially, a person—and what obligations that places upon us. Insightful and especially relevant.

  • The Demon in Democracy, by Ryszard Legutko. A powerful one-two punch with Why Liberalism Failed, Legutko’s book expands on Deneen by examining Western liberalism and Communism as rivals for the same basic ground, philosophically and politically speaking, which is why both tend toward tyranny, authoritarianism, and the suppression of traditional institutions.

  • The Year of Our Lord 1943, by Alan Jacobs. An interesting look at the lives and thought of five Christian writers and their responses to the pressures of the Second World War. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, by Peter Kreeft. A freewheeling discussion on our intuitions of transcendence through our lived experience. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Finnish Soldier versus Soviet Soldier: Winter War 1939-40, by David Campbell, illustrated by Johnny Shumate. A brisk, informative, lavishly illustrated examination of what combat was like during the Winter War. Read my Goodreads review here.

Worst reads of the year:

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. This book is garbage. A “hot mess” or a “dumpster fire” for the meme-addled. It’s a judgment on our culture that it’s become as popular as it has. Lazy, poorly written, overindulgent, philosophically and morally bankrupt, with insufferable characters, a contrived plot, and a completely phony moral platitude tacked on at the end, this book has skated by on the black ice of its pop culture “references,” the most vacuous and ephemeral brain candy available. Read some of my early reactions in my Goodreads review here. In April I was a guest on the Sectarian Review for a discussion of Ready Player One—primarily the film version; you can listen to that here.

terminal list.jpg

The Terminal List, by Jack Carr. I wanted to enjoy this book, because it’s in a genre I’ve enjoyed and I was intrigued by the fact that it was written by a former SEAL. While true, its author’s service was essentially a gimmick used to sell the book, along with the handful of passages redacted by the Department of Defense. The “too hot for TV!” tactic. Unfortunately, this is a poorly written and plotted mess, with serious pacing, characterization, and tone problems, loads of typos (in a professionally edited and published book!), and sometimes incomprehensible description.

The biggest problem for me, though, was its complete lack of reflection on the meaning of its story. SEAL James Reece miraculously survives an ambush that wipes out everyone in his entire unit but himself and a buddy. Upon making it home, the buddy mysteriously commits suicide and Reece starts getting ominous results on medical tests. Then Reece’s family is murdered and he sets out for revenge. Turns out that the ambush was a setup to wipe out SEALs and other special forces personnel who had been illegally used for pharmaceutical testing, a project sending kickbacks to a powerful, ambitious, high-ranking female politician with her sights set on the White House. Doesn’t sound familiar enough? Well her husband is also a former politician who was disgraced because of sexual scandal. Hm.

Turns out everyone—including the SEAL commanding officer—was in on the plot, and Reece laboriously kills all of them, working from a list kept on the back of one of his dead daughter’s crayon drawings. Not only is it obvious and manipulative, it’s a chore to read.

This was a bad enough book for artistic reasons but it crossed the line into morally bad territory. What The Terminal List and Ready Player One have in common is a gross indulgence in fantasies that simply affirm or titillate the reader. In Ready Player One it’s an affirmation that all the ephemeral video game crap you love matters—matters more than anything else in the world! It then titillates its reader with the adulation and glory heaped upon its protagonist. In The Terminal List, it’s an affirmation that all your darkest suspicions about elites and globalists are true. The titillation comes in the elaborate and gleefully relayed revenge killings.

Carr invites us to participate in Reece’s campaign of gruesome revenge, which is otherwise fairly standard for a thriller, but by making his villains obvious proxies for real world people, he’s inviting the reader into an obsessively imagined murder spree—and invited them to enjoy it along with him. That’s not a good habit of mind to cultivate, and in Carr’s book the resentment—of the Clintons, of Washington insiders, of the objects of paranoia like Big Pharma, and even of fellow SEALs who just haven’t seen as much action as Reece—drips from every page. It’s not just a bad book, but an ugly one.

Read my much shorter Goodreads review here.

Rereads:

confederacy.jpg

Old favorites that I reread this year. Several of these I revisited after more than a decade (or two). Others I listened to on my commute. All were worth it—check any of these out. They’re great.

  • The Aeneid, by Virgil, trans. by David Ferry. A solid new translation in blank verse. I read this shortly after my grandfather died, just before Christmas 2017, and it resonated powerfully with me, something I blogged about here (the most popular post of the year, incidentally).

  • The Earliest English Poems, ed. and trans. by Michael Alexander. A great collection of Old English verse, including riddles, epic (The Battle of Maldon), religious poems (The Dream of the Rood), elegies (The Seafarer and The Wanderer), and much more. Good translations with good scholarly apparatus like notes and introductions. Alexander’s translation of Beowulf is also worth seeking out.

  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Reread for the first time since high school, when I read it because Stephen King featured it so prominently in Hearts in Atlantis. Far, far more powerful than I gave it credit for back then. Justly regarded as a classic. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • The Screwtape Letters and The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. I listened to both of these as audiobooks. The Four Loves is an early version of the talks that eventually became the longer, expanded book of the same title, read by CS Lewis himself in recordings made for American radio during the 1950s. He’s great to listen to. The Screwtape Letters was the second audio version I’ve listened to, after John Cleese’s wonderfully manic and wrathful recording (now very hard to find). This version was read by prolific British actor Joss Ackland, whose wry, self-satisfied bass gave a new spin to Screwtape as the smug bureaucrat who can only be roused to wrath out of self-interest. A great performance of a great book.

  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Also an audiobook, brilliantly performed—accents and all—by Barrett Whitener. Reading the book is indispensable—no performance can be as funny as how Toole’s book will play out in your head—but this was really enjoyable.

  • The 39 Steps, by John Buchan. I reread this for the first time in ten years in preparation for a podcast discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation. The 39 Steps still works—a fast-paced adventure thriller that you can read in one or two sittings. You can listen to our discussion of the film, with reference to the book as well, here.

  • The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele. Reread for the first time since perhaps fourth grade. My copy still had an old Garfield bookmark and a sheet of stickers in it. Anyway, a very good Civil War novel for children, capturing some of the messiness in the South, particularly in areas politically divided between secessionists and unionists. Read my Goodreads review here.

Favorites kids’ books:

Every night before bed I read a chapter or two to my wife from a book we’ve selected—something fun and relaxing, with a dash of adventure, often for kids or young adults. I also read a lot of picture books to my kids, which has been a refreshment after the last few years of Serious Adult Literature. These are the best of this year’s lot, in no particular order:

door in the wall angeli.jpg
  • The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli. This was a nice surprise—a novel neither my wife nor I had heard of, that we only discovered while looking through a list of Newbery Medal winners (1950). This is the story of a spoiled noble boy crippled by illness who learns humility through acceptance of his condition and his submission to the practice of an art. Also nice as a medieval novel for young readers that doesn’t present a lot of Dark Ages stereotypes, but brings the reader into that world on its own terms. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. A gripping adventure story, part Robinson Crusoe, part Jack London (take your pick), part Lord of the Flies. Hatchet tells the story of a boy, already stressed by his parents’ divorce, who finds himself stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plan crash. I blitzed through this in a few days during breaks at work—it’s excellent.

  • The Hawk of the Castle, by Danna Smith, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. A medieval picture book about falconry, following a falconer and his daughter on a hunting trip. Based on the author’s own experience with falconry, and lovingly—and beautifully—illustrated. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis. For whatever reason, I’m just now getting around to reading all of the Chronicles of Narnia, and this stands out as one of the best entries in the series (though my favorite is probably still The Silver Chair). An epic sea voyage with allegorical, chivalric overtones—one part Faerie Queene, one part Odyssey. It’s great. Reepicheep, the embodiment of honor and chivalry, is perhaps my favorite character, but everyone has a chance to shine in this one and some parts are profoundly moving.

  • In Grandma’s Attic, by Arleta Richardson. A wonderfully fun, funny, and gentle collection of frontier stories presented as the reminiscences of a grandmother. Reminded me somewhat of Little House on the Prairie, but more episodic and with a nice dash of more specific religiosity. My wife’s grandmother read these to her growing up. There are ten in the series, so there’s plenty more to enjoy. Read my short Goodreads review here.

  • Shakespeare’s Spy, by Gary Blackwood. The final volume of a trilogy following a young boy, originally tasked with stealing a well-protected copy of Hamlet, through his apprenticeship and finally membership in Shakespeare’s company of players. A fun, kid-friendly introduction to Shakespeare, drama, and the Tudor world. I’ve blogged about this series here before, in this post about Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals.

Favorite of the year:

John Ronald’s Dragons, by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. A beautifully illustrated picture book about the first half of JRR Tolkien’s life, from his childhood, through World War I, to his professorship at Oxford and the creation of The Hobbit. I’ve previously reviewed this wonderful book on the blog here.

Looking ahead:

I was going to conclude with a section on my two favorite new writers—meaning dead guys I’ve just discovered—of 2018, but this post is quite long enough. I’ve set myself a lower bar for my Goodreads challenge this year, for three reasons: my wife and I expect our third child this year, which will, naturally, affect my time—and sleep schedule; I aim to read a few longer, heavier books I’ve been meaning to get to; and I want to set aside time to work on new writing projects. We’ll see how all that goes this time next year. In the meantime, I’ll keep posting.

Thanks for reading! Happy new year!

2018 in Movies

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2018 was not, by several reckonings I’ve read or heard, a great year for movies. There was a good bit of dreck, but a lot more sameness. Even the prestige Oscar-bait movies all look similarly tortured, similarly target the same progressive boogeymen, and look similarly self-congratulatory. And Lord help you if you’re pretty well burned out on superheroes. I’m getting close. I saw Black Panther, which was apparently a civic duty, but couldn’t muster the gumption to see Infinity War until this week. Still underwhelmed.

But there was good stuff mixed in there—and if you enjoyed the things I was just complaining about, more power to you! Seriously. I try not to begrudge people their entertainment, but I do wish we got more movies like the ones below.

Here are the five movies, in roughly ascending order, that I enjoyed most this year, along with a few honorable mentions and—to keep things positive—movies that looked good, that trusted friends recommended, but that I just haven’t had the chance to see yet.

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in  A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place proved the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. I’m not much for horror—and apparently neither is John Krasinski,* the writer, director, and star of the movie. I think that’s a strength. Krasinski’s entry in the genre emphasizes character over gore, relationships over creature effects, and atmosphere over cheap jump scares, the things a talented outsider can bring to freshen up a genre piece. As it happens, the few horror films I like are the ones that slowly build dread—a more powerful emotion than horror, I think—through character and atmosphere.

It helps that Krasinski has fashioned a classically cinematic movie. With the dialogue mostly stripped out, A Quiet Place has to rely on that ever rarer of commodities—visual storytelling. It’s a spectacularly well made movie, visually and technically, with an excellent sense of place (always an asset in horror, c.f. The Shining), and evocative sound design. But the real strength, what gives the technical accomplishments life, is the performances. Krasinski and his wife, Emily Blunt, portray a committed, nigh desperate couple trying to raise a family in a world controlled by unstoppable monsters with powerful senses of hearing. Krasinski and Blunt are excellent, as are the kids—almost always a weak point in this kind of movie.

A Quiet Place’s depiction of a family also sets it apart. The nameless family we follow through the movie is intact, led by a husband and wife who need and rely upon each other, as stable as can be expected, and attempting to carry on in the face of a situation in which other people would give in to despair. Indeed, we see exactly two other people in the film, one of whom has reached that point. The easy Hollywood route—the cliched route—with a screen couple in a situation like this would be to emphasize preexisting rifts and have plenty of screaming matches, maybe an adultery subplot, but Krasinski and Blunt emphasize—touchingly, movingly—the ordinary: a husband and wife looking after their kids and preparing for the arrival of another in a hostile world. Which is what men and women have been doing since Eden.

I think the film also does something interesting in exposing a philosophical fault line among its viewers. The people who asked, bewildered, “Why would you have a baby in a world like that?” don’t get it. The answer is Because life is worth it, utilitarian arguments be damned. It’s a terrifying and starkly beautiful vision. I’ll refer y’all to this outstanding piece by Sonny Bunch for more.

*I can’t talk about this movie without reflexively referring to Krasinski’s character as “Jim.”

The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in  The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin could have gone wrong in so many ways, it’s amazing it works so well. Trickiest of all is its premise. This film stages the aftermath of the death of one of history’s greatest mass murderers—a man whose war against reality took the lives of at least twenty million of his own people; who oversaw one of the largest and most brutal concentration camp systems in the world; who led his country first into an alliance with and then in a war against Hitler, a war that killed another 11,00,000+ of his soldiers and as many as twenty million of his own civilians; who enslaved over half of Europe in a campaign of political suppression, ethnic cleansing, and murder—as a comedy.

There is a lot to laugh at in socialism or communism generally and even the Soviet Union specifically—the Russians under the Soviets had a famously mordant sense of humor—but the risk is that turning these events into effective comedy will trivialize Stalin’s unbelievable evil. Astonishingly, the film manages this tightrope walk brilliantly.

The director, Armando Iannucci, is also the creator of Veep, and so knows a thing or two about political satire. His approach to the humor of Stalin’s death is to play it straight—no one in The Death of Stalin is laughing about anything, and yet it is uproariously funny. The absurdity of life under communism, of the violent ideological whiplash caused by sudden reverses of supposedly infallible policy, of the grotesque toadying of Stalin’s subordinates even as the Man of Steel lies in a puddle of his own urine, of the comically self-serving narcissism of virtually every character—all factor into the comedy, not to mention the dark zingers the characters shoot back and forth and the Office-worthy awkward moments that ensue.

That both the comedy and tragedy work is due to the performances, which Iannucci’s documentary-style, improvisatory camerawork and editing allow to shine. Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin is an excellent Molotov, the most self-deluded true believer among the Soviet inner circle. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy) proves a delightfully crass and bro-ish Marshal Zhukov, the man who captured Berlin. Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough stand out in small roles as Stalin’s children, Vasily, who surely never forgot that his father refused a chance to exchange for him when he was captured by the Nazis, and Svetlana, who eventually defected to the United States. But the film’s strongest performances are the central three: Jeffrey Tambor as Georgi Malenkov, Stalin’s weak, malleable heir apparent*; Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD and a true devil in his own right, a serial rapist and mass murderer; and Steve Buscemi as a surprisingly great Nikita Khrushchev, a resentful, put-upon brute simultaneously chafing at and fearful of Beria’s power now that Stalin is dead.

While these magnificent bastards kiss butt, comically debase themselves, and jockey for a chance at greater control of the post-Stalin Soviet Union—and, to reiterate, this is all hilarious—The Death of Stalin never loses sight of the horrible, ironic tragedy of the story it’s telling. When Beria orders an end to political executions, one unlucky prisoner is shot after the order to stop is given and his executioner doesn’t quite catch it. While Beria plots against his rivals with an underling in the basement of the Lubyanka, prisoners are shot, tortured, and rolled down the stairs tied to logs behind him.

On a grander scale, The Death of Stalin portrays a system proclaiming peace at perpetual war with itself, that, in its pursuit of pure equality, has created the zero-sum game it accuses capitalism of creating. But it’s not just an indictment of a system, our culture’s current default critique of everything: The Death of Stalin depicts the rot of people, the moral decay of little daily choices, from Stalin and his lieutenants down to radio station managers and the lowliest Red Army privates. Everything in this film—everything—comes at someone else’s expense. It’s a nasty object lesson, but one we need more than ever.

The film does take historical liberties, but this isn’t the place for hashing that out. It’s worth watching, not only as a politically canny satire or historical comedy, but as an indictment against ideology, the abandonment of truth, and the worship of man in the place of God.**

*I watched The Death of Stalin for the second time while reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life a week or two ago. Afterward, I read this in his Rule 11: “And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”

**The reaction of Khrushchev and company to the arrival of formerly exiled Orthodox bishops at Stalin’s funeral is worthy of a gang YouTube comment atheists, a subtle point of satire of its own.

Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in  Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible—Fallout

The best action movie of the year doesn’t feature any superheroes. Mission: Impossible—Fallout* is both a great new entry in one of the most consistently excellent series yet running and a solid sequel to the last one.

Since III but certainly since IV (Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol), the Mission: Impossible series has done two things exceptionally well: stage impressive practical stunts and make them matter to the plot. Far from the extraneous, time-wasting chaos of Transformers or self-indulgent cool of The Fast and the Furious franchises, Mission: Impossible’s action scenes advance the plot and are mostly real, refusing to lean on CGI as a crutch.

Fallout takes this to even greater extremes, with Tom Cruise doing scores of sunset parachute jumps to film the HALO dive sequence, racing against traffic in Paris for a motorcycle chase, doing his own helicopter flying, and actually dangling from a cliff over a Norwegian fjord (standing in for Kashmir) in the climax. The much ballyhooed shattering of Cruise’s ankle comes during a pretty standard footchase through London that, to the producers’, director’s, and Cruise’s credit, is far more exciting than it has to be.

And that’s what sets Fallout—and its predecessors—apart: the filmmakers care. You can’t take that for granted in our era of lazy cashgrabs and paint-by-numbers sequels.

It helps, of course, that Fallout has a good plot, with interesting development of the previous film’s villain (Sean Harris) and femme fatale (the excellent Rebecca Ferguson). Ving Rhames has an expanded role, as does Alec Baldwin, whose sinister bureaucrat from the previous film has an important role to play here. Henry Cavill, with his Justice League-wrecking mustache, is a physically imposing, resourceful, intelligent—and therefore threatening—villain. The film also resolves the Mrs. Hunt situation introduced in JJ Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III, explaining what happened to that hastily introduced and abandoned love interest, both paving the way for Hunt and Ilsa Faust to have something going on in future installments and giving the franchise a bit more of a solid footing, continuity-wise.

Well plotted, solid acting by a veteran cast (even Simon Pegg’s relative newcomer Benji has been in four out of six of these now), and exciting, believable action—you could do a lot worse for pure entertainment.

*They need to find a better way to punctuate these titles. I shouldn’t have to use order of operations to remember what goes where.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in  Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado

I love the last few Mission: Impossible films, but if you want that kind of thrilling action with a bit more real-world gravitas and ethical exploration, Sicario is the franchise to beat. Sicario proved a surprise hit when it came out three years ago, with an intriguing look into a complicated, morally dicey world given life by excellent writing and plotting. The writer, Taylor Sheridan, has emerged as one of most interesting talents in the last few years, with both Sicario films to his credit as well as Wind River and Hell or High Water. The performances were excellent as well, with Josh Brolin’s cagey CIA operative Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro’s former cartel hitman Alejandro offering black and gray contrasts to the white morality of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, outstanding again). Thanks to the writing and performances and Denis Villeneuve’s direction, I’ve seldom been as tense as long as I was when I first watched Sicario.

This year’s sequel, originally simply titled Soldado, further complicates the world of the first film, first by expanding its scope, with events driven by terror attacks in middle America and Graver operating as far away as Somalia, and second by removing the first film’s conscience, Kate Macer. This film revolves around Graver and Alejandro, with side stories following an aspiring teenage sicario (Elijah Rodriguez) and the spoiled daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel don the US government has decided to take down. I don’t want to explain much more about the plot, but its tense blend of immigration politics, the war on drugs, government corruption on both sides of the border, the power of money, and the personal stakes involved in this kind of amoral Realpolitik challenge the characters to deal with the consequences of their actions. Even in a world already driven by revenge, Graver and Alejandro rely more and more on force—the only tool left to them, the laws all being flat. They ultimately choose different paths. I’m not sure either ends up happy about it.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado features a new director (Italian director Stefano Sollima) and cinematographer (Dariusz Wolski, replacing the legendary Roger Deakins) but the film is perfectly matched stylistically and especially tonally to the first one. If you’re looking for an engaging action drama that poses some hard questions about chaos, the line between good and evil, and our relationship to a government that increasingly solves its problems by killing people, Soldado is the next film you should check out.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is my favorite film of the year. Hilarious and moving, beautiful and bleak, eerie and warmly romantic, this film shows Joel and Ethan Coen at the height of their powers, masters of the film medium. And they not only demonstrate their virtuosity technically and artistically, but they show that, coupled with their storytelling skill, they have something to say. This is not just art for art’s sake.

This film is an anthology, a collection of six short stories—presented literally so, with a hand opening and turning the pages of an illustrated book of Western stories as the film progresses. Each is markedly different from the others in style and tone. The first, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is almost a self-parody—intentionally so. Its verbose, aw shucks protagonist wends his way across a stereotypical Old Hollywood Western landscape, singing and engaging opponents in banter that shows off his vocabulary but that almost immediately descends into comical violence. The cherry on top is a country musical number with a tinge of the supernatural.

“Near Algodones,” about a hapless bank robber who isn’t hanged for a crime he committed but is for one he didn’t, is essentially an extended joke, complete with punchline, but it features a pinch of pathos at the end that prepares the way for the later stories. “Meal Ticket,” the bleakest of the set, is a mood piece. It follows a pair of traveling performers, an armless man who recites long passages from the classics (Harry Melling) and the man who cares for him (the great Liam Neeson, in an almost wordless performance). The story creates such a powerful sense of pathos and sadness, such a keen sense of the long years of this pair’s sad routine, that there’s almost no way it could have ended satisfactorily. It’s the most overtly tragic and least humorous of the six.

My two favorites come sandwiched in the middle. “All Gold Valley,” based on a short story by Jack London, tells the story of an old prospector (Tom Waits) seeking out and, despite some rather serious obstacles, finding a rich vein of gold. In this story the Coens show off their underappreciated skill of making people going through processes—just working on stuff—not only interesting but gripping (c.f. Llewellyn and Chigurh preparing their motel rooms in No Country for Old Men).

The longest, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” based on a short story by Stewart Edward White, is the most sincerely moving. The story of a star-crossed man and woman on the Oregon Trail, it carefully builds a warm and involving relationship between two lonesome people who find, in each other, hope for something more. The landscapes—western Nebraska prairie—are stunningly shot and flat out beautiful. The performances by the leads—Zoe Kazan as Alice and Bill Heck as Billy Knapp—are wonderfully subtle and understated, as is that of Grainger Hines as Mr. Arthur, another in the Coens’ fine lineage of taciturn men who, when the crisis comes, get crap done. And Alice and Billy’s dialogue, in a sincerely presented religious conversation, introduce what I think is the heart of the whole film: the uncertainty of the ephemeral, fleeting world we travel through (what better image could you hope for than a wagon train?), an uncertainty that means our only hope can come in the world of the transcendent. The story tragically and movingly underlines the point at the very end.

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” uses the Coens’ skill for humor and dialogue to cast the themes of mortality and the brevity of life in pretty stark relief, showing us out the door—quite literally—with a pair of closing doors, not to learn what happens on the other side in this life.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs offers not only a great set of varied but thematically unified stories, but it’s also a cinematic delight. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, working with the Coens for the second time (after Inside Llewyn Davis) composes the vast deserts and grasslands beautifully. Look for the lone trees on the horizon in “Near Algodones” or the beautifully untouched, Edenic “All Gold Valley.” The standout is probably “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” with its gorgeous twilight wagon circle (see above) and a genuinely exciting and terrifying action scene—comparable to Rooster’s showdown in True Grit*—at the end. Carter Burwell’s score is also excellent, incorporating folk songs and western motifs while being wholly original and appropriate to the tone of each short.

I can’t speak highly enough of this one. If you haven’t seen it, go out and watch it as soon as you can. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again—it rewards reviewing.

2018 may not have had a lot of good movies, but its good ones were great.

*There are a couple of True Grit Easter Eggs—such as an appearance by Mattie Ross’s boarding house nemesis Grandma Turner—sewn throughout Buster Scruggs. It’s a lot of fun.

Honorable mentions:

first+man.jpg

First Man—A solid, unexpectedly emotional depiction of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. I saw this film with several other dads and there wasn’t a dry eye among us at the end. The depiction of mid-1960s NASA is great and should deepen our appreciation for the men who flew to the moon on the power of vacuum tubes and reel-to-reel tape, and Ryan Gosling’s intensely interior performance is Oscar-worthy. Ignore the completely fabricated controversy—something I hope the trolls who ginned it up will suffer consequences for—and watch this when you get the chance.

Crazy Rich Asians—Romantic comedies, as a genre, have been in rough shape, torpedoed if not completely sunk by the deconstructive, improvised Apatow comedies of a decade and a half ago. Crazy Rich Asians stands to revive the genre. It’s light, fun, and follows interesting characters in an interesting and unusual locale. Its subtle explorations and affirmations of family, marriage, and fidelity are also welcome.

The Incredibles II—A worthy follow up to the original. If it lacks somewhat in freshness that can only be because of the flux of superhero movies that have arrived in the intervening years—something these characters probably helped make possible.

Outlaw King—The okayest historical epic in years. I eagerly anticipated this one and liked it, but couldn’t overlook some of its glaring problems, particularly in terms of pacing and characterization. And while it does have a few serious historical blunders, the film has its heart in the right place and is a more authentic depiction of the medieval world than we’ve gotten in years, and so I still appreciate it for what it is. You can listen to Coyle and I discuss the movie on City of Man Podcast here.

Ant-Man and the Wasp—Here’s my nod to Marvel. Ant-Man is a curiosity to me: I never look forward to an Ant-Man movie, and so far I haven’t made it to a theater for one, but I enjoy them a lot when I finally see them, and I enjoyed the heck out of this year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Maybe the low expectations are the key.

2018 films I missed but hope to catch in the new year:

  • Ralph Breaks the Internet

  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

  • BlacKkKlansman

  • Annihilation

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

  • Der Hauptmann (The Captain)

And finally…

Older movies I just saw this year:

Here are a couple of solid movies I saw this year and want to say a word or two of praise for. They are, by pure coincidence, all World War II movies, but pretty drastically different from one another.

1944—Perhaps the most unusual movie I saw this year, 1944 is an Estonian film that depicts both sides of the war, changing sides and perspectives completely at the halfway point. Estonia, one of the small, vulnerable Baltic states, was the object of Soviet aggression well before World War II, and when the Nazi-Soviet alliance broke down Estonian volunteers found themselves in both the Red Army and the SS. The film explores one of the war’s side stories—how a small country caught between two evil superpowers picks its poison. It’s a moving, unromanticized look from the vantage of a nation that will be defeated no matter who wins.

Talvisota (The Winter War)—One of the best war films I’ve ever seen. This is the story of a fictional squad of Finnish reservists called up to defend their country against Soviet invasion during the Winter War of 1939-40. Harrowing and unromantic. I wrote a lengthy Historical Movie Monday post on this film if you want to know more.

Darkest Hour—This technically came out last year, in late December, and I’ve already blogged about it, but I’d like to get one more good word in for it before the year is out. It’s great—a brilliantly cinematic drama with powerful performances. Watch it if you haven’t.

Looking ahead

I hope y’all have had a great year and a blessed Christmas holiday, and that you’ve enjoyed some good movies along the way. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope y’all have a happy new year!

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

 
And I to him: ‘I am one who, when Love 
inspires me, takes note and, as he dictates
deep within me, so I set it forth.’
— Dante, Purgatorio XXIV, 52-4
 

As a brief St. Valentine's Day greeting, I want to encourage y'all to pick up Dante this year. But why Dante—grim, vengeful medieval poet, the "great master of the disgusting" according to one 19th century poet—and why on the most romantic day of the year?

Poet of love

Beatrice leads Dante into the heights of heaven, an engraving by Gustave Doré 

Beatrice leads Dante into the heights of heaven, an engraving by Gustave Doré 

While he's most famous now for Inferno, that book represents only the first third of his masterpiece, the Commedia, or Divine Comedy. So if you've ever been assigned the Inferno by itself or simply read it on your own (in which case, well done!), you've only read a third of his vision of love. 

Yes, love. Dante's Comedy has as its theme all kinds of love. His love of his hometown, Florence, from which he was exiled in 1302, is a poignant strain throughout, and the wicked so memorably punished in hell, we are reminded often, sinned because they loved the wrong thing or loved a good thing in the wrong way. Paolo and Francesca, adulterers punished together in the circle of the lustful, shift the blame for their sin to a bawdy love poem. And the mover and focus of much of Dante's journey is his famous beloved, Beatrice.

That's just a sampling. Love, as a theme, as a plot point, as a subject of conversation and debate, is present throughout. But all of these loves are subordinate to and—if rightly ordered—derive their ultimate meaning from "the love that moves the sun and other stars," the love of God. 

It's God's love for a fallen man that dispatches Beatrice—on behalf of St. Lucy, on behalf of the Virgin Mary, on behalf of God— to Dante as he wanders lost in sin at the beginning of Inferno. It's love that created Hell—a thought that makes moderns squirm—and love that sends sinners there and keeps them there. And it's love that changes and saves Dante, and grants him, in the last passage of the book, a vision of God himself. 

Dante's Comedy is the story of salvation, which means that it's the story of love.

So enjoy your chocolate (Lord knows I already have), enjoy time with your beloved, and celebrate love and the relationships that give us human creatures meaning, but consider as well the source of all love. And give Dante a shot. I think you'll be glad you did.

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

My recommendations

My favorite translation for pleasure reading is that by Anthony Esolen, available from Modern Library, but I've read and enjoyed many other good ones, including Mark Musa's heavily annotated one for Penguin Classics and Allen Mandelbaum's excellent but underappreciated translation for Bantam Classics. These are all readable, affordable, and easy to find. Enjoy!