Best Books 2023

Faithful blog readers (hi, Julie!), you might be wondering why I’m just now getting around to posting my list of favorite books that I read in 2023. See previous post about how I hibernate in winter. Wait, is “hibernate” a synonym for “procrastinate”? Then yes, that. Anyway, it was a strange year, a rough year, a busy year, and I only read 30 books. That’s about 1 every 12.2 days. My lovely wife Jen, on the other hand, is a speed reader. I know this because she doesn’t have her own library card and checks out e-books on my card. My checkout history reads like, “In the last month, you checked out 2 nonfiction books on early American history and 20 romance novels.” The librarians are probably looking at me when I’m in the library and thinking, There’s that guy who comes in here and checks out historical nonfiction but who’s really into the steamy Cynster novels by Stephanie Laurens. Weirdo. Ahem. Let’s move on!

  1. We All Want Impossible Things, Katherine Newman. I almost didn’t read this novel because it’s partially about the hospice experience, and we had just suffered a loss in our family. I’m glad I did though; Newman somehow manages to write the funniest and most searingly heartbreaking book of the year about Ash, a woman supporting her closest and oldest friend Edi, as Edi enters hospice. Ash, meanwhile, does not have her sh*t together, and she’s dealing with her two teenage kids, her ex, and several lovers/one-night stands. Very raw, very raunchy, very open-hearted. It was reassuring to read a story about how it’s okay to not be okay and that we all make questionable decisions in the grieving process, but whatever gets us moving forward is okay.

2. The Guest Lecture, Martin Riker. This novel was laugh-out-loud and mind-bending. It’s been a while since I’ve read a great stream-of-consciousness book. The action in this book is limited: Abby is an economics professor invited to give a lecture and is lying in a hotel bed with her sleeping husband and daughter next to her. That’s the plot. She is woefully unprepared for the talk and decides to practice it in her head using the “loci method,” in which you think about a place or building that you are familiar with and assign parts of the speech to rooms in the building. Her topic is twenth-century economist John Maynard Keynes, so she imagines herself giving imaginary Keynes a tour of her home. Hilarity ensues as she gets distracted by things in her (imaginary) house, by Keynes himself, and by thoughts of her past and her most recently denied tenure. Abby’s mind wanders into these topics: feminism, work/life imbalance, economic optimism, climate change, and the insanity of raising children in today’s troubled world. This was one of those books that I made Jen read because I kept reading paragraphs aloud to her.

3. The Happy Couple, Naoise Dolan. It seems as if every year I have a modern Irish novelist on this list, and here we are again. Dolan’s second novel is about Celine and Luke, a couple celebrating their engagement and getting ready for their wedding. Each chapter follows one of the main characters: Celine, a concert pianist who is feeling family pressure and cold feet as the wedding approaches; Luke, who has a history of infidelity and even colder feet; Archie, the best man and Luke’s one-time lover; Phoebe, the bridesmaid and Celine’s sister who in trying to protect Celine might be causing more trouble; and Vivian, a wedding guest who provides the (sort-of) outsider’s view of all of the wedding party’s dysfunction. Dolan’s writing is knife-sharp with wit and relationship analysis.

4. Whalefall, Daniel Kraus. I don’t even know where to begin describing this novel! Jay Gardiner’s guilt leads him to scuba dive off the coast of Carmel, CA, to find the body of his father, a legendary diver who committed suicide. A giant squid appears, and as Jay is escaping the squid, an 80-foot sperm whale rises up and swallows the squid, who in a last gasp reaches out and grabs Jay with a tentacle. Pulled into the whale’s mouth, Jay is forced to fight off the squid and attempt to get out of the whale (who is swallowing Jay through its digestive system), keeping in mind that he only has 1 hour of oxygen left. Gripping and scientifically enlightening (Kraus’ writing reminds me of Andy Weir), the reader is left gasping at every twist and turn in Jay’s dilemma.

5. The Guest, Emma Cline. This tense story is about Alex, a young woman who finds herself ostracized from the Hamptons house of Simon, the wealthy older gentleman who is hosting her (“hosting” is a nice way to put their relationship). Already living on the margins in New York City, Alex tries to find any means possible to staying the week on Long Island to make it to Simon’s Labor Day party and try to find her way back into his good graces. Emma’s poor decision-making (and her dying phone) throw many obstacles in her path; every night is a mystery of whether she will sleep in another rich person’s house, a servant’s quarters, or on the beach. Desperation, living on the margins, class divide, social media appearance vs. reality; this book has a lot to say about modern society.

6. I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca Makkai. This thriller gripped me, and I couldn’t shake it from my mind for weeks after finishing it. The protagonist, Bodie Kline, is a successful murder-mystery podcaster and college professor. She gets invited back to the Granby School, the private boarding school from which she graduated high school, as a guest teacher of a podcasting class. The recollection of her time on campus comes back to her, especially the murder of her classmate Thalia Keith during their senior year in 1995. As hard as she tried to put those painful memories behind her, she inexorably finds herself turning over the facts of the murder and subsequent conviction of a school janitor. Slowly, everything she thought she knew to be true falls away as her podcasting students dig into her history at the school and interview former classmates and faculty. This book explores issues of class, race, our society’s treatment of young women, and the sexualization of murder victims.

7. Liberation Day, George Saunders. This collection of short stories by Saunders, a Chicago-based author, is Literature with a capital L. Saunders bounces seamlessly among genres and creates mini-worlds filled with dystopia, oppression, absurdity, biting humor and sarcasm, and, surprisingly, nostalgia for our American past. You can’t help but see modern politics as metaphor in these stories. Even as we laugh at the bizarre circumstances in these stories, there’s an uneasiness or nervousness underlying them, as if we know we aren’t so far away from these unreal places becoming our American future.

8. Walking with Sam: A Father, A Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain, Andrew McCarthy. GenXers will recall McCarthy as a reluctant member of the “Brat Pack,” a group of young actors lumped together by the press in the 1980s (in truth, we find out in McCarthy’s memoir Brat that he was not friends or socialized with any of the so-called Pack). For the last two decades, however, he has been a travel writer, and his latest book is a recounting of his journey with his teenaged son walking the Camino de Santiago, a well-known 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain. McCarthy is open and honest about his strained relationship with his kids, his attempts to improve them, and how his divorce from their mother affected them. We are following not just the 5-week trip by foot along the Camino and the characters they meet along the way (and the fights they have themselves), but also the story of their father-son journey so far. Anyone who has had a kid or was a kid (or has had to travel with kids) will relate.

9. They Called Us Enemy, George Takei with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker. Takei is best known as Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek series, for his deep voice, and for his activism. In this graphic novel, Takei tells the story of his experience as a Japanese American incarcerated in a “relocation center” by the US government during World War II. I think that young people might be surprised to find out that this happened in our own country, that American citizens were rounded up and basically imprisoned for their ethnicity, and that there are echoes of this happening in today’s society.

10. Love People, Use Things: Because the Opposite Never Works, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Millburn and Nicodemus are the Minimalists, authors and podcasters who promote minimalism, a lifestyle advocating owning less stuff at its core. In their previous books, on their podcast, and in a documentary, they recounted their journeys to discovering the lifestyle and how it has helped their mental well-being, their health, and their relationships. Here, they further provide an outline for the reader to improve their relationships with their stuff and their loved ones; the end goal is to become unencumbered by material possessions and to live a more intentional life. Every few years, I need to come across one of their books as a reminder.

Books that just missed the cut: Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides; Romantic Comedy, Curtis Sittenfeld; The Trackers, Charles Frazier; I Heard the Owl Call My Name, Margaret Craven; Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge, Spencer Quinn; I Am Homeless If This is Not My Home, Lorrie Moore.

The Best Films I Saw in 2023

I know it’s March, and I know I usually do some end-of-year posts, but things got a little away from me this winter (does the word “hibernation” mean anything to you? It does to me). Also, I was having tech problems with my computer and my website, so bear with me if anything goes off the rails. So, let’s finally get down to summing up my 2023 film faves.

Quick reminder: these are the best movies I saw in 2023, not Oscar predictions. Some were released in 2023, some were from the previous century (that makes it sound so long ago, but remember that I am also from the previous century), and some were about the early days of Hollywood (looking at you, “Babylon”). Here goes:

  1. Rosaline,” 2022 comedy/drama directed by Karen Maine starring Kaitlyn Dever, Kyle Allen, Sean Teale, Isabela Merced, and Minnie Driver. This comedy is built around a minor character from Shakespeare’s original play: Rosaline was a cousin of Juliet’s to whom Romeo was to wed, but instead he fell for Juliet. So the premise here is, Juliet asks her cousin to help her pair up with Romeo, so Rosaline pretends to help but actually wants to do everything she can to thwart Romeo and Juliet’s romance (because she thinks she’s Romeo’s true love). It’s a modern take with modern dialogue. No great revelations here, besides “be careful what you wish for” and “love blooms where you least expect it.”

2. “The Lunchbox,” 2013 drama/romance directed by Ritesh Batra starring Nimrat Kaur, Irrfan Khan, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. This Indian film takes place in Mumbai, where a lonely housewife attempts to spice up her marriage by cooking amazing lunches for her husband. A little cultural backstory is needed: thousands of home-packed lunches are delivered by bicycle, motorbike, and train across the city by various couriers. Somehow, the housewife’s meal gets misdirected day after day to a different man (the late, great Khan as Saajan), and a note-passing relationship ensues. Meanwhile, widowed soon-to-retire Saajan is training a co-worker to replace him, and his initial hesitation to get closer to him or anyone undergoes a change because of his budding pen-pal romance. This was a bittersweet look at how someone recovers from grief and gets on with life.

3. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” 2018 documentary directed by Morgan Neville. Neville examines the life of Fred Rogers and his long-running PBS children’s TV program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. If you grew up watching the show or had children who did, Rogers’ kindness and big heart in real life won’t surprise you. It’s a fascinating look at Rogers’ upbringing, his philosophy on producing valuable programming for children, his outlook on life, and his legacy. Years ago, I read a memoir called I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers, by Tim Madigan. This doc reinforces what Madigan had to say about Mr. Rogers, which was that you really need to see this film or read that book to see what it means to be a decent human being and an example for all of us.

4. “Love, Gilda,” 2018 documentary directed by Lisa Dapolito. Built around the audiotapes and diary of Gilda Radner, this doc explores the too-short life of one of the all-time greats from “Saturday Night Live.” Radner was an original cast member whose long struggles with an eating disorder and then with ovarian cancer she shared publicly at a time when many did not. I remember her death (at age 42 in 1989) as a shock; what I had forgotten until I saw this doc was how off-the-wall she was on SNL and so willing to get uncomfortable for a laugh.

5. “Dunkirk,” 2017 war film directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Harry Styles, Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh. There’s another big-budget Nolan film that is dominating Oscar talk this year (hint: it starts with an “O” and ends with a “ppenheimer”). This war movie focuses on the rescue operation on the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940, when German troops pinned Allied troops. Every vessel that could float was called to service to evacuate around 330,000 Allied soldiers. Styles is particularly good as a soldier who is just trying to do what it takes to survive.

6. “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” 2023 comedy/drama directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, starring Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates, and Echo Kellum. Based on Judy Blume’s beloved young adult novel, they don’t make many movies like this anymore, meaning ones that deal with big topics (religion, race, girlhood) in a loving way. Would it help to read Blume’s book before seeing this? Not necessary. But for those of us GenXers who grew up with Blume, this felt like a time machine back to our childhoods. Compare to the next movie on this list, a modern take on similar topics.

7. “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” 2023 comedy/drama directed by Sammi Cohen, starring Adam Sandler, Sunny Sandler, Dylan Hoffman, Sadie Sandler, Samantha Lorraine, Jackie Sandler, Idina Menzel, and Sarah Sherman. Similar to the previous film on this list, this is a coming-of-age story of a girl named Stacy (Sunny Sandler, playing daughter to real-life dad Adam and sister to real-life sister Sadie) struggling with boy problems, FOMO, and the awkward two-step of one foot in childhood and one in adulthood. Loved how this movie captured the diversity that exists in modern Judaism and the challenges young kids face when pressured to celebrate their bat and bar mitzvahs with over-the-top parties. Adam is particularly relatable as a dad who can’t seem to tune into the right frequency with his kids, and Sherman is hilarious as the cool, young rabbi.

8. “No Hard Feelings,” 2023 comedy directed by Gene Stupnitsky, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Laura Benanti, Natalie Morales, and Matthew Broderick. This one gave me the biggest laughs in 2023. Lawrence portrays Maddie, a thirtysomething bartender/Uber driver in the Hamptons who, through her own bad decisions, finds herself without a car or a job and at risk of losing her childhood home. She gets hired by wealthy parents to “date” their 19-year-old son Percy (Feldman) in exchange for a car, in the hopes of giving Percy experience before he heads off to college. So cringe, as the young folks say. I think people are afraid to make raunchy movies like this for fear of offending; thank goodness Stupnitsky and Lawrence did because (even though it’s not for everyone) I still laugh thinking of certain scenes. This one stayed with me, in a good way.

9. “Wham!,” 2023 documentary directed by Chris Smith. Talk about being the perfect audience for a movie: When I was 13 years old, my siblings and I went to see the massively successful but shortlived pop duo Wham! in concert on their first and what turned out to be only US tour. Imagine my shock when I wore the concert T-shirt to high school my freshman year only to find out it wasn’t cool to be a Wham! fan. That’s a story for another blog post. Similar to the Radner doc on this list, much of the film uses voiceover from the late George Michael and his bandmate Andrew Ridgeley to tell the story of their quick rise to fame from danceclubs in the UK to massive worldwide success, and then their just as quick disbanding after just 5 years and 3 studio albums. This film focuses mostly on that time and not Michael’s solo career. Much of the story is in Michael’s struggles with self-confidence, weight, and the challenge of when and if he should be open about his sexuality. I went back in time with this film.

10. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” 2022 action/comedy directed by Tom Gormican, starring Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Lily Mo Sheen, Ike Barinholtz, and Tiffany Haddish. Bizarre film about an actor named Nicolas Cage played by Cage who is taunted by his younger, more successful self (also played by Cage with help of CGI to make him younger). When his film career stalls, Cage agrees to take a large sum of money to hang out with a billionaire in Majorca (Pascal). The plot turns ever more ludicrous as the CIA extorts Cage to spy on Pascal’s character, Javi, convinced that he is an arms dealer. Javi also has Nic reading a script he wrote for an action film involving drugs, arms, and kidnapping, and it all turns very meta. Highlights include Cage playing a heightened version of himself (if that’s possible) and an argument over the greatness of the film “Paddington 2.” It’s all too hard to explain.

Movies that just missed the cut: “Hustle,” “Ghosted,” “Babylon,” “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” “The Machine,” “Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

Watch Them Grow, Then Let Them Go…

A few weeks ago, I was on a run in my neighborhood and passed a house where three kids were playing in the driveway. A boy about 6 years old was pulling his preschool-aged brother around in a wagon, and a toddler was running after them. Their dad was sitting in a camp chair just outside the open garage. He looked a little frazzled. We waved. I ran on. I wanted to stop and tell him a few things:

“Hang in there, buddy. It’s all going to be okay. Don’t blink. I know the end of this phase of your life seems far, far away and you’re just trying to make it until lunchtime, but I promise you that it all goes by So Damn Fast. Everyone says to enjoy it as it’s happening, which is almost impossible, but please, take it from me, enjoy it now because when it’s over and the last one moves out, if you haven’t lived in the moment with these kids, you’re going to be thinking, Where did all the time go?

Can you tell that I’m a brand-new empty nester? It’s been a ride this summer. We were kind of spoiled in that our kids were spread out in age, so we had at least one in high school for the last 11 years. It was a fun decade: lots of soccer matches, cross-country meets, fall plays, spring musicals, speech competitions, etc. When our last one got to high school, I tried to imagine that day way out in the future when she would be walking the halls for the last time and we’d have no good reason to be hanging around the school; I couldn’t. And definitely when she hit senior year, things started accelerating. Most of the year, I was filled with excitement for the possibilities that were stretching out in front of her, but also a little bit of (actually a whole lot of) dread for what would come next for my lovely wife Jen and me.

Within days of our first child being born, a co-worker of mine said to me, “Hold them close as much as they will let you because before you know it, they’re grown up and gone.” I thought, Sounds like a you problem, lady. Then when our kids were entering their teen years, parents of older children were saying, “Wait until they get to high school; those years are going to fly by faster than you think.” So I thought I was prepared for how quickly those years would go. I was not. Days when I was trying to make it to the next one were days when I should have been present and engaged. As Rod Stewart sings in “Young Turks,” “Because life is so brief and time is a thief when you’re undecided, and like a fistful of sand it can slip right through your hands.” Ouch.

Near the end of our youngest’s senior year, I ran into a friend at the grocery store; she was going through the same impending empty nest stage that I was. She said to me, “I told my daughter, ‘I know it’s going to be hard on me, but I can’t imagine what Mr. Dudley must be going through. I mean, he’s so close with his kids and so involved with his last one.'” After graduation, another parent reached out to me and asked, “You ok? This is hard on all of us, but I’m particularly thinking about you at this time.” And just before our daughter and her friends went off to college, a few of them stopped by for one last visit. One of them told me, “My parents were talking about you. My dad said that even though I’m the last of his five kids to graduate, he can only wonder how Mr. Dudley is handling this.” What the heck? And keep in mind that these were all parents who were going through the exact same empty nest situation as me! I thought, Why is everyone worried about me more than anyone else? I’m fine; I will be fine.

Then we started packing stuff for our daughter’s dorm move-in journey. And it started to hit me. Oh boy.

Here’s where I should say, I realize we’re in a unique and (to use a word popular with the younger folks) privileged position, being able to afford to send our kids off to college and have that moving-out-at-18 experience. And even more uniquely, I’ve basically been a stay-at-home dad for (gulp) 22 years, save for a few stints freelancing and working as a custodian in an office. So part of the mixed-up ball of emotions I’m sorting through is the fact that I have major changes on the horizon. Over the years, when other parents have asked the inevitable, “So, what do you do?” question at social events, I’ve said, “I’m a stay-at-home dad.” But last year, someone followed up with, “Aren’t your kids fully grown humans by now?”

Jen has been a little more graceful with these changes over the years. When our firstborn was going off to college, I thought it would be fun to make a playlist for the 4-hour drive to their dorm, filled with songs that meant something to us as a family or had messages in them: several “High School Musical” songs, “All Your Favorite Bands” by Dawes, “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa, “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves, “Good Riddance” by Green Day. As soon as Jen and I said goodbye, watched our child walk into the residence hall without us, and hopped in the minivan, I was already a blubbering mess. “Can you put on the playlist?” I said between gulps. Gently, Jen said, “Maybe we should hold off on the playlist for a bit.” “PUT ON THE PLAYLIST!!!” I sobbed. So that’s how I’ve handled the big changes over the years.

This summer, on a walk, I said to Jen, “So that’s it? We’re just supposed to raise them up, watch them grow, and then let them go?” Jen said, “Pretty much. That was the deal.” Of course I knew this was the plan from the day they were born, to raise independent, resilient people who could go off into the world and survive on their own without me. I just didn’t think it would actually reach this endpoint so quickly.

This last year, I felt these big and small moments like depth charges going off in my soul’s ocean. I never knew when they’d hit or what damage the shock waves would cause. I’d be at a cross-country meet and think, This is the last time I’ll be at this park watching a race, and I’d have to choke back my emotions. My daughter usually drove to school, but one day in her last month she wanted me to drop her off and pick her up. As I waited in line for her to come out of the school, I watched the hundreds of students stream out and thought about the thousands of days I took her to school over the years, first when she was a baby and I pushed her in this purple jogging stroller as I walked the other two to grade school, then when she was mobile and would run ahead of me and I’d push the empty jogging stroller to keep up with her (for years, random people would approach me in the grocery store and around town and say, “Hey, you’re that purple stroller guy!”), then when she was walking to school alongside me, then when she wanted me to drive her to high school, and finally when she was old enough to drive herself. Sitting in the school’s circle drive, I had to blink those tears away, put on a smile when she got in the car, and say, “Yo! How was your day?”

I spent a lot of time over the last 4 years running or biking next to our youngest as she trained for her sports seasons. (The bike came in when she became too fast for me to keep up on her speed days.) This last year I felt as if I needed to pass along wisdom and advice to her that I may have forgotten. Sometimes it wasn’t well organized and I sounded like Polonius in Act 1, Scene 3 of “Hamlet,” giving advice to his university-going son Laertes (that’s a reference for the English majors out there). Hopefully some of what I said made sense and helps her in the college life. I’ll let you know in 4 to 5 years.

Our last child was our loudest, so the house is startlingly quiet now. I’m in the “look how clean I can make our closets and basement” stage of empty nesting. I go for long runs and long walks. I try not to end up wandering past the high school too much. I listen to music while I walk; the other day I had to turn off the “Hamilton” soundtrack. I was at “It’s Quiet Uptown”: “If you see him in the street, walking by himself, talking to himself, have pity, he is working through the unimaginable.” I know the next phase of Jen’s and my life is here; I’m trying not to get too attached to and nostalgic for the previous one. It’s important to make sure that when one door closes, you look for other ones and don’t keep trying to reopen the closed door. I’ll get there.

Last week, I ran into a friend walking her dog; her youngest kid is 4 years older than mine, so she’s a few steps ahead of us in the process. She asked me how I was hanging in there (again, I get it! No one was surprised that I was the sniveling crybaby!). I talked at length about how hard it is to adjust, and how I find it difficult even to walk into our kids’ empty bedrooms. Jen turned one into an AirBnB-quality bedroom; the other we’re not touching for a while, so it’s a shrine to our two younger kids. Finally, my friend said, “I know what you’re going through! But here’s the thing: You will get over it and get used to it. It’s going to be nice not to clean the house on a daily basis, there will be less laundry and dishes, and when all the kids are home and you have a full house, it’s a loud, messy hurricane rolling through and you will look forward to getting back to the clean, quiet life that you’ve gotten used to. Trust me.”

It’s been 2 weeks so far. And it’s everything I experienced with the first two, and it’s more intense than I thought it would be with the last one, but here’s a twist: I didn’t account for the fact that our youngest kid would text me many, many times daily and want to talk on the phone every chance we’re available. We’ve already visited her at school once, and she’s coming home this weekend. So maybe I didn’t raise the independent, leave-it-all-behind kid that I thought I was. (And maybe I’m not too upset about that. But don’t tell my kid that!)

Rod Stewart, “Young Turks”

Dawes, “All Your Favorite Bands”

Wiz Khalifa, “See You Again”

Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”

Green Day, “Good Riddance”

The Best Films I Saw in 2022

It’s Oscars weekend! Who’s jazzed up? (Also, are the hip kids still saying “jazzed up”? Or “hip kids”? Let me check my TikToks.) Anyway, I saw 50 movies in 2022, or 1 every 7.3 days. Exactly zero of those movies was in a theater; I think that’s a first. Lame. However, I’ve never been a big theater-goer; this reminds me of a story…(fadeout with flashback music)

When I was 17 years old, I had a hot night planned with a girl who for some strange reason was into me. (It might have been my devastating good looks.) After a week of what we used to call “dating,” I asked if she wanted to see a movie on a Friday. “Yes! What time are you picking me up?” she asked. “Um, I was wondering if you could swing by my house,” I said. Because I was the youngest of four kids and a few of my older siblings were living at home at the time, I rarely had access to either of the family sedans. “Ohhh-kayyy,” was her hesitant response. “How about dinner before?” she asked. “Sure!” I said; “I can’t afford to take you anywhere, so what is your mom making tonight?”

We started the night (after she picked me up and drove me back to her house) with a spaghetti dinner with her mom, dad, and little sister. And now I’m about to age myself: Off we went to see the new  Tom Hanks movie, “The ‘Burbs” (1989). The trailer looked funny, and Hanks was in his wacky-comedic phase (closer to “Bosom Buddies” than to “Castaway”). If you don’t know “The ‘Burbs,” it’s a black comedy. Which is my least favorite kind of comedy. Usually it means there’s going to be death, gore, a mean-spirited tone, and a real lack of setting the romantic mood in a darkened theater, if you know what I mean.

I should mention that at that point in my life, I barely knew what I meant. I had hardly dated, and I spent most of the film in my own head, thinking about how our evening was going: Do I reach out for her hand? Put my arm around her? Get more popcorn? When does the kissing begin?!? Or do I just sit here like a mannequin? I went with that last option. Not to spoil the movie, but we left in a daze at what we had just seen. As we got into the car (“Shotgun!” I called out, to make her chauffeuring me seem a little cooler), she said, “Well, that was…something.” “Yeah,” I said. (Is this when the kissing begins?!?) She drove me home mostly in silence, except for the Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul on the radio (this was 1989, remember). When she pulled into my driveway, it was only like 9:45 pm. “Well,” I said, “I guess this is it.” “I guess so,” she said, expectantly. (Oh crap, this is when the kissing begins!) So I went to lean over to her, got jerked back when I realized that my seatbelt was still on, undid my seatbelt, and finally got down to the smoochfest before saying goodbye. I’m sure you’re wondering, how great was the kiss? Do the words “like kissing your sister” mean anything to you? Let’s just say that I made such an impression on her that she dumped me by the time the next weekend rolled around.

Okay! Moving on! Now how about my list of the top films I saw in 2022? Keep in mind, these are the best movies I saw in the calendar year, not necessarily the best ones released last year.

everything-everywhere-all-at-once_nysayfbn_480x.progressive1. “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” 2022 comedy/drama/sci-fi directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, starring Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, and James Hong. My teenage nephew told me he had seen this film twice and bawled both times, so I took that recommendation. It’s not for everyone; I know some people who though it too over-the-top or hard to follow or too clever for its own good. It hit me at the right time, and the portraits of parents and children struggling to connect with each other resonated with me.

Unknown2. “Don’t Look Up,” 2021 disaster comedy/drama directed by Adam McKay, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, and Timothee Chalamet. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I’ve seen my share of “this is how the world ends” films. This one, about two astronomers (Lawrence and DiCaprio) who become media celebs trying to alert the world to an impending meteor strike on Earth, deftly wove in our current climate of science vs. politics (the film’s title is from the politicians to who tell their followers to ignore the scientists). Thinking about the state of the world we’re leaving future generations, I can’t shake DiCaprio’s character’s line: “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”

Unknown3. “Life of Pi,” 2012 drama directed by Ang Lee, starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Gautam Belur, Tabu, and Vibish Sivakumar. How about some love to Lee, a director who went to the same university as me? Based on the heralded Yann Martel novel, this fantasy (or is it?) of Pi Patel’s travels after a shipwreck with a tiger make the viewer question what reality is, while also highlighting the resilience of people to overcome great tragedy with the stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves moving forward in a cruel world.

Unknown4. “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” 2022 mystery directed by Rian Johnson, starring Daniel Craig, Janelle Monae, Edward Norton, Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Madelyn Cline, Leslie Odom Jr, Jessica Henwick, and Kathryn Hahn. Johnson is a master at weaving a tangled web and having one character (Craig’s Benoit Blanc) untangle it one step ahead of us. The elaborate plot all comes back around several times; worth a few viewings.

Unknown5. “The Last Blockbuster,” 2020 documentary directed by Taylor Morden. The title is self-explanatory: the last remaining Blockbuster video store (kids, ask your parents) stands in Bend, OR. This lighthearted film toggles between telling the story of that one store and how it has navigated a changing world and the backstory of what actually happened to put the Blockbuster corporation out of business (it wasn’t just Netflix and the rise of streaming).

Unknown6. “Look Both Ways,” 2022 romance/dramedy directed by Wanuri Kahiu, starring Lili Reinhart, Danny Ramirez, David Corenswet, and Aisha Dee. This “what if” story follows Natalie (Reinhart, of “Riverdale” fame), who, as she graduates from college, lives two parallel lives, one in which she gets pregnant and has to set aside her career dreams to raise her child, and one in which the pregnancy test reads negative. Very “Sliding Doors.”

Unknown7. “Long Story Short,” 2021 romantic comedy directed by Josh Lawson, starring Rafe Spall, Zahra Newman, Ronny Chieng, and Dena Kaplan. This film reminded me of another of my faves of the last few years, “About Time.” Teddy (Spall) has a spell cast on him as his wedding approaches that leads to him only living a few minutes each year for a decade, dropping in on his life and giving him a glimpse of what his future holds. My lovely wife Jen disliked it; I’d say it’s better on a second viewing, once you know where things are headed. (Hint: it’s a romantic comedy, not a black comedy.) One overarching theme in my life has been the shortness of life (Andrew Marvell wrote: “But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” and that has haunted me since I read it as a teenager); this is a reminder of that.

Unknown8. “Jexi,” 2019 comedy directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, starring Adam Devine, the voice of Rose Byrne, Alexandra Shipp, Wanda Sykes, and Michael Pena. Devine has great comic timing (see my next pick as well) as Phil, a guy who is addicted to his phone. When he upgrades to a new phone with a talking virtual assistant (Byrne as Lexi), Lexi takes over his life. She stalks him through other devices, orders him healthier food, and generally follows the directive to improve his life how she sees fit. This is like a funny version of “Her,” the film where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Unknown9. “When We First Met,” 2018 romantic comedy directed by Ari Sandel, starring Adam Devine, Alexandria Daddario, Robbie Amell, King Bach, and Shelley Hennig. Bizarre that I liked yet another time-travel film because they are usually not up my alley. Noah (Devine) spends the night with the girl of his dreams (Daddario’s Avery), only to fall into the friend zone. When he accidentally travels back in time through a photo booth, he tries to change his future by altering the events of the night they spent together. Very much a “be careful what you wish for” story.

Unknown10. “Definition Please,” 2020 dramedy directed by Sujata Day, starring Sujata Day, Ritesh Rajan, Lalaine, Jake Choi, and Katrina Bowden. Day writes, directs, and stars in this story of Monica, a former national spelling bee champion whose life is a mess as she must reconnect with her estranged brother to care for her ailing mother. A touching look at mother/daughter and sister/brother bonds, and at the immigrant experience.

Movies that just missed the cut: “The Long Dumb Road,” “Spirited,” “The Lost City,” “Nobody,” “Boys State,” “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “I Want You Back.”


Best Books 2022

I’m such a slow reader. (And you should see me texting; my kid acted like I was torturing her when she witnessed me one-finger plucking at my phone screen.) Every year I try to read 2 books a month. (Aim high!) In 2022 I read the exact same number of books that I did in 2021: 27, or 1 every 13.5 days. Pitiful, I know, but enough to draw a top ten list from. Here are the best books I read in 2022:

3FCEF26DDF2EB122470A88FDDA23FD8DD1F588A81. The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage, Drew Magary. I actually own this book because I checked it out of the library and took it in a backpack somewhere; my lovely wife Jen finished almost all of a smoothie and stuck it in the backpack. When we got home, the whole book was purple from the smoothie leftovers. “Why would you put it in with the book?!?” I asked. She said, “I thought the lid was secure.” So I had to reimburse the library for the book, and I got to keep it. Good thing I liked it! Magary tells the harrowing story of how, one night out singing karaoke with co-workers, something happens that leaves him hospitalized; not only does he describe his recovery from a traumatic brain injury, but he also goes back to try to piece together the mystery of what happened to him. (It’s Rashomon-like; no one witnessed his fall but many people were present that night.) What might surprise you is that this is a very funny book, and Magary is able to find the humor in even the darkest moments of his life.

9781911231424-us2. Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson. “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Frankie Budge, settled into her adult life, receives a call from a reporter asking if those words mean anything to her. For years, Budge has hidden the truth behind her role in causing a mass panic in her small hometown of Coalfield, Tennessee, that spread around the world. This funny and introspective novel toggles between present-day Frankie and her 1996 self, an awkward teen who makes a connection with a new boy in her town one summer, and how what they created sent them down different paths.

9780593542163-us3. This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub. I’m not a fan of time-travel stories. And yet here I am, recommending Straub’s “what if we can go back” novel. About to celebrate her 40th birthday, Alice wakes up in her childhood home, on her 16th birthday, in 1996. Startled by how different her life has turned out from what she imagined when she was young, Alice seeks to “fix” things in hopes of ending up in a different place at age 40. It asks the question, “What would you change if you could go back?” It’s also an examination of the father-daughter bond, and a heartbreaker in exploring how far we would go to get our parents back to who we need them to be for us.

9780063215689-us4. Mika in Real Life, Emiko Jean. There’s a theme in these last three books: grown-up characters confronting their teenage years and asking if they are who they thought they could become when they were young. In this romantic novel, thirtysomething Mika, her life a shambles, receives an out-of-the-blue call from Penny, the girl she gave up for adoption while in college. Attempting to impress Penny, Mika embellishes her work and relationship situations. When Penny decides to visit with her adoptive father, Thomas, Mika has to choose which part of her to expose to them. This novel explores cultural challenges with adoption, dreams gone haywire, and what it means to truly face our own inadequacies.

51SGTsvGrUL._AC_SY400_5. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham. Reading Joyce’s Ulysses was a rite of passage and a long, hard slog for college English majors like me. Some passages are pure poetry; some are like deciphering hieroglyphics; and the most controversial parts, the ones addressed in this book, are, let’s face it, raunchy. Joyce and his publishers spent decades trying to get his book published in various countries, it was banned in the UK, the United States, and most of Europe for obscenity. This book opens up the legal proceedings, the unlikely patrons on both sides of the Atlantic to supported Joyce financially (and illegally printed and distributed his book), and the ramifications of the landmark 1933 federal obscenity trial. Ultimately, Joyce’s backers argued, if we censor a book because someone, somewhere, of some young age, might be offended by it, then the only things that would ever get published would be G-rated. Also enlightening were the letters between Joyce and his wife/muse, Nora Barnacle, although they were even raunchier than what got his book banned!

9780802159236-us6. Architects of An American Landscape, Hugh Howard. The subtitle of this dual biography is “Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of America’s Public and Private Spaces.” Whew! Was Howard paid by the word for that title? This book delves into the friendship and collaboration between Olmsted, regarded as the world’s first and foremost landscape designer (New York’s Central Park, the Biltmore Estate, many other naturescapes throughout the world) and Richardson, the most influential architect of his time who has largely been forgotten, even though his influence endures. They could not have been more different: Olmstead was thin, reserved, and lived to be 81, while Richardson was obese, had a lust for life and celebrating it, and died at age 47. Howard proposes that, in a way, the greatness of Olmsted can only be viewed as an outcome of his working with Richardson.

9781529399349-us7. Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, Bob Odenkirk. You might know Odenkirk for his role as Saul Goodman from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” It surprises many to know that his long career before those dark dramas was all comedic. Hence the book’s title, which is one of my youngest child’s favorites; if she hears the word “comedy,” she yells out, “comedy comedy comedy drama!” Odenkirk writes of his tough upbringing in the Chicago area and his difficult relationship with his dad, his friendship with the legendary Second City founder Del Close, and his baffled bemusement at becoming better known for serious roles than for his turns as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and writing and acting on “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Mr. Show with Bob and David.”

9780063065246-us8. The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family, Ron and Clint Howard. The Howard brothers alternate chapters in this story of their childhoods and diverging paths into adulthood, Ron as the award-winning director and Clint as a character actor (who appears in all of Ron’s films). “The boys” in the title refers to what their mother called not just the brothers but also their father Rance, himself an actor of varying success. Ron and Clint aren’t afraid to address their own shortcomings (including Clint’s struggles with drugs and alcohol and living in his more successful brother’s shadow). On the heels of their father passing away, Ron and Clint wrote what amounts to a love letter to their parents and a way to tell them that all of their sacrifices for their children were worthwhile.

9781641292979-us9. Slow Horses, Mick Herron. Herron’s Slough House novels are now a TV series on Apple TV+, taking its title from this first book in the series. “Slow horses” are what disgraced MI5 spies are referred to, as they are sent to work out of Slough House and attempt to rehabilitate their careers under the command of Jackson Lamb. River Cartwright, whose career got derailed before it even began by a botched training session, sees an opportunity to change his image when a terrorist cell threatens to air a kidnapped man’s beheading on live television. But all is not what it seems, and Slough House might be hiding secrets of its own. A true page turner and also full of humor.

9780345476395-us10. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky. I came across this history book when someone on a podcast mentioned it in discussing the famed New York-New Jersey Harbor estuary, and that when Europeans first arrived in America, the waters of the rivers surrounding Manhattan were so thick with sea life that you could reach your hand in the water and pull out fish after fish. I had to read this book. The oysters alone drove commerce in New York; from the seventeenth century until well into the twentieth, New York’s oysters fed the world and drove the development of both the riverside slums and the Gilded Age mansions of Manhattan. The oysters’ filtration system kept the water in the harbor clean until the oyster beds’ eventual, inevitable overfishing and collapse. A cautionary tale for sure.

Books that just missed the top ten: Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, Nick Offerman; Into the Rip, Damien Cave; Mean Baby, Selma Blair; You Can’t Be Serious, Kal Penn.

Vashon Island Stories: The Ferry

Faithful blog readers: If you tell an embarrassing story a thousand times, it becomes less embarrassing, right? That’s the theory I operate on. Which is why I’m  going to tell you about a recent trip that my lovely wife Jen and I took to visit a relative on Vashon Island in Washington state.

There’s a ferry to get to Vashon from the south, in Tacoma. You get on at Point Defiance and cross to Tahlequah. I’m the type of person who hates surprises and needs to know the lay of the land whenever I go anywhere. (I’m a real thrill to travel with. Just ask Jen. Actually, take my word for it.) So I asked our relative where to meet the ferry, what it’s like, etc. He said, “It’s easy: you go through a traffic roundabout, take the second right, pay at the booth on top of the hill, then get in the line of cars that leads down the hill to the ferry. It’s a two-story car ferry.” I was thinking, Jeez, buddy. Hills, roundabouts, booths, lines of cars; which part of that is the easy part? But fine, whatever.

I hesitate to share the whole story with you here, but it starts 7 hours south of Tacoma in a coastal Oregon town where we had been staying the previous several days. Our teen was with us, and she woke up with food poisoning (Just a wild guess, but it was probably the dive-bar calamari from the night before). She was vomiting from 6 to 11 a.m., when we had to check out of our rental home. (That was an awkward conversation: “I know you’re feeling horrible, but do you think you can stop with the vomiting by 11 a.m.? We really need to turn these house keys in at the drop box by then.”) We skipped the scenic coastal route and took the more direct inland route to get to the ferry faster. (Amazingly, she stopped throwing up the minute we got in the rental car and made it to Vashon with no issues.)

So that’s the backstory: seven hours of highway driving, with a teenager holding a paper bag to her face most of the way; we were a little frazzled by the time we reached Tacoma. I wear hearing aids, and they have Bluetooth, so my phone is connected to them. Google Maps was talking in my ears, plus Jen was reading all of the route info from my phone aloud to me. When we got to the roundabout, we missed the second right. (And by “we,” I mean “I.”) So “we” (okay, “I”) took the third right, which led us down the hill into the Point Defiance Zoo (instead of to the ferry booth at the top of the hill).

So now I’m driving around a zoo, Google Maps is telling me alternate routes (“In 500 feet, turn right at the Monkey Pavilion”), Jen is reading Google Maps aloud (“It says that in 500 feet, you should turn right at the Monkey Pavilion”), and I’m weaving around thinking that I have to work my way back up the hill somehow. (EDITOR NOTE: He made up the part about the Monkey Pavilion; there probably aren’t monkeys at the Point Defiance Zoo, but he’s too lazy to look up the fact that Google Maps redirected him around the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater and not the Monkey Pavilion.)

We came out at the bottom of the hill through this restaurant parking lot, and I can see that if I turn right, I will go back up the hill, which now has a long line of cars waiting to board the ferry. But Google Maps and Jen are both telling me, “Turn left now to get on the ferry!” I said to Jen, “Left here?” She was like, “Yes! yes! Turn left!” (You can see how I’m setting her up to take the rap for what’s about to happen.)

So I turn left, placing us on the pier where, 50 yards down, there is a security booth, guards, and ferry workers, but no ferry because it hasn’t returned from Tahlequah yet. Which means that no one is supposed to actually drive on the pier yet. The guards start yelling at me and waving their arms (I’m imagining klaxons blaring, security breach protocol kicking into action, frantic calls to Homeland Security), but they are too far away from me to hear what they are saying, so I do the only reasonable thing that pops into my tiny squirrel brain: I drive forward toward them, roll down my car window, and yell, “I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!!!”

This one guard looked at me and said, “That’s obvious.” Then she told me, “Put the car in reverse, do a U turn at the pier entrance, drive up the hill, and buy your ticket at the booth. Then get in line with all the other cars.”

Postcard mural at Vashon Adventures in Vashon Town. I think they should add a tiny rental car, with a tiny me in the driver’s seat, yelling in my tiny voice, “I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!!!”

At this point, I should mention that if there was room under the passenger seat for our daughter to have crawled underneath, she would have. And you should have seen the looks I got from the cars in line as I drove past them up the hill. I shrugged at each of them with a face that I’m sure said, “Hello, I’m a Midwestern tourist obliviously driving a rental car in unauthorized areas out here. It’s part of my rascally charm.”

Long story short (too late, I know), we made it onto Vashon safely. And our relatives loved the story. It became a running theme for the trip: When they took us to Seattle to visit the art museum, they were trying to figure out the parking garage payment system. I told them, “Just roll down your window at the exit and yell, ‘I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!’ That usually seems to work for me.”

After our vacation, I was reading an article about avoiding post-trip hangovers and letdowns. One of the suggestions in the article was to bring some aspect of the vacation home with you and incorporate it into your everyday life. So I’m taking that suggestion. You might see me in town at the grocery store’s new self-checkout lane. I’m the one not wasting my time reading the instructions on the kiosk. I’m just standing there, gripping my cart, yelling, “I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!!!” You’d be amazed at how quickly you get service that way.

The Best Films I Saw in 2021

When I was a sophomore in college, I wanted to impress my then-girlfriend (some of you might know her as my lovely wife Jen) with how “hip” and “literate” and “bohemian” I was. So I took her to see the movie “Henry and June,” which was the first film to ever receive the NC-17 rating. NC-17, or “no one 17 and under admitted,” was created to delineate arthouse films with edgy material from pornographic films, which were X-rated. “Henry and June” was playing at our campustown theater (the Co-Ed), and we walked over there. “You might want to bring your student ID and drivers license,” I told my freshman girlfriend, “you don’t want to be turned away because you’re just barely over the age limit.” Tee hee.

When we got to the ticket booth and I requested two for “Henry and June,” the cashier looked us up and down, slid one ticket to Jen, and said to only me, “Can I see some ID?” “What?!? Why?” I said. He didn’t answer me, but instead turned to Jen while verifying my age on my license, “I can’t be too safe: the guy looks like he’s 12 or something.” Jen got a big kick out of it. I ripped my license and my ticket from his hands and stormed into the theater. “How dare he!” I said. “He thinks I’m a little child? I’m a man!” Admittedly, if there was a “You Must Be This Tall to Enter” sign, I probably wouldn’t have made the cut. And my voice was squeaking while I was whining. And my feet were dangling from the theater seat a few inches from the floor. But come on!

Anyway, this is about my list of the best movies I saw in 2021. Another year of hardly any theater-going (I saw one film in theaters: “Free Guy”). Another low number of total films seen: 65 movies, or 1 every 5.6 days. (Is that low? I keep saying it’s low, but it’s still more than once a week.) I saw a lot of clunkers; this was maybe the hardest year to round up 10 good movies. That’s what happens when you follow the Netflix algorithm: “If you watched this bad film, you might like these three other bad films.” Annual disclaimer: These are not the best films of 2021, just the best ones I saw last year, regardless of when they were released.

Unknown1. “Adult Beginners,” 2014 drama/comedy directed by Ross Katz, starring Rose Byrne, Nick Kroll, Bobby Cannavale, and Joel McHale. This film is a reminder that the movies I love aren’t always the movies the world loves. It absolutely bombed at the box office, but I related to the story of Nick Kroll’s character struggling to find his way in the world, as he loses his job, moves in with his sister (Byrne) and her husband (Cannavale), and becomes the sitter for his 3-year-old nephew. Comedy/drama gold. Plus, any movie that finds a role for the quirky actor Bobby Moynihan is a bonus.

Unknown2. “The Beatles: Get Back,” 2021 documentary directed by Peter Jackson, starring four musicians you might recall. Does this count as a movie? A three-part, 468-minute piecing-together of the original documentary that was made for the “Let It Be” album sessions, Jackson does a masterful job telling the story of the Beatles, both in the whole series and in the opening 3-minute clip of the first part (it reminded me of the scene from Pixar’s “Up,” where the story of the couple is told without words in a montage). I can say a lot about this, but I will keep it to these two things: 1. I thought I knew everything about the Beatles and their breakup, but this had some surprises and refutations of what we thought we knew, and 2. it displayed the slow, sometimes mundane, sometimes funny, sometimes fruitless creative process of four regular guys who happened to catch lightning in a bottle with nearly every song they made for 8 years straight.

Unknown3. “Love Wedding Repeat,” 2020 romantic comedy directed by Dean Craig, starring Olivia Munn, Sam Claflin, Eleanor Tomlinson, and Allan Mustafa. This Netflix film had charm, humor, eccentric characters, and (of course) a budding romance all centered around the (mostly British) friends attending a wedding in Italy. Munn is underrated as a comic actress, and Claflin appears in two films on my list. Honestly, it could have been straightforward film told chronologically and I would have liked it, but then it pulled a “Sliding Doors”/”About Time”-esque time jump. Still good.

Unknown4. “True Grit,” 2010 Western directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. A much better film than the original 1969 version with John Wayne, this one is more sober while also being truer to the humor-filled novel by Charles Portis. Steinfeld was 13 during the filming, and she pulls off the independent Mattie Ross, seeking justice for her father’s killer. Bridges as Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf make for an odd couple as they hunt down the killer for their own separate, selfish reasons.

Unknown5. “Beastie Boys Story,” 2020 documentary directed by Spike Jonze, starring Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz. You don’t have to be a Beastie Boys fan to understand this film, but it sure helps. Diamond and Horovitz wrote a book about their time in the rap trio (much of the film and book are devoted to praising the other member, the late Adam Yauch). They turned it into a multimedia stage performance, and Jonze filmed it. Funny, more emotion-filled than you would think, and worth it just for the story of the time they toured as the opening act for Madonna.

Unknown6. “Enola Holmes,” 2020 mystery/adventure directed by Harry Bradbeer, starring Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sam Claflin. I’ve read books and seen films that offer twists on the Sherlock Holmes canon, and this one is fun: Brown plays the title character, the young sister of Sherlock (Cavill) and Mycroft (Claflin), who was raised wild by their suddenly disappeared mother (Carter). Her first mystery is to follow the clues left behind; her brothers’ job is to step in and provide adult supervision for their abandoned sibling. This felt like a setup for at least a trilogy.

Unknown7. “I Used to Go Here,” 2020 comedy/drama directed by Kris Rey, starring Gillian Jacobs, Josh Wiggins, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, and Jemaine Clement. Rey previously directed “Unexpected” and used to co-write movies with her ex, Joe Swanberg. This personal film is about Kate Conklin (Jacobs), a writer whose first novel tanked but is invited back to her alma mater (Southern Illinois University) by her former mentor (Clement, always funny). The brief visit turns into a longer stay, including hanging with the college students living in her former house on campus. A slow burner and a fantasy of what it would be like to relive the college experience.

Unknown8. “Standing Up, Falling Down,” 2019 comedy/drama directed by Matt Ratner, starring Ben Schwartz, Eloise Mumford, Billy Crystal, and Grace Gummer. Want to see a film in which Crystal plays a deadbeat dad to his adult kids and a pothead dermatologist? Did not see this one coming. Schwartz, a great improv actor, holds his own in this pairing as a stand-up comic forced to move back in with his parents on Long Island; a chance encounter with Crystal’s character leads to a chance for Crystal to be a better mentor to a stranger than to his own kids. Funny and sad.

Unknown9. “The Way Back,” 2020 drama directed by Gavin O’Connor, starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, and Janina Gavankar. Oh man. This sports drama had every opportunity to take the easy cliches and run with them, but it pulls no punches. Affleck portrays Jack Cunningham, a local basketball legend who takes the coaching job at his former high school. There are some backstory issues: his alcoholism, his difficult upbringing, his failed marriage and family. While we watch him deal with the fallout from his own problems, we see him make a group of young men believe in themselves. This film doesn’t take the obvious path; don’t expect “High School Musical.”

Unknown10. “Ghost Team,” 2016 comedy directed by Oliver Irving, starring Jon Heder, David Krumholtz, Amy Sedaris, Justin Long, Paul Downs, and Melonie Diaz. This goofy film follows a group of amateur ghost hunters who believe an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the woods is haunted, so they decide to spend the night filming any supernatural occurrences. A parody of the long-running reality TV show “Ghost Hunters,” with Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) and Sedaris leading the way.

Movies that just missed the cut: “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” “Opening Night,” “Emma.,” “Literally, Right Before Aaron,” “Palmer,” “Comet.”

Best Books 2021

When I was a grade schooler in the (ahem) late 1970s, I loved going to the school library at the center of the school building’s top floor. The library room was a pass-through: on one side was a door that led to the 3rd and 4th grade rooms, and on the other side was the door to the 5th and 6th grade rooms. Weirdly, each grade’s two classes were in one big room separated by either an accordion wall or just moveable bulletin boards, and for example, to get to the 5th grade rooms, you had to traipse through the back of the 6th grade rooms. So it was a constant stream of interruptions, with children or teachers or whole classes of children and teachers opening the main door and walking behind the desks of all the other classes; no wonder I have attention-span issues.

UnknownAnyway, back to the library: I fell in love with a certain type of book: realistic stories of kids leading normal lives. I didn’t want to read science fiction or horror or fantasy or anything that was too far out of the real world. The books that got all the attention were the Judy Blume books, specifically Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great, and Superfudge. So funny and relatable for kids trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Those led me to books by another author, Constance C. Greene, and her five “Al” books:  A Girl Called Al; I Know You, Al; Your Old Pal, Al; Alexandra the Great; Just Plain Al; and Al’s Blind Date. There was something about the way she wrote with heart and warmth about characters my age who weren’t idiots that appealed to me, even though I didn’t have divorced parents or live in an apartment building in a big city like they did. I bring this up because Greene, who published 25 books, passed away in 2021, at the age of 96. If you have a grade schooler or know a grade schooler (or are a grade schooler, or act like a grade schooler), track her books down.

I managed to reach my annual “24 books by New Year’s Eve” goal: I read 27 books, or 1 every 13.5 days. These are my top ten:

Unknown1. This Will All Be Over Soon, Cecily Strong. You might know Strong, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, from Saturday Night Live, but this book is not a typical memoir and isn’t a book of funny stories or “how I got famous.” It deals with some heavy topics: the death of Strong’s close cousin at age 30, some painful events from her youth, and a fledgling relationship during the pandemic. I was avoiding reading “pandemic” books, but this one was worth it. Very honest, raw, and unexpected.

Unknown2. Bewilderment, Richard Powers. The multiple-award-winning author (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) who grew up in the Chicago suburbs (is this a pattern on this list?), Powers’ latest novel had a few things going on. This is a story about a father and son dealing with grief; a science-fiction story about searching for life on other planets; and a comment on topics as diverse as climate change and the overmedication of our youth. It took me about a third of the book to figure out what was going on; that’s a sign that a book has my attention.

Unknown3. No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear), Kate Bowler. Another searing memoir, this time from a professor of religion who, at the age of 35, receives a cancer diagnosis that puts her life on hold. She walks us through the frustration and absurdity of dealing with her illness; the often misguided suggestions of the “live your best life now” self-help movement; and how to balance hope and despair while facing death.

Unknown4. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney. It seems as if I have an Irish writer on my list every year. Rooney, tagged with the “voice of her generation” label, has already had one novel turned into a BBC series (Normal People). This novel follows four characters: an Irish novelist living in a small coastal Ireland town; her Tinder date/new friend, a warehouse worker; and her two best friends from Dublin, a man and woman who may or may not have a thing for each other. Filled with Rooney’s droll humor, frank sex scenes, class issues, and ruminations on art, aesthetics, and history, it also mirrors Richard Powers’ book (described above) in addressing a generation that feels that the world as we know it is beyond repair.

Unknown5. Stories to Tell, Richard Marx. Memoir from another Chicagoland native (it is a trend!). You might know Marx from his massively successful pop ballads from the late 1980s-early 1990s (“Don’t Mean Nothing,” “Right Here Waiting,” “Hold On to the Nights”) or from his massively poufed hair. You should know him for his ability to speak his mind on social media. This book is the best type of memoir: a rise/fall/rise again story with tons of name dropping (Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Loggins, and a cast of dozens more) and wild stories you don’t see coming, like his dealing with a Covid-like illness starting in 2019, or his band fleeing a Taiwanese gangster on a race to the airport. Good read.

Unknown6. How to Live, or A  Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell. This biography examines the life and writing of Michel de Montaigne, whose essays in the 1500s in France arguably were the first time someone wrote honestly about their innermost thoughts and published them for the world to see. There’s a through-line from his writing to the personal blogs and Instagram of today. You have the sense when reading Montaigne all these centuries later of, “how did he spell out what has been in my brain?” Some 250 years after Montaigne’s death, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life.” Bakewell puts Montaigne’s writing in the context of the constant wars raging around his hometown his whole life.

Unknown7. Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor. Kastor, the great American marathoner, writes the story of how strengthening her mind did more for her running career than logging miles ever did. Not just for runners, her backstory is amazing enough (adopted at birth, no one in her family had any running experience, and it was a total shock to them and her when she immediately had success in grade school), but the mind games she lays out would work for anyone struggling with goal setting.

Unknown8. Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman. A great summer read, humorist Hodgman is recognizable as the PC in the old Apple commercials (vs. Justin Long as the Mac) and as a former Comedy Central The Daily Show correspondent. His earlier books were satirical almanacs with made-up facts; this is an actual memoir of Hodgman’s life, focusing on his family’s vacation homes in Massachusetts and Maine. Very funny.

Unknown9. Brat: An ’80s Story, Andrew McCarthy. Best known as a member of the “Brat Pack,” young actors labeled Hollywood’s next big thing; even though McCarthy was in some of what we consider the “Brat Pack” films (“Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Less Than Zero”), he was a New Yorker who wasn’t actually close with any of the other actors he was lumped with. McCarthy, now a travel writer and director, focuses on the early, years-of-struggling part of his career and his difficult relationship with his father.

Unknown10. Yearbook, Seth Rogen. The funniest book I read all year. This memoir is pretty much what you would expect and more from Rogen, an actor/writer/producer: stories from when he was a child, including starting his standup career in middle school; lots of weed smoking; and great vignettes about famous people (his description of two very uncomfortable encounters with Nicolas Cage is a standout, and I’m guessing they will never work together if Cage read this book.)

Books that just missed the top ten: I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy, Erin Carlson; Before the Ruins, Victoria Gosling; Good Company, Cynthia D’Aprix; Live Your Life, Amanda Kloots; Paul Simon: A Life, Robert Hilburn.

“Can You Hear Me Now?” and Other Dumb Jokes About My Hearing Loss

The first job I ever had was as a summer janitor in my old junior high school. It was as mind-numbing as you would expect: scraping gum off desks with a razor, cleaning out lockers, stripping and waxing floors, etc. The worst two-day task I performed was emptying the shop-class sawdust collection system; outside the building, there was this two-story-tall cylinder about 5 feet in diameter, and when you removed a door at the base of it, there was a zippered cloth liner filled with a whole years’ worth of sawdust. My boss parked me in front of it with a large lunchroom garbage can and said, “Scoop the sawdust into it with your hands and then empty it in the dumpster. Have fun!” It took me about 10 hours. No gloves, no mask, no eye protection. For a month I had sawdust in my hair, ears, eyes, and other places that I will let your imagination come up with. I wouldn’t be shocked if an x-ray showed sawdust still lining my lung cavities.

What I’m saying is, we didn’t follow standard safety precautions at this workplace. The next summer, my brother got hired, and the district decided that he and I would be a great carpet-cleaning crew for the five schools in the district. We spent the next four summers working with an industrial carpet cleaning system. Picture a machine about the size and shape of R2-D2, with a see-through semispherical lid so we could see it fill up with dirty water, and a long hose attached to a vacuum that would spray the water on the carpet, then cycle a brush over it, then suck up the water. Exciting stuff.

We got all of about 2 minutes of training: a guy named Red plugged this eardrum-rattlingly loud thing in and yelled things like, “Dump the water thing in the hall closet when it’s full.” Then we were unleashed on the ugly green heavy-duty carpets in our old grade school. Since the whole freaking school was carpeted, we spent most of the summer there, clearing out the rooms of furniture, running the machine over the carpet, waiting a day for it to dry, and putting the furniture back.  We then rotated to the other schools, which only had carpeted offices and libraries, except the tiniest school, which for some godforsaken reason had a carpeted gym/lunchroom. Why?

What was nice about the whole situation was that the janitors in charge of the different schools treated our job like it involved some mysterious alchemy that we apprenticed at for years under a master carpetologist. We’d arrive with the machine at a school, a janitor would show us to the library and ask how long it would take to clean it. My brother and I would look at each other and both be thinking, About 2 days, tops, and my brother (who did all the talking) would say, “10 days would be reasonable.” The janitor would close the doors on us and say, “I will leave you boys to it; let me know if you need anything.” Then we wouldn’t be bothered by anyone for 2 weeks. (NOTE TO MY FORMER BOSSES: I’m kidding, of course! We worked hard every day!) (SIDE NOTE TO MY BROTHER: Wink, wink!)

I’m finally getting to the point of this blog post; thanks for hanging in there! Like most teenaged siblings, my brother and I could barely tolerate each other’s presence, let alone having to do a task that required us to stand within 4 feet of each other most of the time (one of us would pull R2-D2 backwards while the other would have the hose over his shoulder and run the vacuum). The machine was so loud that if we wanted to talk to each other, we would have to scream. People would avoid the wings of the school where we were because of the noise. You would think that, for safety’s sake, we would be given earplugs, earmuffs, or some form of hearing protection. Did you read the first part of this post where I talked about inhaling sawdust for 10 hours? Do you think I told you that just to entertain you? Of course we weren’t given hearing protection!

My brother and I thought we were as cool as John Cusack with our boombox. In fact, we were more likely to be getting caught by our boss while dancing to the Miami Sound Machine’s “1-2-3” than to be wooing a girl with it.

As a matter of fact, my brother and I came to the conclusion that the best way to spice up this mind-numbing job was to bring a boombox to work and blast a radio station all day. A “boombox,” for you youngsters who didn’t live through the ’80s and ’90s, was a stereo that played AM and FM radio and cassettes that you could carry around for the specific purpose of blaring loud music to annoy older people. Great times. It ate 10 batteries per month.

So we would be rocking out to the radio, cranking the volume up when the machine was on, and (sometimes) remembering to turn it down when we were done. Our conversations throughout the summers went something like this:

My brother: “I like this new Phil Collins song.” Me: “What?” My brother: “I said, ‘I like this song!'” Me: “WHAT?!?” My brother: “ARE YOU TRYING TO PISS ME OFF? BECAUSE IT’S WORKING!” Me: “WORKING? YEAH, WE’RE WORKING! WHY?” Etc.

And now, the real-deal-Holyfield point of this story: October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, and I’m here to tell you, you should take the proper steps to protect your hearing. I did not, and I’m paying for it now. Here’s what happened in the ensuing years since my adventures with my brother: I put on headphones and listened to loud music to drown out noises at a desk job and at home. I went to many rock concerts with no hearing protection and listened to very loud bands (Green Day, U2, the Ramones, and blink-182 being among the loudest; congrats, guys! You did it: you broke my ears!). I was a stay-at-home dad to three kids, and the primary summer caregiver to a godchild, for many years and seemed to always have a crying/laughing/yelling kid on my hip, bleating directly into my ears.

I started to suspect that something was amiss with my ears in 2018. I had gone to a concert, and the next day, as was typical, my ears were ringing. Eventually, that went away; also typical. A little while later (not clear on the timeline here because it was insidious and hard to pinpoint; weeks? months?), I noticed the ringing again. I thought it was temporary and would fade out; it never did. I started to ask around, and a few people mentioned tinnitus. I looked that up and saw a description of what I had: constant ringing or buzzing, worse when there was no other obvious noise to distract from it. I also saw a phrase that I dreaded, something like, “Many people learn to lead normal lives with this condition.” That’s never good. There’s no surefire cure for it,  just tricks to manage it or take your mind off of it. My tinnitus sounds like annual cicadas at their loudest; it’s a buzzing that is always there, louder in my right ear but definitely in both ears.

So I went for a year with tinnitus before I secretly planned on doing something about it. I say “secretly” because the other aspect of my hearing that I was noticing at the same time was that I was losing the ability to follow some conversations. Research on tinnitus led me to believe that tinnitus doesn’t necessarily lead to hearing loss, but I’d think, “Then why is the tinnitus drowning out peoples’ words?” It was frustrating.

I’d talk to people about it, and I’d mostly hear, “You’re in your 40s, that’s way too young, maybe you just have a listening problem.” But it’s hard to ignore when people are talking and they sound like every adult in a Charlie Brown movie: “Mwa-mwa-mwa.” It got to the point that it was easier to avoid conversations than to struggle through them, ask people to repeat themselves, or figure things out using context clues. Crowds were a nightmare; I’d let Jen talk with people and would ask her what they said afterward. If anyone thought I was ignoring them when they tried to say hi to me, it wasn’t on purpose. Jen and my kids were getting extremely irritated with my incessant “what did you say?” And if Jen wanted to whisper sweet nothings in my ear, that’s exactly what I heard: nothing. Very romantic.

I knew I had to do something about it, so I made a plan to see an audiologist in March of 2020.

Then the world shut down. So I put it off during the pandemic, and it got worse. In a way, it was easier for me to stay home and not talk to anyone. Mask wearing added yet another layer to the difficulty in understanding people in public. I have had to say, “I have a hearing problem,” on multiple occasions to cashiers.

Finally, this summer I went to an audiologist and underwent a hearing exam. It involved me wearing a headset to do the whole routine: raising my hand to indicate which ear I hear a beep in, repeating words if I understood them while there was crowd noise playing, and repeating about a hundred short words back to the audiologist in rapid succession. The results were a good news/bad news deal: The bad news was that I did indeed have hearing loss, of the “mild-to-moderate” persuasion. The good news was that I caught it early enough that hearing aids would help me. (Apparently, most people wait too late for hearing aids to keep the ear-to-brain connection working, so if you have an older relative who says, “I tried hearing aids and they didn’t work,” they probably should have gotten them earlier.) The audiologist told me that I was younger than most of her hearing-loss patients. This will probably be the last time in my life that I will be called “younger than” for anything. I’m not even going to pretend to provide technical info here about hearing loss and the associated health problems with it; talk to an audiologist for details.

I went to one more loud concert (the Hella Mega show at Wrigley Field with Green Day, Weezer, and Fall Out Boy), couldn’t understand most of it, and ordered the hearing aids.

Sexy, no? (Answer: no.)

And has it changed my life for the better? Yes and no. Noises are definitely clearer. The audiologist took a piece of paper at my fitting and crumpled it up before and after my hearing aids were in; before, I didn’t hear the paper rustling, and after, it was amazing. It was like one of those toddlers who wear glasses for the first time and see their mom and start smiling. (Or are they color blind and they see colors for the first time? I’m a little fuzzy on this, since I’m basing this off one 3-minute video that popped up between cute puppy-adoption videos on my Facebook feed.) Many of the new sounds that I hear are ancillary ones, like these creaks in my kitchen when I step on loose floor tiles. Or running water: it sounds like I can pick out separate streams when my hearing aids are in. This isn’t mind-blowing, I know, but it’s different. I’ve learned that I still need to pay attention to someone speaking to me instead of multitasking.

How about the tinnitus? The audiologist said that some, but not all, people find that the tinnitus will go away when their hearing aids are in use. Alas, it hasn’t really improved mine. I’ve learned tricks to zone it out over the years, though. And if I don’t want to hear someone rant about something (way more common these days), I focus on the tinnitus cicadas and ignore the conversation.

Other questions: Does anyone notice them? Not really. They are small enough that people don’t see the clear tube coming out of my ear and connecting to the receiver behind it. The receiver is a similar color to my hair, and if I have my glasses on, it looks like part of my glasses frame.

Are they uncomfortable? At first, it was weird having something stuck in my ear canal. But I’m used to the feeling now.

Are they easy to maintain? Very. I got ones with rechargeable batteries, so at night and when I am going to shower, I take them out and place them in their charging case. I brush them off daily to keep clean, and that’s about it.

Was it strange or embarrassing to start wearing them? Sure, but it’s much better to deal with the awkwardness of people seeing and asking about them than it was to not be able to hold conversations.

Are they sexy? Heck yeah. There’s nothing sexier than a man who can hear when his partner talks to him. (At least that’s what Jen tells me; there might be sexier things, but I’ll take her word for it.)

So what did we learn, folks? If your hearing is fine, protect it now while you still can: wear earplugs with loud equipment or at concerts, keep the volume down on your headphones, and don’t have kids. I kid! I’m joking! If you already suspect hearing loss, I urge you to go get those ears examined. I promise you’ll end up in a better place. Also, if you find yourself cleaning out a sawdust collection unit, wear a mask; trust me on that one.



The Best Films I Saw in 2020

When I was in college, my buddy Mike asked me if I wanted to attend a matinee showing of Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” at the Co-Ed Theatre on Green Street in Champaign, IL (it closed in 1999 and later was razed for luxury apartment buildings).

We entered the darkened theater, and the opening credits were rolling: a mostly black screen with images in deep purples, blues, and reds of a jazz quartet’s instruments (and Denzel Washington’s profile). It was impossible to see the theater’s seats. Mike whispered something like, “I can’t see anything; let’s go about halfway down the rows.” I had to reach out and put my hand on his shoulder just to know where he was. He found  two open seats right next to this one guy. We sat down, and in the darkness, I could see this guy was staring at us hard. What’s his problem?, I thought.

When the first scene started and the theater lightened up, I noticed that there was not a single soul in any of the rows in front of us. Then I looked behind us; there were exactly three people in the whole theater: Mike, me, and the guy we sat next to. Awkward! The whole movie, I’d catch the guy glancing at us, I’m sure wondering what our problem was. The seats weren’t ample, so Mike and he had to share the tiny armrest.

After the movie was over, we walked out, and I burst into laughter when we got onto the Green Street sidewalk. I said to Mike, “Why didn’t you move to other seats and give the guy some space?” Mike said, “After a certain point, it would have been weirder if we moved away from the guy than if I stayed right next to him.”

I didn’t visit a movie theater in 2020. Like the rest of the world, I did my viewing at home. I watched 66 movies, or 1 every 5.5 days. That’s less than I usually average per year; I ate into that with binge-watching TV shows. Here’s my annual disclaimer: This isn’t a list of the best movies of 2020, but a roundup of the best films I saw, no matter what year they were released. Here we go:

cba4825e2936ce64d980d529d6f62a271. “Jojo Rabbit,” 2019 war satire directed by Taika Waititi, starring Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, and Thomasin McKenzie. I swore there was no way I was going to see and like a movie that had a comic portrayal of a boy and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Then I saw it. Oh man. At first, the Nazis are portrayed as bumbling, “Hogan’s Heroes”-era Germans, characters we can laugh at. Then things turn more sinister as the film develops. The story of a boy, his mother, and possibly another person living in his house in Germany during World War II. It reminded me of Roberto Begnini’s 1997 “La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful).”

Unknown2. “Columbus,” 2017 drama directed by Kogonada, starring Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where the buildings are as much a character as the people. This quiet film follows Jin (Cho) as he travels from South Korea to small-town Columbus, Indiana, to tend to his father, a renowned architecture professor who has suffered a medical emergency. He strikes up a friendship with Casey (Richardson), a local librarian. If you’ve never been to Columbus, you should look it up: the city is filled with Modernist buildings designed by the likes of Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei.

Unknown3. “Chef,” 2014 comedy/drama directed by Jon Favreau, starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, and Emjay Anthony. I gravitated to parent/child relationship films this year, maybe because the pandemic and state lockdowns led to all three of my own kids living together in our house for what I imagine will be the last time (insert sad-face emoji here). I got into this film backwards: Favreau and his chef consultant for the movie, Roy Choi, went on to make a Netflix doc series called “The Chef Show,” on which they cook with other famous chefs or celebrities. I realized after the first episode that I needed to watch the film that predated the show. Just a gorgeous story on what drives chefs to such extremes, the stress of cooking for others (restaurant owners and critics), and also a wonderful father/son travel movie. Vergara was a pleasant surprise in this one as Favreau’s ex-wife who nudges him to be a better dad.

images4. “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” 2016 documentary directed by Lonny Price. In 1981, Stephen Sondheim (along with George Furth) created “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical about a successful film producer and his friends, telling their story backwards, ending with them as youngsters about to embark on their lives. Sondheim (and director Hal Prince) got the idea to use teenaged, unknown actors to portray the same characters. It was a disaster; the musical’s Broadway run closed after only 16 performances. This doc takes a clear-eyed look back at all the ways things went south, including last-minute rewrites and the male lead having to be replaced because he wasn’t right for the role, but mostly the inexperience of the actors. The director (who was in the original cast) interviews Sondheim, Prince (before his death), and many of the original cast members, including Jason Alexander and Giancarlo Esposito. Funny, redemptive, and emotional watching the actors looking back on how their own lives played out for better or worse since the show, this is for anyone who loves live theater.

Unknown5. “Blinded by the Light,” 2019 drama directed by Gurinder Chadha, starring Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, and Nell Willaims. I love films that aren’t quite musicals but are dominated by their soundtracks. This based-on-a-true-story film follows Javed (Kalra), a Pakistani immigrant in Luton, England, in the late 1980s, a time of deep and vocal anti-Pakistani racism in British politics and society. A classmate of Javed’s gives him a cassette copy of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and something about Bruce’s words speaks to him and changes his life. A touching film about the immigrant experience, the generation gap, and the power of dreams to drive us to a better place.

Unknown6. “Gifted,” 2017 drama/comedy directed by Marc Webb, starring Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Octavia Spencer, and Jenny Slate. A small film (compared with Evans’ Captain America films) about a guy trying to raise a 7-year-old girl quietly in a small coastal Florida town, and the girl’s mathematical talents draw attention to her that leads to unwanted attention from his family and neighbors. It started out predictable (hmm, will Evans start dating the first-grade teacher played by Slate?), but then it went places I didn’t expect.

Unknown7. “Dean,” 2016 comedy/drama directed by Demetri Martin, starring Demetri Martin, Gillian Jacobs, Kevin Kline, and Mary Steenburgen. I love cringy movies that derive their humor from placing characters in awkward situations. Martin does this throughout this funny movie about an illustrator in New York (and his father) dealing with his mother’s death and his lack of ambition. His work leads him to Los Angeles, where he meets someone at a party (Jacobs) and decides on a whim to stay longer. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re a fan of Martin’s standup (or his old Comedy Central show), you’ll get this.

Unknown8. “Good Boys,” 2019 comedy directed by Gene Stupnitsky, starring Jacob Tremblay, Brady Noon, Keith L. Williams, Molly Gordon, and Midori Francis. If 2019’s “Booksmart” could be (mostly inaccurately) labeled “Superbad” but with girls, then this film is “Superbad” but with preteen boys. Coming-of-age adventure about three boys who skip school and their misadventures chasing down a drone that they need to retrieve before a parent notices that it is missing. The raunchy parts are not for everyone (there’s a running gag about the boys misunderstanding what sex toys are; it’s that type of humor), but there’s a depth here too; in the end, it’s a sweet story about friends being there for each other.

Unknown9. “Marriage Story,” 2019 romantic drama directed by Noah Baumbach, starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. Should have been called “Divorce Story,” am I right? I like Baumbach’s films, although this one had less humor than his previous output. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Dern winning Best Supporting Actress. It’s a breakup movie that involves cutthroat divorce lawyers   and cross-country custody battles (and mirrors Baumbach’s real life, a little uncomfortably), but it’s also about learning to raise a child with love and coming to terms with the end of a relationship.

61-YbvBswcL._AC_SL1481_10. “The Farewell,” 2019 drama directed by Lulu Wang, starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, and Diana Lin. Awkwafina, known more for her rap and her comedic turns in “Crazy Rich Asians” and a show on Comedy Central, plays Billi, an American woman who is called to China to attend a fake wedding for one of her cousins, a ruse to get her family together one last time with her grandmother, who has been diagnosed with a terminal condition but not told about it. A film about how much we are obligated to do for our family, and how big we are willing to let our lies grow to make others happy. Hard to believe that this was based on the true story of the director Wang’s family.

Movies that just missed the cut: “They Shall Not Grow Old,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” “The Death of Stalin,” “Knives Out,” “Wild Nights with Emily,” “Lady Bird,” “The Trip to Greece.”