*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review.
’Tis the season for making lists.
No, not those North Pole-bound gimme-gimme catalogs. I’m talking about the annual year-in-review lists so ubiquitous around this time of year.
We are a cannibalistic culture of think pieces, deep dives, retrospects, reflections and rankings. Consider: More work went into analyzing Todd Phillips’ “The Joker” than did making it (and it showed), and far more people will produce wrap-up articles (like this one) than will create original works.
But so it has always been, truthfully.
And, as obviously and inevitably subjective and derivative as such constructs are, I’d be remiss not to remark on what a great year 2019 was in terms of entertainment value, because it really was a fine vintage.
Whatever you feel about our broader collective political/social/cultural situation these days, you can’t deny it was a great year for storytelling, be it on the page or screen.
So, though this list by no means encompasses all the contemporary culture worth checking out, or even all that I myself enjoyed, here are a few of my own favorites. Every one of them, I submit, well worth your time.
‘Think Black: A Memoir’
BY CLYDE W. FORD
Ford’s father, John Stanley Ford, was the first African American software engineer at IBM in 1947, hand-picked personally by firebrand tech tycoon Thomas J. Watson. The author eventually followed suit and became one of the company’s very few black employees some 20 years later.
In the past, IBM’s white employees had refused to accept a black colleague and did everything in their power to humiliate, subvert, and undermine the elder Ford.
And, years later, remarkably little had changed.
Though Ford’s father refused to quit, and was instrumental in the development of what was arguably the first true computer, the ultimate psychological cost of his finally internalizing much of the racism he encountered at IBM created a rift between he and his modern, progressive son that was at times tumultuous and would, decades later, lead the younger man on a mission of discovery that took him to dark places both personal and global.
The elder Ford, who passed away about 20 years ago, could not have known that his hiring was meant to distract from IBM’s dubious business practices, including its involvement in the Holocaust, eugenics, and apartheid, but it quickly became a central facet of his son’s book — and one a surprisingly large number of readers were apparently unaware of.
‘The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick’
BY MALLORY O’MEARA
This one is especially timely, exploring as it does sexism and misogyny in the entertainment industry of yesteryear — and this year.
Indie film producer and avowed fan of all things creepy, O’Meara uncovers the life and work of Milicent Patrick, one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters: The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Looking to learn more about her inspirational icon, the author discovers how, after Patrick’s contributions had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, and her career cut short, she soon disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.
The hunt was, as they say, so on. And the story O’Meara uncovers is of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time, both thrillingly inspirational and sadly cautionary.
In so doing, she sheds light on her own experiences in modern show biz, clearly showing that for as far as we’ve come, it ain’t far enough.
‘Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction’
BY CHUCK KLOSTERMAN
I am a Chuck Klosterman defender. Though not all of his books have hit the heights of his best offerings, this one, his latest delve into the world of fiction, is solidly enjoyable and the perfect concise read for those not given to long bouts of attentiveness.
It’s a collection of extremely short stories based around the kind of surreal dorm-room—talks-at-3-a.m.-type of scenarios Klosterman is so good at.
A man flying first class discovers a puma in the lavatory. A new coach of a small-town Oklahoma high school football team installs an offense comprised of only one, very special, play. A man explains to the police why he told the employee of his local bodega that his colleague looked like the lead singer of Depeche Mode, a statement that may or may not have led in some way to a violent crime. An obscure power-pop band wrestles with its new-found fame when its song “Blizzard of Summer” becomes an anthem for white supremacists.
‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO
Was it overindulgent? Yes, obviously.
Was it a regressive political fairy tale wrapped in sanitized less-than-true crime trappings? Of course it was.
Was it sexist? Actually, I’m not personally convinced, but smart people are making sound arguments…
Regardless, any new Tarantino movie will always be essential viewing and an important cultural event — and I am a certified fan.
I was totally on board for the story of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth moving through Hollywood circa 1969. Every actor was perfectly cast. The setting was mind-bogglingly constructed. The dialogue was, of course, stunning. It’s not my favorite Tarantino joint, but, even with a runtime of 161 minutes, I could have gone for more; me, a guy who almost universally departs a theater saying, “Seemed a little too long.”
If this is truly the man’s penultimate offering, I am sad.
But I’m not disappointed.
DIRECTED BY JORDAN PEELE
In the world of horror, it was a big year of sophomore efforts. Second offerings came from Robert “The Witch” Eggers, Jennifer “The Babadook” Kent and Ari “Hereditary” Aster. But perhaps nobody had more excitement and higher expectations surrounding his latest offering than Jordan Peele, whose 2017 directorial debut “Get Out” was nearly universally recognized as not only a top-shelf fright flick but a truly important film.
“Us” was, for me, not as great. But, really, how could it have been? “Get Out” was a cultural phenomenon, the kind of movie that both captures and instigates changing times.
However, “Us” is a first-rate horror film and a truly original vision that is, quite possibly, my favorite movie, regardless of genre, of the year. It is scary, moving, effective and thought-provoking — and, on top of that, it’s gorgeous. Eat your heart out, Kubrick nerds.
See it immediately. And, if you have, see it again. Subsequent viewings pay dividends for the attentive audience.
DIRECTED BY PENNY LANE
This timely and well-made (and, dare I say, important?) documentary is about the Satanic Temple, its origins and activist/lobbying efforts to preserve and defend the separation of church and state, and an individual’s freedom of religious preference (or lack of), against the increasing authority of the Christian right.
The Satanic Temple is a nontheistic religious group recognized as a church for the openly-admitted purpose of tax exemption. They use Satanic imagery to promote egalitarianism, social justice, and the separation of church and state.
It’s a true David-and-Goliath story (irony absolutely intended) that should be seen by everyone who cares about their own right to choose what to believe.