This list starts with the best and descends to the dregs, but only includes movies I want to say something about, for good or ill. The comments assume you’ve seen the film, or at least have some  idea of its plot.

So, here we go:

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood
There is a moment in this movie where Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, tripping on acid, confronted with a Manson follower’s gun, simply points a finger gun back. It reduces both Manson and the sixties to childish posturing, and it made my jaw drop. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, an aging, obsolete Western TV star, behaves throughout like the nice, morally upright dad from a fifties sitcom. There’s a lot being said here, and you don’t have to like the alternative history presented to appreciate the audacious brilliance of this film.

This film is close to perfect. It falls to second place on my list solely on the basis of a slightly hurried finale, a series of connected inevitabilities that begins a tiny bit too late, and unfolds a tiny bit too clumsily. 

The Farewell
Why is this movie not up for every Oscar there is? It’s observant and fearless, and as much a mind-fuck as The Sixth Sense, which is to say, it’s not really the movie you think you’re watching. I’m troubled at the indignation coming from China; to me, a non-Chinese, this movie is a loving defense of the traditional, communal  viewpoint.

The Irishman
God bless Netflix, and damn all the people voting against it whatever the superior product. This film is a miracle despite the silly, unconvincing de-aging. Watch, or better feel the way Scorsese fills every second with intention, telling the story fully for once, telling it his way. It’s classic mobster cinema, gritty and gruesome and utterly pathetic, but also in perfect synthesis with this director’s spiritual side, and both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci are amazing.

Yeah, it’ll keep winning awards, and yeah, that’s because it’s a deliberate masterpiece. It’s the  kind of antiwar film that glorifies wartime heroics, and its awesome scope and unsparing horror lend the movie a questionable importance. But it tells its simple story through stick-figure characters, brave boy scouts as remote from living, speaking human beings as can be imagined. The posturing,  stage-set, Academy-baiting perfection is embarrassing: that coincidence of the mother and the milk! The sound of singing through the trees! And who rang that very convenient church bell? Why? And of course, if you’re starving, avoid the mess tent and go sit under the lone tree with the widescreen view and gaze pensively at photographs. Did I say it was a masterpiece? It is.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
A wonderful and hypnotic movie: one man’s journey into his own past, and then quite literally into a dream.

Jo Jo Rabbit
I put off seeing this one; I was going to skip it altogether given the reviews and a brief synopsis I read online. It seemed so scattered and silly. I was astonished to feel a lump in my throat through the final third of this movie. Many movies show war though a child’s eyes; this one takes place entirely in a child’s fantasy world, then blows it apart.

Pain and Glory
Memory and reconciliation, painstaking and brilliant.

Ash is Purest White
A journey through China’s recent decades of expansion, criminal and otherwise. I greatly admired this movie, but speaking as a woman, when will we ever learn? It makes me crazy.

Just amazing to view; no color except for flesh and blood, and to illuminate a delicate bamboo forest, and it’s bloody as hell in a Game of Thrones way. Not my kind of film, but astonishingly beautiful and engrossing.

Uncut Gems
What a ride! What an Adam Sandler performance! What a whole lot of people I didn’t like! Even the kid is a liar!

Marriage Story
Very nice, but too centered on Adam Driver’s experience! Plus he gets the big musical number (and it’s wonderful).

Little Women
I started out really liking this version; it was fun and intelligent, but time’s eroded that initial opinion. I question putting thoughts into minds that never had the chance to formulate them, because those ideas change everything, they mitigate rage, diminish curiosity and ambition, even limit possibility. Did Amy really understand herself that way, even as an adult, or instead remain secretly frustrated and  resentful? I realize Louisa May Alcott held modern ideas, but did she mean Jo March to share them? I watched Jo hug her book, and felt nothing, but the romantic ending is satisfying, but logically I should feel the reverse. Maybe Jo wasn’t entirely Louisa; maybe Louisa created a separate character. I did take two new insights from this movie and some further research: first, these were privileged girls, well-connected despite their relative poverty, and at that time, that mattered. And also, I wonder why Alcott depicted Amy as a lesser artist, when her own sister was a genuinely gifted painter who married but never abandoned her art? Was Louisa jealous of the sister who claimed both art and love?

Dolemite Is My Name
What a pleasant surprise: a history lesson, and a biography without any dramatic fall from grace and painful rehabilitation. Just great actors in great roles, having a quiet blast.

Yeah, it might be a clinical and political mess, but it was a damn good movie with a truly great lead performance.

The Two Popes
It’s always delightful to overhear intelligent people courteously discuss important ideas, but I found the flashback sequences unconvincing. morally as well as dramatically.

Knives Out
This was clever and enjoyable, if not up to Dame Agatha’s standards. She never considered all rich people corrupt, nor all poor people angelic.

I enjoyed this movie a hell of a lot more than I expected to. Jennifer Lopez pretty much convinced me it was only fair to screw over those banker types.

Wild Rose
A delight. And that voice! All bow before the wonderful Jessie Buckley.

Little Woods
A nice, real, loving American survival tale.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
A supurb heartbreaker, exposing a very human emotional messiness. And I like that it understands the importance of things – houses, physical property. No shame in that.

A very good, Casablanca-like effort, or I think so. I can’t make up my mind about his one. It might have been brilliant.

First Love
Yeah! Kick-ass movie of the year! Beheadings and a really intelligent love story.

Ford v Ferrari
Very traditional but fine if you’re into the Formula Just not enough of a movie to inspire interest otherwise.

Really, how feminist to show girls can act like stupid boys. The central relationship seemed phony, the laughter forced. And the concept – that dedication to schoolwork could cause such total ignorance of their classmates’ plans and privileges – was simply absurd.

Another perfectly okay biographical film, with a fine Renee Zellweger performance.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This one left me cold. The leads had no chemistry, and I’m pretty sure the artist sexually abused her young, isolated subject. And that ending, all Elio looking into the fire!

The Lighthouse
WTF?! I mean, seriously, WTF?

The Souvenir
Privilege is being able to make an entire movie about the problems plaguing the privileged. Aren’t we so in love with our own pedestrian experience?

Taron Egerton can actually sing.

One Cut of the Dead
A sweet and funny zombie movie.

Late Night
Two great talents treading water.

The Proposal
There’s something very wrong about this documentary. It’s horrible in concept (I’m not explaining, go look it up) but also utterly illogical unless the entire ‘proposal’ is a setup for this movie, the entire undertaking nothing but a ploy for publicity and leverage.

Apollo 11
It’s wonderful, but it’s just extra footage.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Don’t even.

Photo credits: Nick-Ansell-York-Theatre-Royal-refurbishment-9-CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Filmstrip-by-Mike-Jennings-CC-BY-2.0 / Global-Panorama-Oscar-Award-Image-Courtesy-Davidlohr-Bueso-CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Oscars-David-Torcivia-CC-BY-SA-2.0

And the sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City has ended.



Eve’s Hollywood
Slow Days, Fast Company
Sex and Rage
L.A. Lady
I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, by Eve Babitz
Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A., by Lili Anolik

I’m grouping these for convenience, but note that the biography is unworthy of such elite company, being barely adequate. As to Eve’s work, I have feminist issues, and I’m disappointed with her eventual swerve to the political right, but I get it, in fact I’ve writtenit. These works are about the sheer joy of Hollywood, and youth, and art and sex. The diminishes with each successive volume, And eventually you notice the writer skimming over the depths of love, but that’s why these books are generally a straightforward pleasure to read. You’d think they were an equally pleasurable job to write, so they pass that acid test with unabashed, extraordinary ease. I needed Eve this year, and I’m grateful for her.

Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, by Jill Abramson
Just – terrifying. Huge, practically endless in fact, but nonetheless required reading. Not merely about the subversion of the news business, but also the blatant who cares of it, the grubbing after clicks, the poisonous self-referential greed, the way that no one even pretends to care. It’s not that ethics are pushed aside, it’s that they don’t exist.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson
Another gigantic volume but WOW! Sometimes Stephenson irritates the hell out of me, coming up with a perfectly brilliant concept and deserting it halfway. Not this time. This time it carries through and it’s terrific, a living exploration of myth and eternity, tech and neuroscience. Add in a valiant quest with notable swordplay and a worthy heroine, and of course a huge talking crow. Trust me, you’ll love it.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
Fresh and bloody and once again way too long, but utterly enthralling. Mythology again, of a magical, creature-mad version of Africa fraught wit betrayal and tragedy and love and rage, and always oh so beautiful. Part of a trilogy, I understand, and if so I can’t wait for the next installment.

The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo
So lovely and fated; I loved its varied, questioning cast, and I loved all that it left gloriously unexplained.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
A wonderful book about the evolving generations of everyone’s immigrant family.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
I was yes and no about this one. It was excellent, but also expected.

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne
Really nice, gritty and desperate and alive. I was fully there.

The Wych Elm, by Tana French
First I was disappointed and rather contemptuous, but it’s kind of grown on me. I don’t love it but it makes its point.

The Heavens, by Sandra Newman
This was perfectly okay, just not as much fun as I expected.

Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski:
I still can’t get a proper handle on Bukowski. I was there for the ride, is all. I find the realism deceptive. I was there for the 70s Hollywood stuff, just a passenger enjoying the trip, but not sure what to make of it all.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Yeah, endearing and all.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Oh God this was terrible, and signaled so far ahead, and ultimately made no sense whatsoever: why conceal a crime but save the evidence for the family to find! And how come Miss Nature Marsh Girl didn’t realize about the footprints?

Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
An intellectual exercise without much point beyond the obvious. One of those books people rave about that I just don’t get.

Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney
See Trust Exercise, but much more so, all that insistent, intelligent privilege.

Evvie Drake Starts Over, by Linda Holmes
Don’t even. Like a Hallmark movie pretending to be better, but it’s not.

Also these three:
A Better Man, by Louise Penny
The Girl Who Lived Twice, by David Lagercrantz
Twisted Twenty-Six, by Janet Evanovich
I have to stop knee-jerk reading these series – especially Lagercrantz, those are a travesty. Evanovich is on auto-pilot and the thrill is long gone. Granted, Penny is still doing fine. Still.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
I didn’t buy into the theory; it seemed a little convenient, even slick. Okay. Forgettable.

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, by Robert Stone
Part of my retro reading. A perfectly adequate and reasonable read about moral and cultural earthquakes. I realize it’s supposed  to be a classic, but blah.

Photo credits: thierry ehrmann, le four alchimique…Nutrisco Et Extinguo (CC BY 2.0) / Sparsh Ahuja, Genius (CC BY 2.0) / Revise_D, Novel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

And yes, Worthy of This Great City remains on sale until the end of the month.


Just a fan

The discussion continues; scroll down for earlier posts. (And hey, you care about good writing, right? So buy a book. I would.)


This summer my favorite mystery writer died. This wasn’t a surprise; I knew they were terminally ill. I’d been following their postings on the topic, although even that seems intrusive. I’m not family, I have no right to grieve. I’m not even sure we’d have liked each other, in person.

But I was a fervent enough devotee to buy advance review copies of their most famous series off before the finished editions were available. I reread these books with no diminishment of interest, and who else can you say that about, except Christie? I’m talking about an emotional investment going back decades. I cared about the characters and vicariously observed, argued, and triumphed through them. 

Until that final novel, with its shocking betrayal of trust. Well okay, not impeaching either of the two primary protagonists, but close, and this necessitated the sacrificed character acting completely out of character. Anyway, that’s how I see it.

While I assume this was an expression of personal rage, I realize I could be very wrong; it might have been a total coincidence, a planned digression for the series. But if not, was this really – I don’t know – legitimate? Fair? For some reason I’m still upset, digging away at this, and I’m not even sure of what I’m looking for. An apology? That’s absurd. Closure? I have no right. 

I’m just a fan, with no rights at all. We all know how the fan-artist relationship can get crazy. But what about the presumption of safety inherent to this particular genre? What about the reader who was there from the beginning?

But my God, I’m screaming at a dead person over a laughably slight slap. If it actually was about sharing the pain, I hope it helped.


Photo credits: Jesper Sehested, write (CC BY 2.0) / Chris Bloom, Fan (CC BY-SA 2.0) / thierry ehrmann, le four alchimique…Nutrisco Et Extinguo (CC BY 2.0).

As promised, more on whether there’s hope for the novel

Is the novel still relevant? Last week I promised to let the questions lead the way, and I’m actually a little more forward. The definition of relevance seems key: what does that term mean, anyway? And relevant to whom, and why?

Importance might be the better descriptive: a work of art can be of enormous value to an individual, but not universally important. It might open your eyes, but the rest of the world is far ahead of you, and the subject’s been tweeted over forever.

Nothing can match the magic of reading fiction: the astonishing, irreplaceable gift of the novel is the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and often an exciting but anyway a different world, as well. But the truth is, this perspective can be adequately accomplished visually, and perfected with accompanying narration. A predetermined view is limiting but you see it, you see it, it has the upper hand.

Look, our common cultural heritage is visual and digital; that’s a done deal. We tell our story in images shared to the planet: towers falling, presidents shot, steps on the moon. I have to admit, I came to this realization late, I thought images and all electronic media transient, but quite the opposite: hardcopy is vulnerable; images are forever.

Another thing: the writing on TV is the best going these days; that’s where the exceptional story-telling is, no question. TV is an interesting field, both confined as to reach yet wonderfully varied. More, it has universal immediacy; everyone experiences it at the same time, we all talk about it, and we encourage everyone else we know to stream it. This is preserving the medium by modeling behavior for coming generations the way reading is very seldom modeled these days, if ever. Getting back to that notion of relevance or importance, TV and the Internet have effectively commandeered one particular responsibility traditionally vaunted by the novel: the exposé, whether personal or cultural, business or political. This elite responsibility once flourished in fiction but we don’t need The Jungle or A Christmas Carol now we have and 60 Minutes. Who has time for something as self-indulgent as reading now it’s not morally supported?

Oral tradition evolved into the written national epic, then into everyman’s story in local languages; the novel became specific and personal but it remained universal: War and Peace matters to everyone. Today books are built to confirm and conform, and no one dares speak to the great topics. Or have we simply given up on universals the way we’ve given up on objective truth? Are we gutless, slyly knowing, or merely conscientious? Whatever the case, we’re in a sterile, and self-referential literary office tower, where clever editors with identical educations iron flat every obtrusive speckled thing. More and more, the narrative voice sounds just like the protagonist from the last book you read.

Of course this is also about economics, the preferences of that very specific segment of the populace: People Who Read Books. Who are they, and what do they want, anyway? The entire industry exists only to serve them, after all. And if they won’t demand something better, maybe even great, it’s going to go on spiraling smaller and smaller, and I guess I’ll see you at the cineplex.

Okay, so I’ve followed some questions, and I can discern the faint outline of a path ahead. Any kind of movement matters, and this conversation will continue. Meanwhile I’m back to working on my own fiction, that nascent book about the Other, whether self-created projection, alien intruder, or Ultimate Concept.

Thanks for your interest. And please check out the Home page for info on Worthy of This Great City, if you’re at all interested in fresh fiction.


Photo credits: Revise_D, Novel (CC BY-SA 2.0) / – Print (CC BY 2.0) / Sean MacEntee, old media new media (CC BY 2.0)