The Florida Project: A heart-wrenching drama about the life of homeless kids living in the seamier side of Orlando, under the shadow of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Unlike other films about children which depict a schmaltzy view of childhood, director Sean Baker opts for stark realism, sometimes attaining a documentary film with outstanding performances by Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, and, especially, Brooklynn Prince.
Good Time: A failed bank robbery triggers a frantic race through New York City. I can’t get why it flew under the radar of so many critics while good but more conventional films like Hell or High Water earned more praise.
Two other films I enjoyed are the rural crime story Sweet Virginia, and the Jeff Nichols-produced, Jeff Nichols-type film In the Radiant City, directed by newcomer Rachel Lambert.
The pulpy Brawl in Cell Block 99 delivered in terms of action and a good performance by Vince Vaughn, but I was expecting a different type of crime and prison film, something that is not necessarily director S. Craig Zahler’s fault since the movie works seamlessly on its own grindhouse terms. Zahler, whose first film, Bone Tomahawk, I also liked, is a director and novelist whose work is guaranteed fun.
Disappointments: Wind River (started interesting but turned into a conventional crime film), Logan Lucky (a derivative, unfunny caper film rehashing every idiotic, tired stereotype about Appalachia), Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (other than the cast, I just didn’t get the appeal of its slapstick violence, cardboard characters with personality quirks instead of personalities, and botched attempts at humor.)
Two films I watched again and enjoyed: River of Grass (Kelly Reichardt’s directorial debut), Daisy Miller (an underrated and somewhat forgotten film by Peter Bogdanovich and a great performance by Cybill Shepherd, based on Henry Miller’s homonymous short novel.)
Pure, mindless fun: 47 Meters Down (I’ll watch any film with sharks in it or about boxing. This one’s about sharks.)
A few films I didn’t get to see and wish I had: Lucky, the Canadian independent flick Werewolf, Super Dark Times, Shot Caller, Tomato Red, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Certain Women.
This was one of those shitty years in which I didn’t read as much as I wanted. Still, I got to enjoy some outstanding novels:
A Little Night Music by Barbara Hunt: A completely forgotten novel from 1947 that I can easily see being rediscovered and reprinted as part of the New York Review of Books classics. A Little Night Music is a heady novel of ideas that nevertheless manages to be compulsively readable thanks to its solid prose and the clever dialogues between ex-GI Henry J. Stubbs, a disenchanted, Mersault-type character, and Gavin MacDowell, a bookseller who’s facing death. Not much is known about author Barbara Hunt, which is a pity. A web search shows that she wrote one more novel, a supernatural tale called Sea Change, and that she was an astrologist (!) who once worked on an astrological study of the stock exchange. That alone would’ve made me run from anything written by her, but since I thoroughly enjoyed A Little Night Music, I definitely intend to read her other novel in 2018.
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash: I reviewed this novel about the Loray Mill strike of 1929 for my local paper, where I wrote: “In spite of not accomplishing its immediate goals, the Loray Mill strike helped galvanize the national labor movement in the U.S., and even inspired a series of novels, most notably Sherwood Anderson’s Beyond Desire and Grace Lumpkin’s Take My Bread. While the latter works have been dismissed as overtly didactic and politically heavy-handed, Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad falls into an entirely separate category, presenting a multi-layered and lyrical portrayal of the strike and the travails of mill worker Ella May Wiggins. (…) Cash describes Wiggins’ rise to the union’s leadership but he also delves into numerous other characters—a mill owner and his wife, a police officer, and even one of Wiggins’ daughters 75 years after the strike. Each voice amplifies the story and each fleshed-out character has an intriguing backstory. (…) With The Last Ballad, Cash (This Dark Road to Mercy, A Land More Kind Than Home) has written an ambitious novel that has something to say, and says so beautifully.”
Other novels I enjoyed:
In the Cage by Kevin Hardcastle, an elegantly-written, violent rural noir about a retired MMA fighter, Canadian gangsters and working class struggles. Hardcastle is also the author of an excellent noir-ish short story collection, Debris. What is up with Canada and the many good and gritty writers who have popped up in the last few years? I’m thinking of Craig Davidson, John Vigna, Andrew F. Sullivan, Cliff Jackman and Ian Truman, among others.
Black Sun by Edward Abbey, an unfairly-panned romantic novel for people who don’t read romantic novels, with Abbey’s signature hard-chiseled prose and gorgeous nature imagery.
I haven’t finished this one but I’m enjoying the heck out of it:
Late One Night by Lee Martin. I had to abandon this one for a few weeks due to work, but it’s a pleasure to read. The story of Della Black and how three of her seven children die after their trailer in rural Illinois catches fire. Once an investigation determines the cause of the fire is arson, all fingers point to Della’s estranged husband Ronnie. What a literary thriller should be like, a well-crafted story with deep characterizations and suspenseful twists.
I hope to read more next year, starting with several books that are staring at me from my “to read” pile, such as David Joy’s The Weight of This World, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (Kitamura’s debut The Longshot is a brutal, stylish novel about a declining MMA fighter and his last bid for success) and Roger Alan Skipper’s Oralee.
Kingdom, a mostly-ignored Direct TV foray into original series that tells the story of a family of MMA fighters. Starring Frank Grillo and Jonathan Tucker, among others, it’s a hardcore drama with compelling characters and storylines that go way beyond the world of fighting. The show’s third and final season aired earlier this year.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: A new season after a long hiatus brings more of the same – and that’s exactly what you want if you’re a fan of Larry David’s obnoxious humor.
Veep: Its sixth season earlier this year was also more of the same, which means brutal humor, over-the-top situations and great insults (mostly aimed at one of my favorite characters in the series, Congressman Jonah Ryan.) Veep is the perfect antidote to House of Cards, which after two seasons devolved into a political soap opera with heavy-handed messaging.
El marginal: Available on Netflix, this Argentinean prison thriller rarely loses a beat and even if at times it strains plausibility, its grueling depiction of prison life and solid performances makes it one of my favorite series of 2017.
Horace and Pete: Easily one of the best series I’ve seen on TV in years. Each episode is like a standalone, top-notch theatrical piece. Think Neil LaBute at his bleakest with an outstanding cast (Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, among others.) Created by Louis CK, who in the last few years had been growing from a clever standup comedian into an insightful director/writer (see also his FX show Louie). This is probably the last of him we’ll see in a while given his harassment scandal earlier this year.
Rectify: Its last episode aired on December, 2016, but I only finished its fourth and last season a few months ago, so I’m including it. This is yet another rarity in this era of “peak TV, where often a good cast, great production values and “adult” content conceal generic shows and storylines. Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden, a man released from prison after nearly 20 years on death row following a wrongful conviction. The show unfolds at an unusually deliberate pace for TV, delving into the lives of a great cast of characters –and actors– thanks to the creative talents of Ray McKinnon. Perhaps better known for his acting roles in series like Deadwood and Justify, McKinnon is an outstanding director and screenwriter.
Other shows I enjoyed: The Deuce, Better Caul Saul
Two I heard good things about but didn’t get to watch: The Son, Damnation
Royal City and Roughneck, two realist graphic novels by Jeff Lemire. Imagine a Jeff Nichols movie in comic book format and you’ve got these two books by Lemire, who’s also created numerous other titles in different genres.
Fante Bukowski 2 by Noah van Schiver: The further hilarious adventures of aspiring writer Fante Bukowski and his failed attempts to gain critical recognition.
Pope Hats #5 by Ethan Rilly: Canadian artist Rilly is growing into an excellent storyteller, be it in the continuing story of the friendship between aspiring actress Vickie and her law clerk, former roommate Frances, or in his shorter pieces.
Happy Hour in America by Tim Lane: Noir and Americana by a master comic book writer & artist. Now that the critically-acclaimed series is being published by Fantagraphics, it will hopefully reach an even broader audience.
Paperbacks from Hell: An overview of the horror paperback craze from the ‘70s and ‘80s, written in an informative and funny style by Grady Hendrix.
Voice of Glory. The Life and Work of Davis Grubb: A heavily researched and highly readable biography of the author of The Night of the Hunter, written by Thomas E. Douglass, who also produced an excellent biography of another seminal West Virginia author, Breece D’J Pancake. Douglass passed away shortly after Voice of Glory was published. It’s a shame we won’t be able to enjoy more of his work.
Literary Writing in the 21st Century. Converstions: A collection of conversations with writers, poets, and critics, among others, by Anis Shivani, a provocative and insightful literary critic. If you haven’t read Shivani yet, you might also want to try his book of literary criticism Against the Workshop, as well as his short story collection, Anatolia and Other Stories.