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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Films of 2017

As I note every December, I watch a lot of movies, though most are viewed on my television -- on DVD, from DVR recordings, or streamed from Netflix or Amazon Prime. Because I have not yet seen that many new films in the theater, I cannot yet write a credible post on the best movies of 2017. Most of the highly touted films are released in December, a very busy month. Eventually, of course, I will see them.

Again this year, I missed several of the summer blockbusters as well.

Indeed, the best films I saw this past year were movies that I originally missed in the theaters in prior years. I saw many late 2016 Oscar-bait films in theaters earlier this year. Again, I'll surely see most of the 2017 Oscar-bait films early in 2018. I tend to discuss those films in my posts about the Oscars.

To make this abbreviated 2017 list (in other words, to jog my memory), I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2017. I also consulted Metacritic.

In rank order of my preference, these were the top 2017 films I saw this year, as best as I can recall:

Lady Bird **
Dunkirk **
Baby Driver **
The Big Sick **
Get Out
Wind River

** I saw these films in the theater.

There are some serious Oscar contenders there, I think. I suspect Laurie Metcalf will deservedly receive a nomination for best supporting actress (Lady Bird) and I would not be surprised if Saoirse Ronan (best actress) and Greta Gerwig (direction) are also nominated. It is difficult for a comedy director to receive this kind of accolade, however, which also likely hurts the film in the Best Picture category. Still it is an excellent coming-of-age movie that I highly recommend.

Dunkirk is the kind of war movie based on real events that often does well in the Best Picture category, but the ensemble cast may be hurt in the acting categories. The well-done heist film Baby Driver seems likely to receive technical nominations. It was very entertaining and perhaps the last memorable Kevin Spacey film for awhile.

I also really enjoyed The Big Sick and recommend it highly. Get Out has already been receiving a lot of great press for its comedic and critical use of the horror genre to reflect upon a major social issue (racism, and white privilege, in this instance). That's my kind of horror film!

Did you miss Wind River and Columbus? Check them out! The former is a crime drama set on native land and the latter would make a good double feature with Lady Bird as it addresses similar themes. The female protagonist is coming-of-age, has a complicated relationship with her mother, and is ambivalent about a future away from her local community.

The bulk of the my 2017 list consists of genre films -- comedies, action flicks, and science fiction. They are not ranked very carefully, though I think that the ones near the top are superior to the ones near the bottom.These were all OK, but flawed films:

Logan Lucky
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore
The Lovers
The Meyerowitz Stories
The Incredible Jessica James
War for the Planet of the Apes
It **


 I Am Not Your Negro

Only a couple of these films are doing well in end-of-year critic lists, but virtually all of them are worth watching. Even the ones at the bottom are likely fine for fans of traditional horror and Wolverine.

Logan Lucky has been described as a hillbilly Ocean's 11 and I'm a big fan of heist movies. It was especially funny when Daniel Craig was on the screen. It could have used a tighter edit, however.

The sci-fi Guardians 2 was also over-long and I get bored with comic-book battle scenes (whether involving spaceships or hand-to-hand combat), but the dialogue was a notch above the norm.

Okja was really entertaining and funny until the plot got very serious about the way meat is mass produced in America. That final portion of the film made this black comedy not-so-funny. Actually, a similar point could be made about I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore and Colossal. Colossal's message about gender was less clear than the racial message of Get Out, which is unfortunate because it had a strong hour of entertainment.

The family dramas The Lovers and The Meyerowitz Stories are worth your time, but neither is easy to watch. Jessica Williams showed a lot of promise in The Incredible Jessica James and I recommended this film to others right after seeing it.

The latest Apes film was OK, but it didn't really have an important social message and was mostly a technical marvel. The Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now comparisons seem like a stretch to me.

When I'm physically exhausted and/or mentally tired (and sitting in the dark), I sometimes nod off during even the best documentaries. I'm afraid that happened during my viewing of I Am Not Your Negro. I saw 90% of it, but the film deserves another viewing and perhaps elevation to the upper list.

Here's the annual list of 2017 movies that I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2017):

Films of 2017 to see:

1922, Alien Covenant, All the Money in the World, American Made, Atomic Blonde, Ballad of Lefty Brown, Battle of the Sexes, Beguiled, Berlin Syndrome, Blade Runner 2049, Buster's Mal Heart, Call Me By Your Name, Catfight, Darkest Hour, Death of Stalin, Detroit, Disaster Artist, Downsizing, Florida Project, The Founder, Foxtrot, From Nowhere, Gerald's Game, A Ghost Story, Girl With All the Gifts, Girls Trip, God's Own Country, Good Time, Happy End, Headshot, The Hero, Hostiles, Hounds of Love, I Daniel Blake, I Tonya, Ingrid Goes West, It Comes at Night, John Wick: Chapter 2, Killing of a Sacred Deer, Kong: Skull Island, Land of Mine (Under Sandet), Little Hours, Lost City of Z, Marshall, Moka, Molly's Game, Mother!, Mudbound, Norman, The Party, Personal Shopper, Phantom Thread, Polka King, The Post, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, Quiet Passion, Salesman, Sense of Ending, Shape of Water, The Square, Star Wars The Last Jedi, Stronger, Super Dark Times, Survivalist, Sweet Virginia, T2 Trainspotting, Their Finest, Thor Ragnorak, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, To the Bone, The Trip to Spain, United Kingdom, Wakefield, Win It All, Wonder, Wonder Woman, You Were Never Really Here.

Keep in mind that I didn't get around to seeing many 2016 movies from last year's wishlist:

13th, 20th Century Women, Above and Below, All the Way, Allied, American Honey, April and the Extraordinary World, Autoposy of Jane Doe, Band of Robbers, Barry, Bleed for This, Born to be Blue, Captain America: Civil War, Cemetery of Splendor, Certain Women, Christine, Creative Control, The Dark Horse, Deepwater Horizon, Denial, Doctor Strange, Don't Breathe, Elle, The Family Fang, Fences, The Fits, Florence Foster Jenkins, Francofonia, Glassland, Hacksaw Ridge, Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hologram for the King, Imperium, Indignation, The Infiltrator, The Intervention, The Invitation, Jackie, Krisha, Last Man on the Moon, Little Men, Louder than Bombs, Love & Friendship, Loving, Maggie's Plan, Meddler, Miss Sloane, Money Monster, Neruda, Notes on Blindness, Patriots Day, The Phenom, Queen of Katwe, Sausage Party, Silence, Snowden, Southside with You, Take Me to the River, Things to Come, Tickled, Time to Choose, Toni Erdmann, Tower, Under the Sun, Valley of Violence, Where to Invade Next, The Witch, and Zero Days.

Virtually all of those films are now readily available -- as DVDs at my University library or as recordings on my DVR. A few are on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, etc.

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Books of 2017

Source: National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers & Studies
As I have annually since 2005, I am posting a nearly complete list of books I read in the preceding year.

Please allow me to repeat the ground rules: First, I generally do not list academic books that I reviewed unless the review was published. In my academic job, for instance, I read a number of books competing for a $100,000 award exhibiting the best "ideas for improving world order." The winning 2018 entry was actually a finalist last year, which means I read it in 2016 (but did not list it in my blog entry): Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa by Scott Straus. It's a terrific work, well worth your time. Straus seeks to determine if genocide can be predicted, an essential precursor step to prevention or early effective intervention.

Of course, since I'm an academic, I read multiple chapters and large sections of many books pertinent to my research and teaching. However, I'm not going to list those here unless I read them cover-to-cover. Save for the books I use in class or read for review, I often skim over some portions even of outstanding books. It's a time/efficiency issue.

So, what did I read this year, mostly for pleasure? (a few of the recommended books include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via my Powell's links). I posted short reviews of most books at Goodreads (migrating from Shelfari years ago). 


The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst

Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby

Smart Baseball by Keith Law

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

Sex, Drugs and  Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

Game Over by Dave Zirin

The 37th Parallel by Ben Mezrich

I also read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2017, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. The 2017 book was edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre. I'm already looking forward to the 2018 edition, likely due in February.

The works by Nate Silver and Malcolm Gladwell you probably know. These are interesting books worth your time, though Gladwell's book is a lot less convincing given the author's tendency to select cases on the dependent variable. Silver left me worried that the stock market is overpriced and headed for a disappointing decade, among other lessons.

Hornby periodocally releases his previously published book reviews. He's a very talented writer and fun to read in this format (though his fiction is even better).

The Dirk Hayhurst book is also entertaining. It's always interesting to gain perspective on professional baseball from a fringe major league player. Keith Law's book on contemporary baseball analysis was OK, but I didn't learn much that I didn't already know from decades of reading Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, etc.

Colin Beavan's book is based on a gimmick, but it's quite well-written and credible, especially when compared to the disappointing works by Dave Zirin (which seemed like short magazine articles pieced together haphazardly) and Ben Mezrich (a series of vignettes that do not convincingly add up to anything, ordered almost at random). Chuck Klosterman's book was not especially memorable, unfortunately. 


As I traditionally do, I place the best works of literature at the top of the list, then the genre fiction (though there are some books that could be placed in either category). The least interesting or entertaining books are listed last in each section.

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

Echo House by Ward Just

Rhino Ranch by Larry McMurtry

I didn't read a lot of literature this year, but Sinclair Lewis's classic was the cream of the crop -- if frightening in the age of Trump. Larry McMurtry's last Duane Moore book was fairly disappointing given some other excellent books he produced in the series. This Denis Johnson book is a short and very well-written crime story. It would make a good movie.

And now the much longer list of genre fiction:

Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler

Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry

Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes

The Seventh by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

From Doon With Death by Ruth Wendell

A Morning for Flamingos by James Burke

The Chill by Ross Macdonald

A Stab in the Dark by Lawrence Block

Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammett

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré,

G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

 A Savage Place by Robert Parker

 The Empty Copper Sea by John D. MacDonald

 Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Nobody's Perfect by Donald Westlake

Motor City Blue by Loren Estleman

The Ax by Donald Westlake

Inferno by Dan Brown

House Dick by E. Howard Hunt

Blockade Billy by Stephen King

This proved to be a pretty good year for classic cold war (or even earlier) spy novels. The books by Charles McCarry, Eric Ambler, and Helen MacInnes were well-done and the books by John le Carré  and Ward Just were fine. All were better than the more famous 007 book I read this year. Literally, Ian Fleming devoted more pages to a rigged game of canasta and to a round of golf between James Bond and Goldfinger than he did to a complicated heist involving a nuclear bomb.

I again read a  prominent science fiction work this year that true fans of the genre probably finished years ago (long before they were my age). Actually, I saw the film for Fahrenheit 451 while in high school, but don't remember reading the book even though I know I read some other works by Bradbury.

11/22/63 was also (historical) science fiction and it was fairly entertaining, so long as one didn't think too seriously about the main plot points. King was making a point about life and love, which almost got lost in the 100s of pages devoted to thinking about Lee Harvey Oswald and his murder of JFK. And the idiosyncrasies of this particular time travel portal.

Hammett's book is a collection of short stories. Some are very good, others are not.  

Thanks mostly to Bookmooch and PaperBack Swap, I continue to read books by a diverse array of (mostly) hard-boiled crime story authors. These writers typically develop a single main character across a long series of books: Parker's Spencer, Stark's Parker, John MacDonald's Travis McGee, Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Block's Matthew Scudder, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. All of these were good to very good. Spencer, Archer, and especially McGee are more-and-more confronting their position in life.

I was saddened to learn within the last 48 hours that Sue Grafton has died. She was one of the most famous graduates of the University of Louisville. I believe I met her once years ago in a local park while I was walking my dog. However, at that time, I had not read any of her books.

This year, I read the first books in Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series and Ruth Wendell's Inspector Wexler set. I liked both stories enough to read the next book.

Several of the books near the bottom were quite disappointing -- I found fairly weak plots or mediocre writing by really talented writers Donald Westlake and King (the baseball book this time, not 11/22/63).

I read Inferno just as I finished an August vacation. It's a beach read. 

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Friday, December 15, 2017

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Sunday, December 03, 2017


My family and I traveled to Nashville for Thanksgiving 2017 -- meeting my sister and her family there. It's an interesting travel destination and my spouse and I have visited several other times in recent months and years. Because of the multiple recent visits, we did not return to the Johnny Cash museum (which we previously enjoyed) or the bars along Broadway (which we sometimes didn't enjoy)..

This trip, we stayed in a chain hotel near Vanderbilt University and walked Wednesday to the Parthenon in Centennial Park. The large statue of Athena was worth seeing, but odd in some ways.

Friday night, we went to the Grand Ole Opry:

Ashley Campbell (daughter of Glen) sang a nice version of "Gentle on My Mind" and I enjoyed Sierra Hull's bluegrass performance. Charlie McCoy's harmonica playing was simply phenomenal -- he played "Orange Blossom Special," which our wedding band also performed back in 1991. I have never been a fan of final act Restless Heart. William Michael Morgan had a good voice, but needed more interesting songs.

Saturday, we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, It held up well compared to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which we visited on an Oberlin trip back in 2012. I was not that interested in many of the most recent exhibits, but the roots section was especially interesting and the video about country musicians on television was quite good. Why didn't Wanda Jackson become a bigger star?

Sunday morning, before we all departed, my oldest daughter ate this waffle:

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