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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Films of 2019

As I note every December, I watch a good number of movies every year, though most are viewed on my television -- on DVD, from DVR recordings, or streamed from Netflix or Amazon Prime. This year, my spouse and I attended two film festivals and so I managed to see half a dozen films in a theater-like setting -- even if that meant most were shown in a middle school auditorium in a vacation spot.

Because I have not yet seen that many newly released films in the theater, I cannot at this time write a credible post on the best movies of 2019. Most of the highly touted films are released in December, a very busy month. Eventually, of course, I will see them. I tend to discuss those films in a post about Metacritic's best movies of the year, or in my annual entry about the Oscars.

Again this year, I missed several of the summer hits as well. Indeed, many of the best films I saw this past year were movies that I originally missed in the theaters in prior years. I saw a number of late 2018 Oscar-bait films earlier this year.

To make this abbreviated 2019 list (also, to jog my memory), I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2019. I also consulted Metacritic, which my spouse and I use to point us towards good movies all year long.

In rough rank order of my preference, these were the top 2019 films I saw this year, as best as I can recall:

Little Women *
Saint Frances **
Knives Out! *
Gloria Bell
High Life
The Souvenir
Etruscan Smile **
Dolemite is My  Name
Hummingbird Project

* I saw these films in a theater.
** I saw these films at the Traverse City Film Festival

I saw Little Women in a small theater in Long Island over the Christmas break. It's a very well made movie, though I have not yet decided if I liked the time jumps as compared to the traditional linear telling of the story. The casting of Emma Watson as the oldest sister seemed problematic to me -- despite her age, she seemed too young to be a wife and mother. Saoirse Ronan is outstanding as Jo, so perhaps Watson was merely outclassed as an actor in this film. Filmmaker Greta Gerwig definitely knows what she is doing and I would not be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar or two (for directing or writing the adapted screenplay).

When we saw Saint Frances at the Traverse City Film Festival, the director and writer/star were interviewed afterwards. One of them said that the film had found a commercial distributor, but the film may be ticketed for a 2020 release. Watch for it if you have not had a chance to catch it.

I suspect there are some other serious Oscar contenders on this list as most feature high quality acting. Indeed, that's a very good set of movies; I'd recommend essentially all of them, although the Hummingbird Project had some script deficiencies. I found The Souvenir kind of frustrating in an artsy sort of way, though I suppose it was unique and memorable.

Knives Out! (a mystery) or Transit (a thriller) may become a future fixture on my Global Politics Through Film syllabus as both have an interesting immigration theme. I liked both more than Us (horror), which is on the next list and arguably has a similar political message. All make pointed political commentary through unusual genre choices.

The remainder of my 2019 list consists of genre films -- comedies, action flicks, musicals, 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. All offered some entertainment, but most near the very bottom are flawed in some fairly important ways:

Brittany Runs a Marathon
Yesterday ***
Blinded by the Light
Captain Marvel
Always Be My Maybe
Late Night
Extra Ordinary **
Long Shot
See You Yesterday
Troop Zero **

** I saw these films at the Traverse City Film Festival
*** I saw this film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

I'm not typically a fan of comic book films and mostly avoid/ignore horror flicks and musicals. Captain Marvel is one of the better Marvel movies, partly because it seems more like a human story and it does not take itself too seriously. Us provides some interesting social commentary about immigration and Extra Ordinary is a humorous take on the horror genre. It's not Ghostbusters, but the main characters are interesting and worth getting to know for 90 minutes.

If you like the music of the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, or Elton John, you probably already saw Yesterday, Blinded by the Light, and/or Rocketman. I inserted them based primarily on my preferences towards the artist subjects.

Booksmart received much acclaim this year, but it didn't grab me. I think I'm aging out of the teen sex comedy even if this one had some new twists. I thought Brittany Runs a Marathon was a far superior film and I was more entertained by the rom-com Always Be My Maybe.


Framing John Delorean **
Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story
Amazing Grace

** I saw this film at the Traverse City Film Festival

All of these are very good and fiddle with the documentary genre. Alex Baldwin plays the title character in various scenes of Framing John Delorean. While some of his lines are based on footage from secret FBI video, other moments are clearly imagined by the filmmakers. Perhaps it should be placed above in the list of narrative films.

If you like the music of Bob Dylan or Aretha Franklin, it would be hard to top these listed documentary choices. Both focus on the performers in a particular moment, decades ago.

Here's the annual list of 2019 movies that I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2020):

1917, Ad Astra, Aeronauts, All is Well, American Factory, American Woman, Apollo 11, Arctic, Art of Self-Defense, Ash is Purest White, Avengers: Endgame, Bacurau, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Biggest Little Farm, Black Mother, Blaze, Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Breaker Upperers, Burning Cane, Chambermaid, Clemency, Day Shall Come, Diane, Echo in the Canyon, End of the Century, Egg, El Camino: Breaking Bad Movie, The Farewell, Fighting with my Family, Firecrackers, For Sama, Ford v Ferrari, Fyre, Girl,  Good Boys, Grass, Ground Beneath my Feet, Her Smell, High Flying Bird, Hotel Mumbai, Hustlers, I am Mother, In Fabric, In My Room, The Irishman, Judy, Knock Down the House, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Let the Sunshine In, Light from Light, Light of My Life, Little Woods, Luce, Maiden, Marriage Story, Mickey and the Bear, Midsommar, Mike Wallace is Here, Monos, Motherless Brooklyn, The Mustang, Native Son, Never Grow Old, Never Look Away,  Non-Fiction, Official Secrets, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, One Cut of the Dead, Pain & Glory, Parasite, Peanut Butter Falcon, Peterloo, Photograph, Plagiarists, Plus One, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Queen & Slim, Ray & Liz, Relaxer, The Report, Rosie, Ruben Brandt Collector, Screwball, Share, Shazam!, Slut in a Good Way, Someone Great, Sometimes Always Never, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Suburban Birds, Synonyms, Triple Frontier, Two Popes, Uncut Gems, Velvet Buzzsaw, A Vigilante, Western Stars, Wild Nights with Emily, Wild Rose, Woman at War.

Keep in mind that I didn't (yet) get around to seeing many 2018 movies from last year's wishlist:

22 July, American Animals, Anna and the Apocalypse, At Eternity's Gate, Beautiful Boy, Black '47, Blaze, Border, Boy Erased, Burning, Colette, Dark Money, Destroyer, Disobedience, Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot, Double Lives, Double Lover, Early Man, Far from the Tree, Golden Exits, Goldstone, The Guernsey, The Guilty, Happy as Lazzaro, The Happy Prince, The Hate U Give, Hereditary, Hold the Dark, I Kill Giants, In the Fade, Lean on Pete, Love After Love, Mandy, Miseducation of Cameron Post, Operation Finale, Outside In, Prospect, Ready Player One, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, Solo: Star Wars Story, Sweet Country, The Tale, Unsane, Upgrade, Utoya - July 22, Vox Lux, Wildlife, Zama.

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Monday, December 30, 2019

Books of 2019

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 often read a number of books competing for a $100,000 prize exhibiting the best "ideas for improving world order."

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? They are listed below. I posted short reviews of most books at Goodreads. 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


Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman

The Spread of Nuclear Weapons; An Enduring Debate by Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz

Clear & Present Safety by Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko

Power Ball by Rob Neyer

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Hell of Good Intentions by Stephen Walt

Calling Dr. Strangelove by George Case

None of these are 5 star books, but the top 4 or 5 books listed here are definitely worth your time. During my 18 month sabbatical, I read a number of works on decision-making and expertise. The Kahneman and Taleb books are important works on these topics in the public sphere. The former is based on a long and successful career in academia, the latter is longer than it needed to be and includes a lot of stories that could have been cut -- especially by someone like Taleb who is so critical of the "narrative" academic disciplines.

I used the Sagan and Waltz and Cohen and Zenko books in my International Security class last fall and think both are very good. The former worked better as a textbook, but Michael Cohen visited Louisville to speak in my class and I think that made a favorable impression on the students. I liked the parts of their book that focused on threat inflation, though my lectures included some examples that they overlooked. I was a bit less interested in their efforts to expand the security agenda by including domestic policy issues like gun control. I framed these as human security topics.

Walt blames liberals for many of the major mistakes in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. While they may deserve some of the blame, keep in mind that this foreign policy category includes many neoconservatives who often disdain multilateral institutions. To my mind, the U.S. failure to work cooperatively with other states is a much bigger problem than the high-minded aspirations Walt attributes to liberalism.

Only the Case book was sub-par. I published an article recently on the film Dr. Strangelove and didn't learn that much from Case's work. Indeed, he had some errors that should have been caught.

Finally, I also read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2019, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. The 2019 book was edited by Patrick Dubuque, Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre. Annually, I looking forward to the new edition, likely due in February.


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.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

All our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

The Education of a Poker Player by James McManus

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

Half of a Yellow Sun is a terrific book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in foreign affairs, as told through individual lives. In this case, the focus is on Biafra's 1960s struggles to win independence from Nigeria. It provides personal accounts of civil war.

Motherless Brooklyn provides an interesting spin on the detective genre given that the detective has Tourette's syndrome and works for a small-time hood. The larger caper is kind of far-fetched, but it is entertaining.

The Mastai book begins fairly strongly, but loses steam. The McManus book seems like a collection of short stories crying for a volume 2. Wodehouse is Wodehouse.

March Violets by Philip Kerr

The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

North From Rome by Helen MacInnes

I is for Innocent by Sue Grafton

The Widening Gyre by Robert Parker

Black Money by Ross Macdonald

The Rare Coin Score by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

Canary by Duane Swierczynski

Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell

Good Behavior by Donald Westlake

Raven Black by Ann Cleaves

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel by Jeffrey Lewis

Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Free Fall in Crimson by John MacDonald

Beyond Recall by Robert Goddard

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

The  Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
. [large gap]

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

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, Rankin's John Rebus, Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. Nearly all of these were pretty good this year, though perhaps ultimately forgettable. Until refreshing my memory with Google, I'd already forgotten the plot of at least half of the books listed above involving those characters.

Kerr's Bernie Gunther solves crimes during the Nazi era in Germany, so that was certainly novel and interesting. Ambler and MacInnes wrote terrific spy fiction during the Cold War and these tales are harmed more by the way current readers depend upon their smartphones than by the broader historical changes that have occurred in world politics.

Modesty Blaise is sort of a female James Bond. This year, I preferred the former to the latter.

Stephen King's middle book of a trilogy was fine, but I did not need the chapter involving the detective visiting the killer from Book 1. Obviously he was establishing a plot line for the third book, but it distracted from this tale. This book would likely make a decent film.

The Heinlein book was easily the worst book I read this year. After a somewhat promising premise at the start, it devolved into a sexist and borderline misogynist story that I had to put down multiple times before deciding to power through it in December.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Trump and Threats of Political Violence

I've been collecting these anecdotes and would welcome additions:

In August 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump strongly criticized Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders for showing that he’s “weak” by allowing Black Lives Matter protesters to  take control of the microphone at a campaign event in Seattle. CNN’s Eric Bradner reproduced the full Trump comment: “I would never give up my microphone. I thought that was disgusting. That showed such weakness, the way he was taken away by two young women -- the microphone; they just took the whole place over… That will never happen with me." Trump continued, “I don't know if I'll do the fighting myself or if other people will, but that was a disgrace. I felt badly for him. But it showed that he's weak.”

In November 2015, another protester yelled “Black Lives Matter” at a Trump rally in Birmingham, Alabama. A fight soon broke out, the protester fell to the ground, and he was allegedly kicked and punched by several white men. At the rally, Trump declared, “Get him the hell out of here, will you, please? Get him out of here. Throw him out!” As the man was escorted by security from the event, members of the crowd repeatedly pushed and shoved him. The following day, Trump said “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” Trump complained that the man was “so obnoxious and so loud, he was screaming.”

In January 2016, a protester threw a tomato at a Trump rally in Iowa City, Iowa. A week later, on the February day of the Iowa caucuses, Trump told his audience in Cedar Rapids: “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them.” ABC News reported that Trump told his crowd, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell ... I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise."

In another February 2016 event in Las Vegas, Nevada, Trump accused a protester of throwing punches at security guards. He told the crowd, “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher. I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya.” At the same event, Trump referenced the leader of Iranians who took US Navy sailors hostage as a “rough guy with a rough mouth — I’d like to smack the hell out of him.”

At still another February 2016 rally in Warren, Michigan, Trump reacted to a protester by declaring “Get him out.” He added, “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I'll defend you in court. Don't worry about it.”

In March 2016, when his rally in St. Louis, Missouri, was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, Trump said, “Part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long [to kick them out] is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore… There used to be consequences. There are none anymore.” Trump continued: “These people are so bad for our country. You have no idea folks, you have no idea.”

At an August 2016 rally in North Carolina, Trump said it would be a “horrible day” if his opponent Hillary Clinton is elected President. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks… Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”[8]

Trump’s violent rhetoric continued after becoming president.

In a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers on Long Island, Trump said “And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice.  (Laughter.)  Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?  Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head.  I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”

In July 2017, Trump shared a controversial edited video on Twitter revealing Trump in a 2007 WWE skit violently attacking another man who had been standing near a wrestling ring. In the doctored version shared by Trump, the CNN logo was placed in the area where the man’s face would be.

In October 2018, Trump praised Montana RepublicanRepresentative Greg Gianforte who body slammed a reporter at a rally. Trump declared, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!”

In a March 2019 interview with Breitbart News, Trump was discussing the tactics used by Democrats to use subpoena power in its investigations of the president: “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

On September 29, 2019, Trump tweeted a quote from a supporter speaking on Fox News who said that a successful impeachment would cause civil war: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Pastor Robert Jeffress.”

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