Friday, January 1, 2021

Top 10 Movies of 2020

With so much happening on streaming services these days, the old notion of what a movie is feels outdated. A great limited series like
The Queen's Gambit feels very much like a traditional movie, just a bit longer. A full season of a great show like season 3 of Ozark contains the fully formed and contained narrative arc associated with films. So with all this being said, moving forward, I will almost certainly include limited series and distinct seasons of TV shows in my end-of-the-year movie list. 

But for 2020, I think it's important to keep TV and film separate. Much has been made about the lack of movies released this year, but when I look back at my list of the movies I've watched, I see more than enough great movies released in 2020 to make up a Top 10 list. And this year more than ever, I highly recommend you watch all the movies on this list. Each one deserves recognition and support.

10) The Way Back: Great performance by Ben Affleck as a man hitting rock bottom. I know, sounds like fun, right? True, it's pretty heavy, but man, this movie packs an emotional punch. Gavin O'Conor is a master of the sports movie that elevates past the confines of genre to deliver authentic adult drama.

9) My Octopus Teacher: A truly beautiful documentary about the human connection to the natural world. 

8) Mank: Historical accuracy aside, this is a great movie about the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Fincher made a movie that looks like Old Hollywood, but is every bit a commentary on the current moment. We watched Citizen Kane first, and the two films work perfectly as a double feature.

7) Shithouse: This is a heartfelt little indie film about a college freshman struggling to adjust to life outside the protective comfort of home. Nicely captures the highs and lows of that time, and with one daughter currently in college and the other about to leave the nest, I really connected with this one.

6) On the Rocks: Great Bill Murray here, but don't sleep on Rashida Jones. She more than holds her own as a woman struggling to regain her mojo. Sofia Coppola's love letter to New York City left me dreaming of the day I can get back there.

5) Soul: Another Pixar masterpiece. The animation has never been better, and I absolutely love what this movie has to say about the meaning of life and what gives us purpose. 

4) Dick Johnson is Dead: A gut-punch of a documentary about the bittersweet nature of life and death.

3) Palm Springs: This is a creative riff on Groundhog Day. It's also a charming, genre-scrambling sci-fi comedy that sublimely captures the leap of faith it takes to find love in a crazy world. Who knew it involved dinosaurs.

2) American Utopia: Spike Lee directed this screen adaptation of David Byrne's Broadway show. This is a concert film that doubles as a joyously cathartic celebration of community, the beating heart of life itself. 

1) Driveways: This little indie film is a true gem. It is an elegant reminder that even the smallest acts of kindness ripple through our lives. Brain Dennehy's performance was my favorite of the year, and a perfect send-off for an underappreciated actor.

Not sure anybody is actually seeing this, but let me know what you think of my choices, and of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts on best movies of the year.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Top 10 Movies of 2019

The Oscar nominations come out tomorrow, so this is a good time to post my Top 10 movies of 2019.  In years past I've only included movies that I saw in the given year, but I'm going to change that up a bit. I saw 1917 yesterday, and it absolutely has to be on the list.

10) Blinded by the Light: This is one of two movies all four of the Rileys saw together at the theater in 2019, so that alone makes this one a bit special. This is a charming little movie about a young Pakistani immigrant finding his way in early 80s England, with a lot of help from the music of Springsteen.

9) Knives Out: A good, old-fashioned murder mystery with a stellar cast. This is one of those movies people are always saying don't get made anymore. And yet here it is. Thank you Rian Johnson.

8) Us/Midsommar: I have these two together because they are great examples of the new type of horror movie that emerged in the last half of the 2010s: horror movies as social commentary. Jordan Peele explores race and class in Us, and Ari Aster explores modern relationships like you've never seen before (trust me) in Midsommar.

7) Little Women: This is the other movie all four of the Rileys managed to see at a theater together this year. We are all big Greta Gerwig fans, so this was appointment viewing. Gerwig's spin on the classic novel feels both timely and timeless.

6) Marriage Story: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are heartbreakingly good. Their performances make this a must-watch.

5) Parasite: One of the best takes on social class I've ever seen, in any medium. Director Bong Joon-ho gave a great Golden Globes speech about the world of film that can open up to us if we just get over our hangup with subtitles, and I believe his film will indeed open up that world for a lot of folks.

4) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with Leo and Brad. And that's really the strength of this film, it makes you feel like you're hanging out with the characters, and it's a blast.

3) The Irishman: Yep, it's long. But man, is it worth it. There are two scenes in particular that will become iconic, one between DeNiro and Pacino and the other between DeNiro and Pesci. It is what it is people.

2) 1917: The way this movie was filmed is a true technical achievement. I'm still not sure how they did it, but it is truly amazing. Craftsmanship aside, there are numerous scenes of heroism that moved me to tears.

1) The Farewell: This is a little movie with a very big heart. It marries cultural specificity with universal themes. And in a year with more memorable scenes than most, there is a scene with Nai Nai that absolutely crushed me, and I know I will never forget it.

Let me know what you think of my choices, and of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts on best movies of the year.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Top 10 Books of the Decade

I posted my Top 10 movies of the 2010s earlier this month, so now it's on to the Top 10 books of the 2010s.

10. Beautiful Ruins (2012), Jess Walter: I would call this one an epic. Walter expertly weaves together the lives of multiple characters over the course of a lifetime, with unrequited love always the driving force. Walter hasn't published another novel since this, so I eagerly await more from him.

9. A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), Jennifer Egan: This is a brilliant book. Don't take my word for it, Egan won a little something called the Pulitzer Prize for this baby. Egan masterfully uses multiple characters, weaving their stories together to create a transcendent whole. I don't want to give anything away, but at one point Egan uses the power point format, and if for no other reason, you should read this book just to see how she pulled it off.

8. The Goldfinch (2013), Donna Tartt: At 784 pages, this is the longest book in my Top 10. Although critical reception was quite mixed, it did manage to win a little something called the Pulitzer Prize. I was very excited when the film adaptation came out, but unfortunately, the movie is no where near as good.

7. Unbroken (2010), Laura Hillenbrand: Nonfiction doesn't get much better than this. Louis Zamperini is a true American hero, and you will be a different person after reading his heroic story. Simply put, Hillenbrand is a nonfiction master.

6. Gone Girl (2012), Gillian Flynn: This book is just wicked fun. I like to think of it as War of the Roses.....on steroids.....or even better, meth.  Flynn's first two books are really good, but this one was a coming out party for a great writer.

5. Born to Run (2016), Bruce Springsteen: If you love The Boss, this book must forever live in your personal orbit. If you don't love The Boss, you should still read this book. It is one of the best looks into the mind of an artist I've ever come across in any medium.

4. Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017), Jesmyn Ward: This is an epic road novel about 3 generations and the ghosts that haunt them. It is also a searing portrait of a country still struggling to deal with its past. Ward is arguably the best American novelist of the decade. This is her second book, the other being Salvage the Bones in 2011, to win the National Book Award.

3. Killers of the Flower Moon (2017), David Grann: In the early 1920s, oil deposits were discovered on the land of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma. Grann masterfully details a series of murders of wealthy Osage tribal members that essentially amounts to a secret history of the American frontier. This is hands down my favorite nonfiction of the decade.

2. The Underground Railroad (2016), Colson Whitehead: In this alternate history infused with surgical doses of magical realism, the Underground Railroad is reimagined as an actual railroad. The protagonist is Cora, a runaway slave whose journey is a unique exploration of the foundational sin of America. This is the first book since The Shipping News in 1993 to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

1. Station Eleven (2014), Emily St. Mandel: I wold call this a literary descendant of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. This is the book that simultaneously moved and entertained me the most this decade. I can't say that I remember specific details of the story all that well, but the memory of it hovers in my mind and still has the power to evoke the feeling of awe I had when reading.

Let me know what you think of my choices, and of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts on best books of the decade.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Top 10 Movies of the 2010s

End-of-the-decade lists are definitely making the rounds right now. Seems like the list makers are putting their decade lists out first, with the traditional end-of-the-year lists to come later this month.

I haven't done a Top 10 list since 2015 (to my great shame of course), but all this decade reflection has my list-making juices flowing again. I'm going to follow the trend and do my end-of-the-decade lists first, and then follow up with 2019 lists around the new year.

10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): As a child of the 80s, of course I had watched all of the other Star Wars movies with my daughters. If I'm being honest, this really isn't top 10 worthy per se, but it is easily one of the best movie experiences of my life as a parent sharing movies with his kids.

9. Get Out (2017): Horror movies had a real renaissance this decade, with a number of excellent directors using the genre to disguise social commentary. No one pulled this off better than Jordan Peele with his masterful take on cultural appropriation. 

8. La La Land (2016): This is the first of two Damien Chazelle movies on my list. I love the look of this movie, and the music is awesome. I'm not really a love story kind of guy, but this one got me. Not as much as my daughters, who were literally bawling on the drive home.

7. Arrival (2016): Denis Villeneuve is another director who had a great decade. Here he uses sci-fi to ask one of life's BIG questions: If you knew all the bad things that were going to happen in your life, would you still go down the same path? The Max Richter song at the end of this movie is one of the best uses of music in film history. 

6. Lady Bird (2017): I feel safe in saying that Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is the best mother/daughter movie of all time. It's also one of the better coming-of-age movies. My oldest is about the same age as LB, so this was a particularly heightened movie experience. 

5. Inside Out (2015): This is right up there in the Pixar pantheon for me. Of course, watching a movie that mostly takes place in the mind of an 11-year-old girl with your own daughters, one of whom was 11 at the time, made resistance futile. 

4. Bridesmaids (2011): This is easily the most rewatchable movie of the decade. I don't even know how many times I've rewatched it, but it still cracks me up. This is also one of the most quotable movies ever made, and let me tell ya, not many days go by that I don't quote a line from this one. 

3. Whiplash (2014): This is Damien Chazelle's directorial debut and his second film on my list. J.K. Simmons gives an iconic, Oscar-winning performance that challenges viewers to consider how far people should go to achieve greatness.

2. Frances Ha (2012): I had avoided this movie for a long time. It looked too Woody Allen-lite to be honest. But thanks to a recommendation/cinematic shaming from my oldest, this was, without a doubt, the most pleasant movie surprise of my decade. It perfectly captures the ups and downs of life in your 20s. 

1. The Social Network (2010): Not only do I believe this is the best movie of the decade, I believe it is currently the best movie of the 21st century. This is that rare movie that feels more relevant now than when it was released. Fincher and Sorkin tried to warn us people. 

Let me know what you think of my choices, and of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts on best movies of the decade.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Flash Fiction

Paragraph Planet is a cool website that publishes one 75-word paragraph every day. I've been following them on Twitter for a while, and I finally got around to submitting something this summer. 

I'm proud to say that "The Raft" is featured today on the site. This piece began as a blog post here on my blog, a long time ago now. I've always considered it one of my favorite posts, so I reworked it to meet the 75 word limit. 

If you get  chance to check it out, I'd love to hear what you think. And be sure to give Paragraph Planet a follow on all your social media.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Top Ten Books of 2015

Getting a little late for an end-of-the-year list, but what the hell. I read 43 books in 2015. The books on my list weren't necessarily published in 2015, just books I read this year.

10) Shotgun Lovesongs, Nickolas Butler: written by a fellow Badger, this is an ode to Wisconsin, to friendships, to family, to women who make men better.

9) Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee: I could easily do a whole post on this one (and probably should); regardless of its literary merits and the circumstances of its publication, this book generated a lot of discussion in the Riley household.

8) The Crossover, Kwame Alexander: a YA novel in verse; a mix of rhythm and heart; a sports story that crosses over to speak about so much more.

7) 11/22/63, Stephen King: haven't read King in a long time; thoroughly enjoyed following Jake Epping on his journey back in time to save Kennedy.

6) The Book of Unknown Americans, Christina Henriquez: the beautiful, tragic, intertwined lives of immigrants with a slow burn to a devastating ending.

5) Redeployment, Phil Klay: excellent collection of short stories about soldiers' experiences in Iraq and their return to domestic life.

4) 800 Grapes, Laura Dave: great Napa Valley setting; each member of the Ford family is at a crossroads, and I enjoyed how Dave navigated the characters through their choices.

3) The Turner House, Angela Flournoy: excellent debut novel; the struggles of the Turner family mirror the struggles of their beloved Detroit, a setting that always intrigues me.

2) All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr: don't take my word for it, this won a little something called the Pulitzer Prize.

1) Station Eleven, Emily St. John: a literary descendant of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.

Let me know what you think of my choices. I'd love to hear what other people enjoyed reading this year in the comments, might give me some ideas for 2016. Your top book, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2015

So yeah, it's been a while. You know, life and whatnot.

I haven't felt the urge to write anything for the blog in quite some time, but with the end of the year approaching, I've been seeing a lot of end-of-the-year lists out there. My favorite thing about the blog was always doing my end-of-the-year book and movie lists. To my eternal shame, I didn't do them last year. So with renewed vigor, here are my top ten movies of 2015.

I watched 112 movies in 2015. The first movie I watched in 2015 was Lone Survivor and the last movie I watched was The Big Short. If you're heading out to the theaters or looking for something to rent, you can't go wrong with any of these films. These movies aren't necessarily movies released in 2015, just movies I saw for the first time in 2015.

10) The Good Lie: A moving portrayal of Sudanese refugees adjusting to life in the US.

9) McFarland, USA: True story of a cross country team overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to become a California powerhouse.

8) The Drop: James Gandolfini's last film is a worthy send-off. Tom Hardy channels Mike Tyson in this under appreciated crime film.

7) Big Hero 6: Let's put it this way. I watched this with a very tough group of 8th graders, and they were bawling, all of them.

6) Jurassic World: I didn't think you could match the scene in Jurassic Park when ol' T-rex makes his appearance, but when the new dinosaur shows up in this one, not only did I feel that same excitement, I could see it on my daughter's face as well.

5) Wild: While I would not consider myself a big fan, this is the second Reese Witherspoon movie on the list. This one was definitely overlooked by Oscar last year. Great adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir.

4) Whiplash: A little movie that asks a big question: How far should we go to achieve excellence?

3) Inside Out: I'm a huge Pixar fan, and this is Pixar at its very best. And like any good Pixar movie, this one made me verklempt more than once.

2) The Big Short: Another film adaptation of a great nonfiction book. This movie tackles the complexity of the housing bubble that nearly collapsed the world economy with a wicked sense of humor. But it's smart enough to leave you pissed off.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Not many things in life surpass expectations, but this movie managed to surpass my unrealistic child-of-the-80s expectations. Starting a new chapter of this story with my girls makes it even more special.

Let me know what you think of my choices, and of course, I'd love to hear what you enjoyed watching this year in the comments, maybe some movies to watch in 2016. Your top movie, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for..........Zoo

Before I had kids I wasn't much of a zoo person. I do have a few fond childhood memories of trips to the zoo, but they're pretty faded and worn now. Way back in the recesses of my cluttered memory, I can see old Samson, the giant 650 pound gorilla from the Milwaukee Zoo.

I did work at a zoo the summer after freshman year in college. That was a wild experience, one that might make a pretty funny book one day. A coming of age story with elusive spider monkeys, wacky co-workers, raccoons on leashes, and hissing badgers. Years later I spent a memorable afternoon with Meg at said zoo. We watched in sociological awe as a family straight out of Deliverance got peed on by a lion they were harassing. Meg and I have gotten a lot of mileage out that story over the years.

We have a nice little zoo here in Tucson. You can walk the whole thing in about an hour, which makes it perfect for quick visits with the kids. When the girls were little we had a membership, and we went just about every weekend. First came the stroller years, when Meg and I could dictate the pace and enjoy some time out of the house. Then came the toddler years, when we let the girls walk on their own, herding them through all the sights. Finally, we reached the point where the girls could walk slightly ahead of us, Meg and I able to have a little adult conversation while the girls checked in with all their favorite animals.

We don't go to the zoo much anymore. I wouldn't say the girls outgrew it, but other interests have taken over. Every once in a while they'll get excited about going, maybe to feed the giraffes. I miss the days when a trip to the zoo was a major family outing. I'm sure we'll make at least one visit during summer vacation. I hope the girls will have fond memories of our trips to the zoo. I know I do.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for..........YouTube.

I love YouTube. I like checking out the latest viral videos as much as the next guy, and I can't tell you how many times YouTube has bailed me out at school.

Kids, today we begin designing our catapults.

Blank stares.

How 'bout we check out a couple YouTube videos to get some ideas.

Happy shiny faces.

I don't subscribe to Youtube channels yet, but that may not be far off for me. It's quite possible that YouTube will be instrumental in how I access a large portion of my entertainment in the future.

I can foresee a situation where creative types have their own channels and you'll need to subscribe for new content. It's my understanding this is already happening, but I'm still pretty ignorant when it comes to YouTube.

One thing seems for sure. YouTube will be a big player in the entertainment world in the foreseeable future.

Monday, April 28, 2014

X is for..........Xenophobia and Xenophilia

To be honest, I was just going to skip X this year. But then something happened this morning. Every Monday I give my students a vocabulary packet, and when I flipped to this week's unit in my trusty vocabulary book I had to laugh. The words all include the suffixes phobia or philia. One of the words is xenophobia and that was my very first X back in 2011. In 2012, I went flip side of the coin and did xenophilia, a word that, quite frankly, was new to me at the time. So as I made my copies before school, I decided I wouldn't skip X after all.

I certainly prefer Xenophilia, an attraction to foreign peoples, cultures, or customs. The opposite of xenophobia if you will. I love learning about foreign cultures and customs, and some of my very favorite people hail from other countries. I may be making up a word here, but I would even consider myself a xenophiliac. 

As you can imagine, my students weren't particularly happy to see their weekly vocabulary homework coming at them this morning, but this little X coincidence put a smile on my face.

Hey, at least one person in the room was happy.