A short book review and two short movie reviews

January 1, 2023 • 1:00 pm

Since I wasn’t able to be in Poland over the holidays, I read books and watched movies. One book I recommend highly is Beartown, loaned to me by a friend (image below links to Amazon site). It’s the first book of a trilogy by Swedish writer Fredrick Backman, and this one’s about the way high-school hockey takes over a small Swedish town and then tears it apart. The language is spare but lovely, especially when the author becomes more philosophical near the end. It starts off with a simple narrative about the local hockey team, but then becomes very dark very fast. I won’t give away the pivotal event of the story.

It’s engrossing, was a best-seller in Sweden and then in the U.S. The theme is about community and loyalty, and I’m considering continuing on to the last two novels of the trilogy. I’d recommend this one highly. It’s not a world classic or a masterpiece, but it’s an absorbing and disturbing read. (Disturbing books are the best books.)

I didn’t go to the movies much last year because of the pandemic, and the University movie series, Doc Films, had a pared-down schedule. I’m catching up online now, and here are two that I watched and liked. I found them because they both appeared on at least two “best films of 2022” lists.

I watched “The Worst Person in the World” because, though I hadn’t heard of it, it was named as the best movie of the year on Esquire’s tally of the 35 best. Here’s what the authors have to say:

Granted, it was only February when I saw this, but director Joaquim Trier’s wonderfully humane Norwegian import and nominee for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is still, hands-down, the best film of 2022. I’ve blown hot and cold on some of Trier’s earlier films, but this one is an instant classic in large part due to Renate Reinsve’s luminous performance as Julie—an aimless Oslo woman on the cusp of 30 who’s trying to figure herself out in ways that are so funny, sad, and realistically messy that it feels like we’re spying on someone we’ve known for years. The title might give you the impression that Julie is trouble, leaving chaos and broken hearts in her wake. But the title actually isn’t about her. Plus, she’s far more complex than that implies anyway. Told in 12 chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue, The Worst Person in the World is anything but neat and orderly. Like life, it’s complicated, unpredictable, bittersweet and indecisive. It’s also brimming with so much empathy for Trier’s female lead that you can’t help but fall in love with her even when you know she’s making mistakes. After all, who are we to judge? Trier tracks Julie’s relationships with men, but it’s far more interested in getting inside of her head and figuring out what makes her tick, which is a rarity in Hollywood films. We’ll see if anything in the coming months can match Trier and Reinsve’s masterpiece, but they’ve set an incredibly high bar.

That pretty much says it all, but I wouldn’t rate this as the best even among the few movies I’ve seen this year (that would be “Tár”). The main character ,Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), turns in a creditable performance, but I don’t understand all the critics’ hulabaloo. (It was rated 96 by the critics and 86 by the audience on Rotten Tomatoes.) Julie is aimless, flaky, and lovable, and makes a mess of her life, especially when dealing with men, but that aimlessness itself, and the attendant sadness and tragedy, don’t carry the picture.  To my mind, Julie wasn’t sufficiently developed to be absorbing, and the reviewers seemed to conflate flakiness and confusion with complexity and depth. I would rate this as a good+ movie, but the best? No way. But watch it for yourself. Here’s a trailer:

Kimi“, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was better, and though also not a classic is clever, absorbing, and a crime thriller to boot. Kimi is an AI device like Alexa, made by a company that employs the protagonist Angela, played very well by Zoë Kravitz. Angela is an extremely introverted and agoraphobic women who almost never leaves her flat, but her job can be done from home: she listens in on requests to Kimi to figure out how to improve the AI device. By accident she hears a crime being committed, and it’s her attempts to report the crime, and the opposition she faces from a criminal conspiracy, that make for an edge-of-your-seat experience.  I’m surprised I liked this better than the one above, as I usually like long, slow, movies with character development and not that much action.  This movie gets a “very good” from me and I recommend that you see it if you get the chance.

I also watched a movie that was on many lists as a “best of 2022”: “Everything Everywhere All At Once“, starring Michelle Yeoh, but I found it tricked out and tedious, and stopped watching 45 minutes in. (It’s about the multiverse.) Many of my friends liked it, so I’ll just say, “Go see it and report in”, or report below if you’ve already seen it.

Now it’s your turn: which movies did you like best that were made last year?

30 thoughts on “A short book review and two short movie reviews

  1. I liked “Kimi.” Its plot reminded me somewhat of “The Net” in which Sandra Bullock, who plays a software developer, stumbles across something nefarious—and then certain people find out and attempt to go after her. It’s a decent thriller from 1995 that holds up (I watched it again early in 2022). As for recent movies, “Emily the Criminal,” which, to my surprise, showed up on Barack Obama’s list of favorite movies from 2022, was pretty good. “Top Gun: Maverick” is better than “Top Gun,” and “The Gray Man,” which I watched last night, was a bit over the top and maybe too cartoony, in terms of its violence and how the protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, gets out of trouble, but I still enjoyed it. (As for TV, the second season of “The White Lotus” was very good.)

    As for books, I read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, “Little Failure,” and I’m in the middle of “The Founding Myth: “Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American” by Andrew Seidel. That should appeal to just about any reader of this site.

    1. I remember “The Net” for… well, Sandra Bullock, of course, but also its wild futuristic stuff like ordering pizza on the web! That was still a very newfangled thing at the time.

    2. I haven’t seen Kimi but the trailer makes it look like a combination of Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. When I first saw The Conversation I thought it slow but over the years never get bored by it. I will definitely put Kimi on my watch list.

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VD_CAJHIIQE

    1. I loved the book, and the film was okay. I also liked his book Folk med angst (Anxious People). He’s one of the few non-crime writers I’ve read in Swedish.

  2. All the streaming services these days does make it easier to catch up on movies. Here are recent ones that I can recommend. The best of these would be the first three.
    Barry Lyndon
    The Wind Rises
    The Vast of Night
    The Departed
    Mammals
    Smile
    Pinocchio

  3. I am really tired of books and movies about “the” multiverse. I’ll bet the man in the street will soon treat such wild conjectures as scientific truth. Another one I dislike was in “The peripheral”, where the different parallel universes of the story were defended by the line, “It’s really quantum tunneling”. Scientific jargon used in total ignorance of what it is to support a story line. Sorry for the rant. 😉

    1. We’ve been watching The Peripheral. It was ok over a few episodes, but its another example of many where I just don’t see the point of endlessly stretching the hell out of what should be just a short series.

      1. I read William Gibson’s book when it came out (in 2014, astonishingly – time flies!) It was OK, but nothing exceptional.

  4. I saw a listicle the other day of the twenty-eight(!) best horror/sci-fi/fantasy movies of 2022. I question the premise.

    I can hardly remember what I’ve seen this year. I thought the Jeffrey Dahmer thing on Netflix was very good, even with the artistic liberties taken, and would recommend it. I went to see the Black Panther sequel, not expecting to like it. In fact, I liked it more than the original. I saw the Netflix Death on the Nile, which I thought was horrible. In general, I’ve reached the stage where everything seems to have been done, and done better, before, or is so larded with wokeness that it destroys the ability to suspend disbelief.

    1. Ditto to your estimate of ‘Death on the Nile,’ with the exception of Emma Mack – the villain, whose acting made everyone else look like shadows.

  5. Hey, “The Banshees of Inisherin”, written and directed by the outstanding playwright/director Martin McDonagh….wow! double wow! (He directed In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri). I rarely watch American films though luckily I saw “First Reformed”, by Paul Shrader. It outshines 99.99 % of all American films ever made. It opened in theaters one week about five years ago and disappeared. I cant believe no one is mentioning it today! In this country Todd Field and Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills; The Savages; Private Life) are the best ones working, and McDonagh wherever he works, plus Almadovar, Del Toro, Cuaron. All the rest is just stuff to eat your popcorn with. Waiting for rental price on Tar to come down.As for oldies/goodies, it’s Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder) hands down, and films by Ernest Lubitsche (check out To be or Not To Be).

    1. The cinematography of “Banshees of Inisherin” was splendid, but the whole business of
      the Colm character cutting off his own fingers was too ghastly for me to keep watching.
      Incidentally, the great actor Brendan Gleeson is a fiddler, and I believe he does his own
      fiddling in “Banshees”, as he also did in “Cold Mountain”.

      1. I recoiled in horror too, but at least the bloody scenes passed quickly. There are millions more scenes in truly abominable violent movies that are far worse than this. But there are some in great films too: the Haneke film “Cache” (it happens too fast to close your eyes), and two in the other McDonagh film “In Bruges”, which for me were the worst of all. But it is gratuitous exploitive violence that repulses me, not the scenes that are short but integrated into the rest of the film. How about the burning of humans in The Devils and in The Seventh Seal? Really horrific but only one small part of something bigger.

    2. First Reformed was very good – one of Shrader’s better films. I didn’t like the dream sequences so much, and it predictably followed a Taxi Driver type narrative, but I liked it

  6. I agree with Jerry about the Michelle Yeoh movie everything all at once. I watched it for less than an hour and had to stop as it was not funny and senseless at the same time. It just seemed slapstick. One of the best I have sens is the Indian extravaganza RRR. It is well worth the three hour investment and appeared to go very fast. The dance numbers are dazzling.

    1. I hung up on the Everything movie as well, but intend to go back to it later. That RRR movie was exhausting! Incredible intensity. Spectacle. Dialed to 11 pretty much the entire time. But I enjoyed the hell out of it.

  7. Here is another enjoyable Swedish novel about community, which has the benefit of being very funny: “Popular Music from Vittula” by Mikael Niemi. It describes the life of a small town in the Tornedal region, a northern backwoods where the language is more Finnish than Swedish, and where the general culture might translate into USian as a
    hybrid of Alaska, Appalachia, and a Coen brothers’ movie conception of North Dakota.

  8. I enjoyed Everything Everywhere All at Once but then I enjoy Michelle Yeoh in any movie she appears in.

  9. Everything Everywhere All At Once

    Charlie Kaufman meets Quentin Tarantino (or, a bit more charitably, the Wachowskis meet Terry Gilliam) in this high-concept science fiction/low-brow slapstick time-waster with sad pretensions to brain-twister status, scaffolded by the flimsiest of family dramas. Somewhere in the collapsing “omniverse” an overburdened laundromat owner (Michele Yeoh; “Neo”) and her husband (Ke Huey Quan; “Morpheus”) conspire to save all and live happily ever after (she even knows kung fu!). It’s a hyper-kinetic universe-jumping chopsocky of narrative nonsensicality and consequent viewer disconnection. And at two-and-a-half mindless hours, it’s endless. Jamie Lee Curtis is a guilty pleasure in a small role; the great James Hong is wasted, of course.

  10. Oh, just remembered:

    Glass Onion – A Knives Out Mystery

    I’m planning to see this – I had low expectations for Knives Out and was very impressed – a brilliant mystery!

    Glass Onion was in a nearby multiplex for a “limited engagement” I missed out on, so now I have to play the subscription game … if the ancient format of dvd is nary to be had.

  11. We saw a movie called “CODA” – a character-rich story about a teenage daughter of deaf adults. It made me laugh and cry.

    And of course there’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” which needs to be seen in 3D at an IMAX for the best viewing and listening experience. The musical score is outstanding!!

    1. CODA sounds like a new version of Beyond Silence (German: Jenseits der Stille), a
      wonderful Caroline Link film which won numerous awards in the 1990s.

  12. I’m on your side, Jerry, on ‘Everything Everywhere…’. The multiverse is the death of interest for me. When anything can happen, nothing ever does.

  13. Best film I saw last year was a 2021 French release, The Happening, the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion-winning adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by last year’s Nobel Lit Laureate, Annie Ernaux. It’s the story of a budding teenage intellectual’s search for an illegal abortion in early 1960s Paris, featuring a transcendent performance in the lead role by the young French-Romanian actress, Anamaria Vartolomei.

    I saw it last spring and suppose it seemed all the more poignant and timely in light of the then-pending SCOTUS decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

    1. The film’s title is Happening, not The Happening (which was a late 1960s film, about which I mainly remember the title song being a hit for The Supremes).

  14. Film recommendations from 2022: RRR, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story; Prisoners of the Ghostland (Nicolas Cage in his glory. If you like this eccentric actor, check out The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and Pig.), Bullet Train, The Banshees of Inisherin (Written and directed by the great Martin McDonagh. I recommend reading all of his plays and watching all of his films.)

    Fiction recommendations: Jennifer Egan, The Candy House; Leigh Newman, Nobody Gets Out Alive: Stories; Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn (short story collection); Jess Walter, The Angel of Rome and Other Stories

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