The best things I watched and read this year
My year of rest and relaxation via content.
Mōrena! The year-ender season continues to creep backwards. Spotify Wrapped dropped in November this year and Pitchfork published its first ‘best of 2023’ list on November 20, when we weren’t even 90% of the way into the dang thing yet. At some point these organisations will be dragged to The Hague for these crimes, but for now we all just have to accept that the season now no longer consists of December and a bit of January, but December and a bit of November.
In that spirit, and since I have a newsletter I get to write things in, here is my list of the best things I saw and read in 2023. It’s not particularly political, so if you only signed up for my red-hot analyses of NZES data, I’m sorry.
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My favourite films from this year
I’ll be honest, nothing blew me away like Avatar: The Way of Water did in 4D last year. It helps that it was literally blowing air and water at me while I watched, but boy what a time in the cinema. Big Jim supremacy.
There was a welcome dropoff in superhero drek this year - they still released plenty of it, but its strangehold on the meta-culture seems to have been broken by the Barbenheimer phenomenon and failure of The Marvels1. Hopefully at some point soon you will be confident when walking into a cinema that you won’t have to have binged full seasons of two different shows to properly understand a new film.
Number 5: Rye Lane
The best rom-com in yonks succeeds by not having much of a conceit. I guess it mostly happens in one day on one long walk - much like Before Sunset, just in South London instead of Paris. But really it’s mostly just two well-written characters who you like getting to know each other. It probably helps that they are both movie people and I saw it in one of the cinemas featured in the film (on Rye Lane!) - but this really is just a sweet film to cheer oneself up with. Unlike my next pick.
Number 4: The Killer
I am a huge David Fincher head and think his work on Zodiac and The Social Network gives him a claim to be one of our greatest living directors. His very clinical look, which requires hundreds of takes and some dim-ass lighting, has become the kind of house style of Netflix2, where he helped to create House of Cards and filmed this movie. But despite it being widely imitated, it’s still just incredibly exhilarating to watch. Even if it is in service of a pretty thin story about a hitman on the run.
Number 3: Killers of the Flower Moon
Look, it is definitely too long. But when you are working with real historical fact sometimes you just want to put it all on the page, to show how cruelty actually works: It’s not always meticulous or well-planned. Sometimes it’s just opportunistic, or repetitive, or relies on one idiot nephew telling another idiot what to do. The final scene where Marty essentially turns the whole thing into a true crime podcast? Just fantastic.
Number 2: Oppenheimer
This kind of movie is extremely my shit, in that it is mostly about mid-century US politics, not physics. God imagine how boring this movie would have been if it was actually about science, and not the much more interesting subject of power.
I don’t always love Nolan but he is firing on every cylinder here.
Number 1: Poor Things
Yorgos Lanthimos usually makes very cold and weird movies: See The Lobster, Dogtooth, and my personal favourite The Killing of a Sacred Deer. These movies are often funny, but not fun.
Emma Stone seems to have broken through to his warm Greek heart however. Her second collaboration with him is still weird and is still very dark, but is also bursting with life and tenderness. I can’t really explain the plot except to say “horny Frankenstein”. Very much worth your time.
My favourite films I first saw this year
One of the best things about living in London is how easy it is to see old films at the cinema. I won’t go into as much detail on these ones as this post is long enough.
Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is the film pictured at the top of this post, and simply blew me away. It’s about amorous nuns in a convent in Tibet, although it was actually filmed entirely in studio, which is wild. Only surpassed for me by another classic of Powell and Pressburger: A Matter of Life and Death, a film where a guy literally appeals his death in a court in heaven. Somehow it works.
The Night of the Hunter is a movie about a man stalking children that terrified me. An unrelentingly bleak nightmare, which is not something you expect for a black and white film from the 50s. Wildly beautiful.
Sunset Boulevard was the best movie I saw this year and needs no introduction.
My favourite books I read this year
I was going to do a whole list of new books from this year, but only a handful of the books I read this year3 are actually from this year, making a “top five” thing a bit silly.
So here are the five best things I read for the first time this year, organised by format rather than rank.
Best politics book: George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn
One of the funniest things about contemporary political discourse is the use of the word “Orwellian” to mean “thing I don’t like”. It is usually wielded by people who would despise the firmly socialist Orwell were he alive and writing today.
Probably because he is so over-referenced, I’ve neglected reading him much in adulthood, to my own detriment. David Runciman’s excellent new podcast put me right and onto this fantastic essay, written in the darkest hours of World War II, when the UK was facing the Nazis alone and looked set to lose. You get that right from the first line:
“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
We are so used to reading about World War II from the faroff vantage point of history. Reading about how a very intelligent person thinks it is going to go as it is happening is a clarifying shock. The essay is framed around how exactly England might win the war: His answer is democratic socialism, which doesn’t end up happening like he thought it might but does kind of happen after the war.
Yet in making this argument it reaches far further: His wife Eileen puts it best, describing the essay as “how to be a socialist while Tory.” This is why the essay has lived on and been quoted by Conservative Prime Ministers. It features some of the best writing about a living breathing political nation I have ever read. As an artifact of history it is fascinating, but even aside from that it is just a strong read.
Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge is about as good as contemporary political memoir gets.
Kerry Howley’s Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs is an uneven but very interesting look at surveillance politics.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future is an earnest attempt to use fiction to write a series of essays about climate policy.
Best fiction book: Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These
I’m late to this one.
Small Things Like These is a novella about a working class town in Ireland in 1985. It is more specifically about a moderately successful coal merchant having a moral crisis when he sees something he shouldn’t have at a church-run laundry. Many books deal with these kinds of themes, but I can’t remember reading anything that quite shook me as much as this did, or took me in as deeply into one family’s life. And all in a book you can read in one sitting!
Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was my favourite until I read the above and also blew me away. A book about the Vietnam War written long before it started. And a book about how having American-style moral certainty can be far more dangerous than being a crusty old British cynic.
Cormac McCarthy’s Stella Maris is entirely made up of conversations with a therapist, something I would usually find tiring. But in this book it is not just exciting but terrifying.
Eleanor Catton’s Birnham Wood is a nail-biting thriller about the country we all call home. At points I couldn’t really work out if it was satire or not, but it is a whole lot of fun.
John le Carre’s A Perfect Spy. My favourite non-Smiley le Carre. Almost biographical, so pairs well with his recently published letters, or the new doco based on his actual memoir.
Best history book: Replenishing The Earth by James Belich.
Noted Kiwi historian James Belich takes on an insanely ambitious question: Why did the English-speaking world shoot ahead of everyone else for a few hundreds years? The answers are not as simple as the ones usually offered in this big sweeping world histories - it’s not just Guns, Germs, and Steel or whatever - but are consequently far more satisfying.
As ever with Belich, it’s full of wild statistics and new ways of looking at the past, for example:
At a time it was reasonable to predict that “The Tasman World” of Australia and New Zealand would soon surpass the UK in importance and size, with Melbourne at its heart.
Almost 10% of Pakeha males experienced bankruptcy during the 1880s.
The US was poorer than Argentina and Cuba in 1800.
One German early immigrant couple apparently has 3500 Kiwi descendants.
Most English-speaking “newlands” (think Canada and New Zealand) doubled their population in a ten-year period at some point in the 1880s, a wild amount of growth we can barely conceive of now.
The actual process of emigration was more dangerous than we realise. One in four children died on one particularly disease-ridden ship between Britain and Victoria in 1852.
New Zealand formed 400 newspapers in its first 40 years as a country.
I could keep going!
W.B. Sutch’s The Quest for Security is a great but slanted primer on early New Zealand social and economic policy up til 1966.
Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring is a game attempt at taking on the revolutions of 1848 in a single book.
Sam Tanenhaus’ Whittaker Chambers is a fascinating insight into an almost forgotten scandal in US history that helped spark the McCarthy era and Richard Nixon’s career. In this instance there really were reds under the bed.
Stephen Kotkin’s books on Stalin have lived with me for the last few years, and I finally finished the second one this year. Essentially a history of the world via one man’s desk. So meticulous you will fall asleep sometimes, but what an achievement.
What were your favourite books and movies of the year? Let me know in the comments or by replying.
This is not an original observation of mine - I first heard it on the Blank Check podcast.
Every year I set myself a goal to read either 50 or 52 books, and every year I fail - except one. I’m at 48 right now and am thinking this could be another victory.