Last year, I didn’t do a best of list. Probably because we were in the throes of the pandemic and I didn’t have much motivation to look back with affection. This year, though we are still very much in a pandemic, things feel a little different. Perhaps I have accepted the new normal. Perhaps I have a greater anticipation of the end of this. Perhaps my kids are a little older.
Of course what’s happening in the world and in my own life affect what’s on this list. It’s telling that four of my favourite television shows were comedies and two of my favourite films were documentaries relevant to COVID-19. A good laugh is precious, and I especially appreciated stories of resilience and hope. Any kind of beauty is like ointment. In terms of reading, apparently I only read spiritual books – out of desire and necessity (for school etc.). I haven’t bothered to write anything about the books and I haven’t ranked them either.
These lists are a way to document a portion of my year and to create conversation with friends. I hope you enjoy some of these offerings and if you do, let me know. One of the truly best things I experienced this year was, months after meeting on Zoom for church, at last meeting in person and hearing people sing together. May that grace increase and continue in 2022.
Happy New Year!
10. THIS TIME WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE: s2
This was a fairly mindless albeit hilarious tonic in an otherwise serious year. Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) wants to ascend the heights of celebrity via “serious journalism,” only to be repeatedly found out as the self-involved and slightly incompetent fellow he actually is.
9. THIS WAY UP: s1 and s2
This comedy/drama reminds me of Fleabag in so many ways with its backdrop of addiction, sibling love/hate, and whip-smart dialogue. Though perhaps not as moving and affecting as the former, this was an enjoyable watch and the sisterly relationship in particular felt both authentic and remarkable.
8. THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT
I was never a fan of The Big Bang Theory, but this show properly ejected Kaley Cuoco out of canned laughter and into the world of serious television. Is it a surreal murder mystery? Is it a psychological excavation of an addict’s unravelling life? Probably both.
7. MOTHERLAND (s1)
This may be the only show on the list that routinely made Jennifer and I laugh out loud which, as you know, is especially welcome these days. It’s not about parenting per se, but about the life of parents navigating school drop-offs and pick-ups. We are on our way through the second season (which hasn’t been as gratifying), and look forward to the third.
6. CALL THE MIDWIFE (s10)
Frankly, I am amazed at the sustained quality of this show. It continues to move, inspire, and affect me in significant ways. Especially in a pandemic, being reminded of the importance and existence of basic human kindness and goodness was a salve. The rootedness of this drama in Christian faith (including experiences of spiritual desolation!) and midwifery practice in the poverty of London’s East End remains compelling viewing. I have loved watching this series throughout the years.
5. TED LASSO (s2)
While not as “perfect” as the first season in my opinion, this season broadened its dramatic arc (Nate! Ted’s anxiety!) while maintaining the bugaboos of Ted Lasso’s managerial career in England. Nate, in particular, excelled this season and I am looking forward to see what materializes in the third season. For good cheer, quick laughs, and an interesting storyline, this is a great choice.
This felt like it came out of nowhere and tells the story of a woman who leaves an abusive partner with her young daughter, only to face the nightmarish cocktail of governmental bureaucracy, unemployment, and legal battles. A mother’s resilience is on full display here and it was a beautiful watch, even though some of the episodes in the middle (scary woods and murderers!) seemed out of sync and unnecessary.
After Jimmy McGovern’s “Broken,” I was looking forward to this and it didn’t disappoint. This is an incredible drama about facing the consequences of one’s actions and seeking forgiveness and restoration within the context of incarceration. The dialogue, plot, characters, and emotional weight are stunning and have remained with me long after I finished the last episode.
2. Mare of Easttown
I wasn’t that inclined to watch murder mysteries / whodunnits this year, though I am glad I chose this one. Kate Winslet is predictably fantastic in this show as a grieving detective whose own life and current case unfurl slowly and devastatingly. Ultimately, this is a show about family, community, and what people are willing to do for one another. It was astounding, tear-inducing, and depicts the fullness/complexity of human relationships (love, loss, etc.) with real potency.
1. The Underground Railroad
Immediately after the credits of the last episode, I asked several friends whether they’d seen this show and promptly told them it was the best show I have ever seen. You read that right. In terms of cinematography, character, plot, scope, and overall punctum (to use Roland Barthes’ phrase), I have never experienced anything like this. Of course the show is not “casual viewing” as it is about slavery in the Deep South and runs close to ten hours over ten episodes. Nonetheless, this is a work of art to be reckoned with and will absorb you into its drive for freedom and justice amidst the horrors of racism and unimaginable oppression.
8. DON’T LOOK UP
Well, what did you expect from a star-studded cast given an fairly average script? A 10 km comet is discovered hurtling towards Earth – this means 100% destruction of the planet. Of course, politicians, tech companies, and general citizenry aren’t convinced and their interests range from what will get them the vote, bring in more dollars, and make more sales. If it sounds familiar, it is; this film is an allegory to common reactions to the climate crisis, though in that regard (the allegory) it isn’t all that compelling. Leo Dicaprio is great and there are some good gags along the way. If you enjoy this as entertainment and don’t expect it to be your moral awakening, it will serve you well.
7. 9/11: INSIDE THE PRESIDENT’S WARROOM
20 years after that fateful day, this documentary chronicles – almost to the minute – the ongoings of President Bush beginning with his 6am jog to getting the news to figuring out what to do. It’s understandably harrowing – both to relive the events and to get a behind-the-scenes look at the government’s response.
6. HORIZON SPECIAL: THE VACCINE
I read a review for this in The Guardian that hailed the masterminds behind the COVID-19 vaccine as heroes. That review inclined me towards this documentary which, having seen it, makes me similarly applaud the people behind this remarkable vaccine and its development. As someone who was relatively unaware when it comes to virology and epidemiology, this was a fascinating and inspiring journey into vaccine science, all the more relevant given the current pandemic.
What a sweet and good-natured film! The story centres around a deaf family with a hearing teenage daughter who can sing. I mean, really sing. Understandably, this poses some complexity for the family- they rely on her to connect some of the dots in their fishing business and her voice presents her with opportunities beyond and away from the family. There is humour, pathos, and a kind of cultural education (for people like myself who are hearing), all of which I relished.
4. THE FIRST WAVE
Another COVID-19 documentary which, rather than focusing on vaccine science, portrays the first weeks and months of the pandemic in New York City (which was the worst hit locale in the world at the time). Somehow, Matthew Heineman was given permission to roam the halls of an NYC hospital as nurses, doctors, and ICU staff interact with and treat COVID-19 patients. The footage and narrative that emerges is – and I mean this sincerely – incredible. It is an unflinching look at the horrors of the pandemic as well as the courage of frontline workers, patients, and their families.
3. 14 PEAKS
Another one that came out of nowhere! Netflix premiered this trailer about a Nepali guy who scaled 14 of the highest peaks in the world (all over 8,000m) in a matter of months. Having trekked in the Himalayan range (albeit at a much lower altitude!) and with friends and connections in Nepal, even the trailer was hard to resist. The film itself is breathtaking: seeing the mountains and Nirmal Purja’s tenacity in climbing them was a feat in and of itself. You and I will likely never scale these heights and this is the next best thing.
This critically-acclaimed film is a humble gem, much like the Korean family that serves as the protagonist. Wanting a better life for themselves, the family purchases farm land in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas and has to navigate the new terrain as well as the sociocultural dynamics of rural Southern life. It’s a story of hope, disappointment, identity, dignity, recalibration, endurance, and promise – familiar themes for immigrant families and embodied excellently in this moving film. I think it deserved all the plaudits it received.
1. THE POWER OF THE DOG
What an utter masterpiece. Jane Campion has a rare eye and attention for detail and everything from the casting, the pacing, to the cinematography is near perfect. The film is about a toxic male ranch hand (Benedict Cumberbatch, who apparently stayed in character for the entirety of filming) who terrorizes everyone around him in a series of well curated micro-aggressions. There may be a reason for this behaviour (which we learn later), but the story is essentially about the wake a character like this creates for those around him, and how those around him respond. The film gnaws into you, frame by frame, moment by moment, and there is so much given beyond the dialogue presented. It is, ultimately, a film about love – what it does to you and what you do for it.
- He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (Matthew Y. Emerson) *
- Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Trish Harrison Warren) *
- Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone (Father James Martin, SJ) *
- The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Alan Kreider)
- God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will (Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ)
- Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life (Joan Chittister)
- You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (James K.A Smith)
- Domestic Monastery (Ronald Rolheiser
- Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram (Alice Fryling)
- Just Call Me Lopez: Getting to the Heart of Ignatius of Loyola (Margaret Silf)
* Books released in 2021