Here we go again. Another strange year in cinema, where the existential question of what it even means to BE a movie is open for discussion. Case in point — the most powerful and absorbing filmic experience of 2021 was Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back.” Was that eight-hour, three-part, mind-blowing experience a “movie” or “TV show”? Dunno. But because it was really neither, it’s not on this list nor on my post of top TV shows either (which can be read here).

We can obviously blame some of the year’s weirdness on the pandemic. You couldn’t even GO to the movies for the first third of 2021 and even when they allowed you in the theatre, you practically needed to wear a Hazmat suit. But a bigger problem is that consumers have just gotten out the habit of treating the movies as a social experience to be shared with other human beings. It’s just so much easier and cheaper to stream a movie at home, so why go out?

I respect that Old Hollywood is doing what it can to hang on, and that it held back some of its most highly anticipated would-be blockbusters for the big screen. But most of them — “West Side Story” and that James Bond movie, for example — ended up being well-made and beautifully shot disappointments.

What’s also distorted about this list is that I didn’t even see most of last year’s best movies until calendar year 2022, which is why I waited to publish this until a week before the Oscars. Unless you lived in Manhattan or Hollywood it was hard to see them in 2021, since many producers delayed their releases in the mostly vain hope that they’d generate some late-year Oscar buzz.

Having said that, I’m reasonably happy with the what I did manage to see this year. I really like my Top Five movies, which makes me hopeful that there’s still a little life left in the old art form. Fingers crossed that the pandemic is really over now and that grown-up movie lovers will return to theaters.

1. Licorice Pizza

The protagonist is named Gary. Need I say more? Set in Hollywood during the early 1970s oil embargo, Gary is an aging child star, a cany entrepreneur, and a 15-year-old romantic who has his eyes set on a woman ten years his senior. Everyone understands this is weird and maybe even illegal but it’s still endearing. And to be honest, I too am in love with Alana Haim, the object of his desire, so I get it. The other great thing about Licorice Pizza is that it’s the funniest film of the year, despite technically not being a comedy.

2. CODA

I almost made this my number one pick but decided that Licorice Pizza was more interesting, even though CODA was the movie that produced the tears. CODA stands for Child Of Deaf Adults and the protagonist is a high school senior forced to chose between staying home to support her family’s fishing business or going to college to pursue a vocal career. It’s more than a bit manipulative but who cares? Sometimes it just feels so good to be manipulated.

3. Tick Tick Boom

Before Jonathan Larson created “Rent,” he wrote another (unproduced) musical — Tick Tick Boom — about being a starving artist in New York City during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Now directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the movie is surprisingly innovative, so although the songs are not familiar the musical is still engaging. And to be honest, even if you weren’t a struggling artist at age 30, you probably were a struggling something, which makes this deeply affecting.

4. Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s coming of age story about a boy in Protestant Ulster during the North Ireland “troubles.” His dad is targeted by the Provos for being insufficiently anti-Catholic and the story revolves around the question of whether the family will move from the home they love. But even as the bombs go off around him, the young, seemingly untraumatized, Branagh stand-in is having a charmed childhood, like something out of James Joyce. So when the movie is not tense it’s very sweet.

5. Summer of Soul

Terrific documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension, the Staple Singers, Gladys Night and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone and the Chambers Brothers. Obviously the music is fantastic and the flashback to 1969 is always welcome.

6. In the Heights

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda created “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights,” a remarkably conventional Broadway show about life in New York’s Washington Heights. The film, directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director John M. Chu, is a highly romanticized view of urban life. Why would anyone ever want to leave? The exuberant musical numbers are the highlight, followed by the very likeable stars.

7. Dune

This is “Star Wars” for adults. No jokes and don’t get attached to any character because almost everyone dies. It’s more visually beautiful than “Star Wars,” and the world-building in more believable. On the other hand, while not impossible, it’s pretty hard to follow the plot without having read the book first. Subtitles would have helped a lot.

8. West Side Story

I was more conflicted over this than any other movie this year. Every single musical number was thrillingly beautiful, which made me regret that Steven Spielberg didn’t make more musicals, but while I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder why this movie needed to be remade. The original was pretty terrific. What’s next? “The Sound of Music” with Taylor Swift?

9. Free Guy

What happens when a character in a video game starts to develop self-awareness and intelligence? This extremely clever premise powers “Free Guy,” with Ryan Reynolds as “Guy,” an initially clueless bank teller who thinks every day is great until there’s a glitch in the program. Consequence-free action and amusement ensues. This is very professionally produced entertainment.

10. Cry Macho

Clint Eastwood, a retired ranch hand, is hired by his old boss to find his young son in Mexico and return him to Texas. From decades of watching Eastwood movies, we know that Clint is a softy and will develop feelings for the boy. There will also be car chases, some horse-whispering, family drama and even an age-appropriate romance for Clint. It is astonishing that this guy is still directing and starring in movies at 90 years old!

11. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

One of those animated movies that’s kind of for adults and kind of for kids, “M vs M” envisions a world in which a Jeff Bezos-like megalomaniac unleashes all the robots in creation to take over the world. Standing in the way is one slightly dysfunctional family that pulls together to save humanity. This has the same antic energy and emotional power of “Toy Story,” except that in this case the lump in the throat comes from the prospect of the older daughter heading off to college.

12. Power of the Dog

Who let the dog out of the closet? By far the weirdest movie of the year, with Benedict Cumberbatch as a psychologically twisted co-owner of a massive cattle ranch who makes life miserable for everyone when his brother takes a widow as his bride. There’s some serious sexual dysfunction happening here and yet it’s compelling and absorbing. I do not get why this captured so many Academy Award nominations and is the favorite to win.

13. King Richard

A very ordinary sports movie about the rise of Venus and Serena Williams with all the usual cliches. Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, is their hard-charging dad, who is a pain in the ass to the stuffy tennis establishment. Like all sports movies, this is inspirational. There are hardships to overcome, especially the fact that the family comes from Black Compton and not the white, country club-strewn suburbs. Of course the problem with valorizing a monomaniacal sports dad like Richard Williams is that it inspires the millions of other sports dads who think THEIR kids are also sports prodigies.

14. Being the Ricardos

Aaron Sorkin knows how to weave together a handful of actual facts to form a narrative that contains a semblance of truth without all the messy nuances that might complicate the story. So what we have here is a week in the life of Lucy and Desi in which: 1) Lucy is accused of being a communist, and 2) Lucy finds proof of Desi’s infidelities. Both these things happened in real life, but in one week and in such a tidy fable? Probably not. Nicole Kidman is OK with her Lucy impersonation. Javier Bardem lacks Desi’s charm and charisma.

15. Drive My Car

This plot — famous actor/director mourns the death of his wife, produces Uncle Vanya, broods a lot, stares out the window at the frozen landscape as he’s being driven to someone else’s sad memory — would have been perfect for Ingmar Bergman. It’s lovely and meditative but not for the impatient.

16. No Time to Die

Jerry Seinfeld has a funny joke — “If you have a license to kill, and every girl in the world wants to go to bed with you, how about a smile once in a while?” I find myself increasingly bored with Bond; not only can I barely follow the plot but where’s the fun? Obviously this is well produced with excellent car chases, but we can lose everything in between. Also, the ending? That would be a hard no.

17. The Truffle Hunters

I have a special affection for this gentle documentary about the elderly residents of a small Italian town who search for truffles in the forest because it was the first movie I saw at my beloved Avon Theatre when it reopened after phase one of the pandemic. It’s a trifle of a movie, a bagatelle really, but still a pleasure.

18. Limbo

I’m astonished to watch the trailer after having seen the film and discover they were pitching it as a comedy. In reality, I felt sad from the first frame. Omar is a Syrian refugee caught in bureaucratic limbo in Scotland. He desperately needs to gain official legal standing so he can work and begin a new life. He’s a mope and who can blame him, spending his days in lame ESL class and wandering the countryside. Yet he’s one of the lucky ones. There are tens of millions of refugees that never even make it to the West.

19. The Worst Person in the World

Julie, a lovely thirtysomething Dane with unfocused artistic aspirations, can’t decide what to do with her career or love life. To me, as an older adult, the stakes seem small, since you know she’ll figure it out. Yet Julie’s situation also feels real since some people really do feel lost in their twenties (see Tick Tick Boom above).

20. The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground were just a little before my time so until now I never really understood why they were so important to the development of Rock ‘n Roll. So thanks, documentarians, for educating me. I also really enjoyed flashing back to the downtown scene in the early 1960s, when underground culture seemed to be so vibrant and was on the verge of going mainstream.

21. Listening to Kenny G

Quite a thought-provoking documentary on what makes Kenny G one of the most popular musicians in the world. The guy does have an amazing story, but at the risk of being one of the snobs called to task in the documentary, a little bit of Kenny G goes a long way.

22. Good on Paper

One of the few purported romcoms of the year, this is actually an anti-romcom. There’s no emotional pay-off, just frustration. Folks, here’s a hint about romance, investment opportunities, and house-hunting: if something looks too good to be true, it usually is.

23. Don’t Look Up

Wow, what a lot of talent to waste on a garbage movie. Leo, J. Law, Meryl, Timothee, Cate, Ariana, that guy who played Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Ostensibly a hard-hitting satire on government and the media, as well as an allegory on climate change, this would-be comedy forgot to be funny or even plausible.

24. The French Dispatch

I wanted to walk out of this movie after five minutes but since I’d paid for tickets I stayed until the end. This extremely arch and self-satisfied depiction of a New Yorker-like magazine based in France is Wes Anderson at his whimsical worst. I wanted to pluck my eyes out. And yet somehow it made it onto many critics’ Top Ten lists. As Wallace Shawn said in The Princess Bride, “inconceivable!!!!”

This is the “hospital” where I was born

Today is my birthday so I thought I’d post the chapter from my memoir “Fortunate One: From Nantucket to the White House” that describes my birth. The book is available on Amazon here:

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On the day of my birth—13 months into the Eisenhower presidency and six months before Elvis released his first hit record—my very pregnant mother woke up feeling so odd that she stayed home instead of driving out to milk the cows. Only 21 years old, she and my 22-year-old father owned a small dairy about five miles out of town on the flat and then-deserted south shore of Nantucket Island. Yes, in those days, Nantucket had a dairy farmer, and that farmer was my father.

Early in her pregnancy, my mother asked her doctor when she should go to the hospital. His answer? “You’ll know.” This was in the benighted days before “What to Expect” books, Lamaze classes, and sonograms, but he was right. As the day of March 5th, 1954 wore on, she did, in fact, know that the time had come.

Returning from his milking duties at noon, my father discovered what he surely must have suspected when he left a few hours earlier—that his young wife was in the early stages of labor. My mother, not knowing when she’d eat again, prepared a robust lunch that they ate together, and then, after one last cigarette to calm her nerves, asked to be driven to the hospital.

Her destination—the original Nantucket Cottage Hospital—was neither a cottage nor a hospital as we’d understand the terms today. Imagine your grandmother’s house, but outfitted with a few hospital beds and some medical equipment. That’s what this was, a rudimentary medical facility created in 1912 out of a pair of weathered two-story 18th century houses. Connecting these former dwellings was a passageway that served as entrance, lobby, business center, and reception area. Turn right from the front door and you’d end up in the nurses’ residence; turn left and you’d enter the medical care part of the facility.

My mother had been born in this very building two decades earlier—delivered in fact by the same physician, Dr. Ernest Menges, who met her there later that afternoon. Not much about birth rituals had changed since my mother’s own birth, especially the role of fathers. In keeping with the iron law of mid-century obstetrics, my father’s participation in the birthing process consisted solely of depositing his wife at the front desk. With that task successfully accomplished, there was nothing else for him to do but drive back to the farm for the afternoon milking and pensively await the phone call announcing whether he’d become the proud father of a girl or a boy.

The hospital staff directed my mother from the front desk to a small room across the hall where she herself had been born. This chamber was used by two types of patients: women in labor and terminal patients who were not expected to live long; functioning, in other words, as Nantucket’s version of the circle of life.

The only people in attendance for my birth were Dr. Menges and two nurses, one of whom was my father’s maiden lady aunt, Edith Holmes, the hospital’s gentle, capable, and cheerful head of nursing. Mothers and best friends did not come rushing over with temple massages and heating pads to provide moral support. And if a midwife had arrived, she would have been treated like a witch doctor and driven into the street.

I’m told that the birth itself—at 7:15pm—was unremarkable, consisting mostly of contractions, cooling compresses, and at the end, a whiff of gas to numb the pain and induce outright unconsciousness. Soon after the deed was done, I was whisked away to the nursery while my mother slowly regained consciousness. She was then walked to a small, three-bed women’s ward on the second floor and wasn’t allowed to see me until the following morning. The umbilical cord was definitely not put in cold storage for future use.

The bill for the delivery—there was no insurance—came to $150.

No one arrived at the hospital the next day with a camera to capture my first gurgles and I escaped the nursery only sporadically for tightly regulated bottle feedings. Even my father was denied a glance of his firstborn until the next day’s visiting hours and not a moment sooner.

My parents named me Gary, although until the last minute, I was going to be Glenn. My mother was looking for a given name that theoretically couldn’t be shortened into a nickname. My uncle had the perfectly respectable birth name of James and she believed a grown man should not have the misfortune of being stuck with a diminutive like “Jimmy” all his life. She switched at the last minute, reasoning there is no cutesy moniker for Gary either. Alas, there is almost no name, no matter how short or monosyllabic, that cannot be made into a nickname, and various friends would later call me “Gare.” My wife takes it a step further, sometimes calling me “Ga” when she’s feeling particularly affectionate. (For what it’s worth, my brother-in-law calls his best friend “Glenny,” so there’s no winning this game.)

Despite being completely healthy, I didn’t leave the hospital for a week—after which I was driven home by my father, cradled in my mother’s arms as she sat in the car’s front seat, completely unprotected by not-yet-invented seat belts or infant car seats. Modern mothers who are familiar with being dumped onto the street after one night in the maternity wing might be interested to know that 1950s best practices required the mother to remain in the hospital for at least seven days to recover from the rigors of labor. In this regard, she was luckier than my grandmother, who, having given birth in the 1930s, was sentenced to two whole weeks of hospital bed rest. She later claimed those were the two most boring weeks of her life.

Naturally, there were no televisions or radios—never mind internet devices—to amuse young mothers as they lay in the women’s ward, but my mother considered herself relatively fortunate because she occupied the bed nearest the window and could look out to West Chester Street to see who was arriving and leaving the hospital.

A few days after I was born, I had company in the nursery. Another young mother had also delivered a baby boy. This small detail never came up until three decades later, when I heard that Nantucket had just recorded its first murder since the Civil War. My mother casually informed me that the perpetrator and I had been born practically at the same time and had even shared space in the nursery. She remembered being in the women’s ward with his mother.

It turned out that my first roommate, a hardened townie, had been in and out of trouble with the law for most of his life. Arrested for receiving stolen property at 17; arrested again for fighting with a police officer at 24. Now, at age 29, he had shot a long-time adversary in the stomach, becoming the protagonist in a case that drew national attention thanks to the mystery novel headlines: “A Murder on Nantucket.” Eventually he was convicted of premeditated murder, had the sentence reduced to manslaughter, and was retried and convicted a second time before being sentenced to 14-20 years in Walpole state prison.

For most people, this story was a curiosity. But what I couldn’t stop thinking about were the vagaries of fate. The two of us slept next to each other right out of the womb and never saw each other again. His family had stayed put on Nantucket with its insular and sometimes grievance-filled culture; mine had moved away, where I’d had all the advantages of an upwardly mobile household. What if the nurses had mixed us up in our bassinets? Would I have turned out to be a murderer? How is it, I wondered, that two babies lying side by side in the same nursery, born to two local working class mothers from similar backgrounds and with similar prospects, could end up in such different places?

Not for the first time, I observed that life is just one roll of the dice after another.

Like everyone else I watched more television in 2021 than I intended to, but nowhere near enough to offer a comprehensive overview of every TV show worth watching. In addition to there being a surfeit of TV shows, there are also too many networks and streaming services. Who, besides TV critics, billionaires, and the most inert couch potato, can subscribe to every worthwhile streaming service. How many out there besides me signed up for free introductory weeks of a service and then rushed to cancel before the credit card got charged? All of which is to say, if you have a favorite show that is not on the following list, I’m sure you’re right and I’ll be happy to watch it of you pay my cable bill.

What I have not included on the list are great classic TV shows that I’ve rewatched when all I wanted to do was laugh. This includes the first five seasons of the Office, since they’re on the free part of Peacock, but also Seinfeld, The New Girl, and 30 Rock, all of which are on Netflix. Also not included on this list are: Tom Brady’s performance in the Super Bowl, dozens of music documentaries on Prime, Bob Dole’s funeral, the Red Sox play-offs vs the Yankees and Rays, and Jason Sudekis dancing again on “What’s Up With That” on Saturday Night Live. Great TV by all but not really fitting into the “best series” category.

1. Reservation Dogs

The most startlingly original show since “Atlanta,” to which it is often compared because it zooms in on a very specific community not usually presented on TV, in this case a group of disaffected Native American teenagers living on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. What’s remarkable is that this is a show about teenagers in which sex barely comes up because they have more things on their minds than their hormones. These kids have gotten a raw deal but they have agency and make their own choices, for ill or good. It’s very funny, sometimes absurdist, occasionally tragic and I can’t wait for Season 2. (Hulu)

2. Succession

Rightfully hyped for its unsparing depiction of the billionaire class as experienced through the eyes of a dysfunctional family that controls a fictional media empire (e.g., the Murdochs or Redstones). Somehow the show’s central question (which of the four screw-up children will inherit the crown?) has sustained itself through three imaginatively-foul-mouthed seasons. Like Reservation Dogs, this is another tragedy that is really a comedy (or visa versa? not sure.) It’s certainly the most quotable show in years. (HBO)

3. Ted Lasso

Yes, this show about an American football coach recruited to run a British soccer team is good as everyone says it is. Impossibly sweet and inspiring, the show faltered a bit in its second season when it tried to make Ted vulnerable and human. Was it good enough to win all those Emmys? Probably not. But we still ate up every episode. (Apple+)

4. Gavin and Stacey

This is a bit of a cheat because the show originally ran from 2007-2010, and I only caught up to it this year. Gavin and Stacey are a young British couple (she’s from Wales and he’s from a nondescript London suburb) who navigate the hazards of interfering parents and friends, (including a very young James Corden, who co-wrote the show). It’s a very kind and affectionate look at modern middle class love. What’s occurring? (Amazon Prime)

5. Shtisel

An Israeli soap opera about Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. I have no idea how accurately this depicts the Orthodox community, but it’s a fascinating look at a culture I knew little about. And surprise — everyone has the same problems across cultures: interfering parents, faithless husbands, bossy wives, status anxiety. But the series is deeper than most because it is preoccupied both with the loss of loved ones and the struggle to live a meaningful life that may not be what your society wants for you. (Netflix)

6. What We Do in The Shadows

The funniest straight comedy on TV features four deluded vampires and their under-appreciated servant, who all live uneasily in Staten Island, ostensibly plotting to take over America, but really just killing time. There are no deeper messages here except the continued inability of humans, undead or not, to comprehend the truth of their own reality. (FX)

7. Call My Agent

This is a jaundiced look at the entertainment industry (is there any other kind?) through the lens of a small Parisian talent agency. Real French movie stars (plus Sigourney Weaver speaking French) play self-absorbed caricatures of themselves, who make the lives of the agents miserable. (Netflix)

8. Only Murders in the Building

Apparently Steve Martin and Martin Short are best friends in real life. Huh? And they recruited Selena Gomez to appear with them in a pretty funny whodunnit set in an exclusive Upper West Side apartment building. I think this might be the first TV series that centers around the phenomenon of the murder mystery podcast (remember “Serial”?) Most of the humor is pretty broad but it’s redeemed by the pathos of the characters (especially the supporting cast), who are dealing with loneliness and disillusionment. (Hulu)

9. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Some seasons of “Curb” are funnier than others and Season 11 was one of the best. The challenge with the show is to have Larry David entrap himself in convoluted embarrassing situations that are not off-the-charts ridiculous, which it just barely managed to do, to hilarious effect. (HBO)

10. The White Lotus

A pretty devastating take-down of the privileged and entitled One Percent and their adjacent dependents, this is “Succession Lite.” Off on a gorgeous Hawaiian resort, the characters compete to see who can unintentionally wreak the most havoc on the lives of the staff that serve them. And yet we do have some sympathy for everyone caught in the system of wealth and dependency. (HBO)

11. Hacks

Jean Smart is a rich but on-the-verge-of-being-washed-up stand-up comedian in Las Vegas who takes on a young whippersnapper comedy writer as her assistant. Generational sparks ensue as the two protagonists fight and eventually learn to respect each other. (HBO)

12. Never Have I Ever

A wish-fulfillment trifle from Mindy Kaling dressed up as your basic teen angst teen comedy, in which a Indian-American teen somehow manages to attract two hunky guys, both of whom look to be about 30. It’s very pleasant, if slightly untethered to reality, because you know nothing really emotionally disturbing is going to happen. (Netflix)

13. PEN15

Two thirty-something comedy writers play 13-year-old versions of themselves, in the middle of a cast that otherwise seems age appropriate. I’ve never been a 13-year-old girl, and I know they are supposedly prone to histrionics, but this seems a little over the top. Yet I was drawn into the story and the emotional drama despite myself. (Hulu)

14. Stanley Tucci Searching for Italy

I’m not one to watch a lot of food shows, but this Anthony Bourdain knock-off is as sumptuous as it gets. Part pig-out, part Italian travelogue, I did learn quite a bit about both food and Italy. (HBO Max)

15 Fargo

I loved the first two seasons of Fargo, had qualms about the third and was mildly disappointed with this one, the fourth. The fundamental premise of the original Fargo movie and the first seasons of the TV show is that viciousness in the pursuit of greed will ultimately bring about its own ruination in the face of decency. As the seasons have gone on, the series has become more nihilistic, with less and less decency to go around. Chris Rock is good as a Black 1930s crime boss, Jason Schwartzman is not credible as the boss of the rival Italian gang. The show is beautifully shot and intelligently written but not realistic enough to be the tragedy it wants to be. (FX)

16. Bridgerton

Lots of sex, lots of costumes, and a Julie Andrews narration. The premise seems to be that if Jane Austen wrote porn this is what would emerge. Naturally it was a huge hit. (Netflix)

17. The Pursuit of Love

Based on an arch Nancy Mitford novel that I think I might have read but can’t be sure of. Mildly amusing tale of a charismatic eldest daughter in an extremely eccentric aristocratic British family and set before and during World War II. There are only three episodes so I don’t know if this should qualify as a series. If it had been longer I probably would have ranked it higher. (Amazon Prime)

18. The Chair

I watched ten minutes of this and turned it off because it seemed simplistic, exaggerated, and implausible — not the cancel culture premise, which is all too plausible, but the cluelessness of the college professors around whom the plot turns. I was then convinced to give it another try and it seemed to improve slightly so my final verdict is that this is “OK.” You can tell it’s written for a very general audience that doesn’t want to think too hard or deal with complexity, though, which is my main beef. (Netflix)

19. The Premise

An anthology show from The Office’s B.J. Novak. “Anthology” means each episode is completely fresh, with new characters and a new premise, like The Twilight Zone. The first episode, about a white liberal who accidentally videos police brutality while taping himself having sex, is an extremely amusing skewering of a certain type of self-satisfied, woke-adjacent would-be racial ally. The rest of the episodes were smartly written but also disturbing, which might possibly be the point? (Hulu)

20. Brooklyn Nine Nine

Brooklyn Nine Nine wasn’t my favorite show, but we always watched it anyway because it was light, amusing entertainment. Alas, in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing, no cop show could simply be light entertainment because that would supposedly whitewash the police, so the final season revolved around police corruption and self-flagellation. Not funny. Too bad. This was a good show that deserved a better send-off. (NBC)

I was almost ten years old when the Beatles burst upon America in 1964 and I fully participated in Beatlemania. My first LP was their first LP — “Love Me Do.” I collected Beatles trading cards, attended Beatles movies, contemplated whether Paul was really dead, analyzed the lyrics of “Strawberry Fields” in seventh grade English, and sighed when John claimed they were popular than Jesus. I was 16 years old in April 1970 when my tenth grade Social Studies teacher announced to the class that the group had broken up, something she’d learned from the radio that morning in those pre-Internet days. I was in the 11th grade when my first girlfriend gave me George Harrison’s transcendent album “All Things Must Pass” as a Christmas gift and I was a high school senior when Paul McCartney was releasing his best work at a solo artist. So the Beatles dominated my transition from childhood to adolescence, from innocence to adult desire. They had multi-year impact on my development that corresponds to the influence of the Harry Potter novels on my son.

One month after the Beatles broke up, Apple Records released their last album, “Let It Be,” which I promptly acquired and learned to love by playing it dozens — maybe hundreds — of times on the record player in my bedroom.

Also released in conjunction with that final album was a documentary film about the studio sessions that produced the record. Somehow that documentary never made its way to my local cineplex so I didn’t get to see it for another 15 years, when, thanks to the invention of the VCR and the video store, I was able to watch a rental copy in the bedroom of my Washington D.C. apartment.

I wished I hadn’t. It was both bad and a bummer. It had no narrator and seemed to be a hodgepodge of clips of the four Beatles squabbling while they tried to lay down tracks for the songs. The film’s only redeeming factor was the final third of the movie, when the Beatles delivered a seemingly spontaneous live concert on the roof of the recording studio. About five years ago, I managed to watch the movie again when it was temporarily available on a streaming service. I wanted to see if it was as bad and depressing as I remembered. It was.

For fifty years I had assumed the accepted story of the Beatles break-up, which is that it was brought about in large part by the contentious making of the “Let it Be” album. Didn’t we see it right there on the screen of the “Let It Be” movie? But then, I learned that Peter Jackson — of “Lord of the Ring” fame — had gained access to more than 60 hours of raw footage from those recording sessions and was cutting an entirely new version of the movie. Apparently the surviving Beatles had never been happy with the original “Let it Be” documentary and wanted Jackson to take a fresh look.

That documentary, now titled “Get Back,” landed like a bombshell two weeks ago on Thanksgiving. It was not a feature film for the theater but an eight-hour three-part TV series. I was so desperate to watch it that I did something I swore I’d never do — I subscribed to Disney Plus.

Never has $8.00 been better spent. There is a case to be made that “Get Back” is the best music documentary ever made, especially if you believe that a documentary is supposed to “document” a moment of time. “Get Back” doesn’t settle any arguments but it does serve as a time machine back to January 1969, when the Sixties were in full flower, while also providing an intimate look at how rock music is made.

And it’s amazing. Having never written a song, I always assumed that songwriting was something like what Rogers and Hammerstein are said to have done: Richard Rodgers would write some lyrics in his New York City Penthouse and mail them to Oscar Hammerstein at his Bucks County farm — or visa versa — and they’d have a song. It turns out that songwriting is much messier than that. When the Beatles showed up to start recording on January 2, 1969 they have no finished songs, just fragments and ideas, and thanks to “Get Back,” we can see them laboriously turning those fragments into beautiful finished products. There’s a saying that genius is ten percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration and I never quite believed it until now. But there they are, grinding out each song, playing it over and over and experimenting with different chords, riffs and phrases until then refined it to a gem. And when they played those songs live on the top of the roof, the quality of the performance isn’t the least bit ragged even though the songs hadn’t existed a few weeks earlier.

Still, don’t get me started on the lyrics. I used to think that if I didn’t understand the meaning of a rock song it was my fault because I wasn’t deep enough. Now I see that there sometimes is no meaning. The song “Get Back” started out as a protest anthem against anti-immigration politicians and ended up having something to do with a guy looking to buy weed? Most of the lyrics are sheer nonsense — a word salad that happens to rhyme. It’s perhaps an irony and a coincidence that Stephen Sondheim, Broadway’s greatest lyricist died the day after the first episode of the “Get Back” documentary. It’s a blessing that he didn’t have to have it rubbed into his face that a song with the line “Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner, But he knew it couldn’t last,” would become a number one hit.

But with both Sondheim and McCartney there is a case to be made for genius driving the hard work. In the most jaw-dropping sequence of the movie, while the Beatles are waiting for John to show his face, Paul grabs his bass and starts strumming, furiously trying to come up with a new song. Almost miraculously, the God of Creativity sends down a tune that eventually turns into “Get Back.” Then Ringo begins to work out the beats and George picks up his guitar and starts adding his magic. When John finally arrives, he goes right to his chair and the next thing you know the Beatles are playing a very rough version of their next hit

To anyone who has ever tried to do anything creative, the lessons are clear. Take your idea and work it and work it until you get what you want. Collaborate and take the best ideas that your colleagues suggest. And be sure to take breaks to clear your head. A very striking feature of the documentary is how much time the Beatles spend fooling around, playing Chuck Berry songs, doing Elvis impersonations, goofing about their own hallowed classics, cracking jokes, telling stories, and generally creating brain space where creativity can occur. It seems like a waste of time but taking a break can actually improve productivity.

The documentary is more than a rumination on creativity, though. At its heart, it’s a modest rewriting of late-stage Beatleography.

For one thing, the “Get Back” documentary demonstrates what’s going on during these sessions in a way that was completely muddled in the “Let It Be” version. Apparently the Beatles had a insane plan to write brand new songs that would be performed during their first live concert in three years. The idea itself is not crazy. The crazy part is that all this had to be accomplished in ten days because Ringo needed to leave to make a movie called “The Magic Christian”! The idea that this deadline was driven by Ringo’s commitment to a completely forgettable film is bad enough but what’s even loonier is that they haven’t even begun to nail down the details for their grandiose plans. You can’t plan a Christmas party in less than two weeks yet they think they will produce a concert for 20,000 rabid Beatles fans in that time. It’s a bit of a running joke that Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the film’s director, keeps pressing them to perform at an ancient Roman amphitheater in Libya, an outlandish proposal that finally collapses under the weight of its own absurdity.

The amphitheater in Sabratha Libya, where Michael Lindsay-Hogg wanted to film the Beatles “Get Back” concert.

Throughout “Get Back,” we are constantly aware of this looming deadline and the pressure that the Beatles are under to produce these songs in a compressed period. The story is told in strict chronological order with each day marked off on the calendar. Eventually, through their own indecision, their options narrow as each potential venue becomes unavailable. Yet Paul continues to press for something special, which is how they ended up doing a pop-up concert on the roof of their recording studio.

And Just Who Broke up the Beatles?

For decades now, the question that tortured Beatles fans is why they broke up. Fueled in part by the original “Let It Be” documentary, the generally accepted thesis has been that this recording session was a last straw, exacerbated by Paul’s resentment of Yoko Ono, a spectral, dour and unwelcome presence conjoined to John throughout this period.

In the revisionist history of “Get Back,” Yoko is indeed Siamese-twinning it with John throughout the recordings but the other Beatles do not find her an unsettling presence; she is not looming vulture-like as she is in “Let It Be.” It’s not really a downer to have her there as she just silently observes or occasionally chats with Paul’s future wife Linda McCartney. And even when she gets up and literally wails into a mic like a paid mourner at a Middle Eastern funeral, the non-John Beatles seem to enjoy it or at least find it amusing.

Watch this with the sound down!

Yoko SEEMS like a problem because she’s an outward manifestation of a real problem — John’s boredom of being a Beatle. For at least a third of the movie he’s barely engaged and just this side of catatonic. There are reports that he was impaired by heroin or other dubious substances, but it would also be unsurprising if, after six years of unbelievable fame and creativity, he just wanted to take it easy and resented Paul’s bossy Type-A insistence that they buckle down and get to work again on a new album.

Anyone who didn’t know the Beatles and just watched the first episode of “Get Back” would think that this guy John Lennon was a freelance guitar player they’d brought it to help with the background music. Yet once he does rouse himself to pay attention to what’s going on, he’s fully engaged, contributing songs, helping with the work of others and generally resuming his role as the band’s boss. Ultimately he doesn’t seem like someone who wants to break up the band,

No, it’s not John and Yoko who are the biggest problems in “Get Out,” it’s George. He’s the one who most chafes under Paul’s initial bossiness. He’s the one who utters the dispiriting phrase “I want a divorce.” And he’s the one who complains that not enough of his songs are getting on the albums. He finally cracks at the end of the first episode, about a week into the recording session, when John and Paul finally reconnect and let it rip in a joyful guitar jam session. The look on George’s face when he sees the two other Beatles re-bonding makes it clear he knows he’s still outside the inner circle. John and Paul continue to treat him like the 14-year-old he was when he joined the band, not the mature song-writer that he’d become, so he walks out of the session, essentially going on strike because of his hurt feelings. And John’s reaction? If George doesn’t come back in two days they’ll replace him with Eric Clapton. That’s how important John thinks George is. I can’t blame George for wanting to get out.

And yet, for all the hurt feelings, side-eyes, grumbling, and complaining, these Beatles easily could have continued for years. Maybe not at the frantic pace that Paul has them on, producing two to three albums a year. Maybe they could have produced their solo albums and then gotten together every once in a while to record new material. The proof of this? That’s exactly what they did a few months later when they reassembled to produce their real last album — “Abbey Road.”

No, according to the “Get Back” version of events, it’s not Yoko and not even George who broke up the Beatles. The answer is only alluded to but it’s in plain sight — the introduction of their future business manager Alan Klein. Early in the film Paul is pretty explicit that they have been adrift since the death of their previous business manager, Brian Epstein (still weirdly referred to as “Mr. Epstein”). Later, when Paul is out of the studio, John confides to George that he just met Klein, then the Rolling Stones manager, who is brilliant and insightful. Surprisingly for someone who supposedly disdained materialism, John is attracted by Klein’s ability to get them more money. And in the end it is Klein who will become the snake in the garden who destroys the Beatles, driving Paul out of the group and eventually enmeshing the group in years of litigation for allegedly feathering his own nest at their expense. But that’s an entirely different movie. This one ends joyously, with the Beatles playing live on the top of that roof. The last song perform live together will be “Get Back.” But getting back is something they won’t be able to do.

Some random observations

After comparing the “Get Back” and “Let It Be” documentaries, will we ever be able to believe anything in any documentary? Both filmmakers looked at the same 60 hours of footage, but came to different conclusions and told different stories. What the heck is truth anyway?

I can’t help but think that Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of “Let It Be,” released such a dour version of the the recording sessions because he was pissed the Beatles hadn’t accepted any of his fantastical proposals for a live concert. In “Get Back,” Peter Jackson shows him as a bit of a twit that no one takes seriously. The Beatles complained for years that they didn’t like “Let It Be,” and fifty years later they finally get their revenge.

Can we talk about how young these guys are? Ringo, John, Paul, and George are 29, 28, 26 and 25 respectively. They all look much older — that’s what being an international rock star will do to you — but they are all younger than my son is now.

When I see John and Paul performing “Two of Us” I now realize that it’s arguably a song about the two of them, not some other random couple. Consider the lyrics. “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead” and etc.

I never liked John Lennon very much, and this documentary reinforced those feelings. He looks terrible, with lank greasy hair, a sallow complexion and an undernourished physique (it does seems that he at least washed and possibly blow-dried his hair for the roof-top performance, though). He is constantly mugging for the camera — i.e., making faces and “funny” voices. And his general disdain for Paul’s efforts to pull everything together and to make it work is obnoxious. Without Paul there probably wouldn’t have been any “Let It Be” or “Abbey Road” albums but John feels contemptuous of Paul’s sincerity and desire to get them done.

Wow there’s a lot of smoking going on, by all four Beatles and several other hangers on. This really was the Sixties.

Speaking of the Sixties, sometimes when I watch “Mad Men” and other shows set in that decade I think, did we really dress like that? Oh yes. George is a peacock in fluorescent greens, pinks, and stripes, John is sporting the slovenly look except for when he’s wearing a bushy fur coat, and Paul looks like a dude from an old Western.

George definitely has a case to make that John and Paul weren’t taking him seriously. One of the songs that was deemed not good enough to be on the album was “All Things Must Pass.” This, on an LP that includes “Dig It.” George makes it clear that he’s thinking of recording a solo album so he can surface his songs, and when it does come out, with “All Things Must Pass” as the title cut, it turns out to be the best of all the post-Beatles single albums by far.

There are two very sweet moments in the film. First when Linda Eastman brings in her six-year-old daughter Heather (later adopted by Paul) who charms the lads by banging Ringo’s drum, crawling in their laps and just generally being super-cute. The second sweet moment involves George Harrison quietly helping Ringo develop a early draft of “Octopus’s Garden,” which will eventually appear on “Abbey Road.”

Speaking of Ringo, also called “Richie” by the other band members because his real name is Richard Starkey, he appears to be not doing much besides providing the rhythm the songwriters need for their material. But not doing anything is exactly what the Beatles needed out of their drummer, given how much drama the other three produced.

The critics made a big deal about the contribution of the pianist Billy Preston and it’s true that he initially does give them a jolt of enthusiasm and energy when he shows up about a third of the way through the documentary and the Beatles shanghai him into playing on the album. But he’s only around for about half the sessions after this and his main contribution appears to be a big smile and a calming presence (which, come to think about it is pretty damn important, so maybe the critics are right).

The one thing the two documentaries have in common is the emotional climax of the roof-top concert but because Peter Jackson has more time to tell the story, his version is more nuanced. The Michael Lindsay-Hogg documentary leaves the impression that the police shut down the playing, but “Get Back” shows that the Beatles actually ran out of material — they played “Get Back” three times, for example, and were cold too, given that it was late on a January day. If they’d wanted to play more songs, it’s not clear how the police would have shut them down — when they quit two bobbies and the world’s politest sergeant were just standing there trying to decide what to do. Paul had fantasized about playing a pop-up concert in Parliament and being dragged away by the police, but when the time came he looked over his should and saw the police, smiled and ended the show without any conflict. What a more civilized world it was back then.

And when those last chords of the short concert are done and the Beatles have played live together for the very last time, I felt a pang of what could have been. The Rolling Stones are geriatricly touring even now and although no one wants to see the Beatles doing that, there could have been the occasional reunion tour and who knows how many new songs.

And in a weird way, I felt sorry for the orphan songs that never did get played in public. Paul, of course, would go on to play “Get Back,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” thousands of times in concert, but did any Beatle ever again perform a song like “I Dig A Pony,” which is mostly considered a John composition?

Well, maybe no Beatle ever performed it again but it’s a testament to the enduring legacy of the band that an artist as cool as St. Vincent would resurrect it and add it to her repertoire. And damn if she doesn’t do a good job.

I find myself a first-time author, having produced a memoir of the first half of my life. (To buy the book, and then leave a glowing review, please click here). In my introduction to the book, printed below, I explain the why, how, when, and what of the whole thing.

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Fortunate One: From Nantucket to the White House — A Memoir

Introduction

I’ve been a little hesitant to tell people I was writing this memoir because whenever I did, they’d inevitably ask why, as in, who are you to write an autobiography? Trust me, it’s a question I’ve posed to myself. I’m not famous, don’t have a tragic childhood to resolve therapeutically through the written word, and have no commercial venture to advance through the promotion of a “personal brand.” 

I could fall back on the cliché that everybody has a story to tell, but if you’ve ever listened to a golfer recount his most recent round, you know that not every story is equally compelling. It will be up to you, Dear Reader, to determine whether my story was worth telling, but here are my goals: to recapture a world that no longer exists and to evoke what it was like to be born in the ‘50s, grow up in the ‘60s, attend college in the ‘70s, and start a career in the ‘80s. I know this isn’t exactly the same as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounting her experiences in that little house on the prairie, but the social and technological changes that have occurred since the 1950s are almost as dramatic as the ones she lived through. 

To some extent, my story parallels that of millions of other baby boomers born in the mid-1950s. I’m probably not the only seven year old who ate orange-flavored aspirin when he couldn’t find candy in the house or walked unescorted to school while dodging potentially pedophilic kidnappers and speeding 18-wheelers. I want readers my age to nod in recognition and say, “Yeah, that happened to me too,” and I hope that later generations will marvel that we ever survived childhood or managed to launch ourselves into adulthood.

But just as every index finger is fundamentally the same while every fingerprint is different, the story that follows is undeniably, uniquely my own. I entered the world on Nantucket Island, grew up in a declining industrial city, almost failed college, worked as a small-town reporter, and eventually landed in the White House. Along the way, I lived in a haunted house; had not one, but two lesbian girlfriends in high school; wrote newspaper stories about a Manhattan scientist who disappeared one morning from a remote, iced-in island; sparred with the owner of the Washington Post; chatted up a couple of U.S. Presidents; and helped prepare the debate remarks that almost torpedoed the re-election campaign for one of them.  

It’s taken me two years to write this book, but in truth, it’s been 60 years in the making. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt the autobiographical impulse. In the second grade, at the tender age of eight, I made my first attempt at a memoir, scribbling out three paragraphs before abandoning the effort to do my arithmetic assignment instead. Ever since, I’ve been cataloguing my life—a project that sometimes verged on hoarding. I kept every letter and postcard that arrived in my mailbox, stored many important school papers, and maintained boxes of junior and senior high school yearbooks, datebooks, calendars, and relevant newspaper clippings. My mother saved my report cards and my correspondence from vacations and college. Starting in my mid-20s, I religiously kept a daily diary. Holding onto memories, both through physical materials and, more mystically, in the inscrutable regions of the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala, has been a life-long obsession.

I reviewed all this documentation before I started writing, reading every letter and diary entry through November 1988. The experience mostly confirmed my existing memories, although in some cases I had been wrong about chronology or had remembered events out of sequence. In other cases, I was reminded of people who had completely vanished from my active memory. Who exactly was that college classmate who sent me those three letters in the summer of 1975? Had I really shared so many cocktails and dinners with those former colleagues in Washington, D.C.? Some of these rediscoveries I folded into this narrative; the rest I just re-deposited into my already overstuffed memory bank.

Excavating these memories was sometimes a delight, sometimes painful, and often just plain embarrassing, curing me of a misconception that life was better then than it is now. I wish I could send a message back in time and advise the earlier version of myself to lighten up, not fret about the future so much, and not get aggravated so easily. I would tell the younger Gary: You can’t control your destiny, but don’t worry, you’re lucky. You won’t win the lottery, but you will win the lottery of life.

In some respects, it was easier to write 100,000 words of memories than it was to come up with the two words that formed the title. My college friend, Jim Robinson, who plays such a crucial role in this story, initially suggested “Fortune Son,” which would have been perfect, except I didn’t want people thinking they were getting John Fogarty’s life story. In the end, he helped me settle on “Fortunate One.”

A political progressive might take one look at my life and dismiss it as “privileged.” A person of faith might look at the same set of facts and say I was “blessed.” Whatever term you want to use, I certainly concede that good fortune smiled on me from the day I was born. Being white, male, and straight provided me with advantages, but to be born in America to nurturing, hard-working, married parents was the biggest break of all. As if that wasn’t enough, I grew up free from financial anxiety because the small business my parents created prospered during a prosperous era. Although I skirted close to physical injury many times, I always escaped with mere scars or skinned knees. I had robust health, access to good education, and exposure to friends who stimulated me intellectually and socially. Importantly, the women I dated were perceptive enough to see that I was ultimately not right for them, so I was available when the right one did enter my life.

I can make the case that the children of 1950s America were the luckiest generation in history. The advances in medicine alone—the vaccines, antibiotics, and new surgical procedures—made sure that a record number of us reached adulthood. I had pneumonia in the fourth grade, something that merits a mere half sentence in this story; if I’d been born 20 years earlier, I might not have lived long enough to write anything. We were lucky to be born into the richest, most dominant national economy the world had ever seen, which created huge opportunities for us to leap ahead of our parents economically, a gift that has not always been available to our own children.  

More specifically, I’d argue that the boys born in 1954 were the luckiest of a lucky generation: old enough to experience the Beatles but just young enough to avoid getting drafted; old enough to benefit from the sexual revolution and co-ed dorms, but young enough not to come to maturity worrying about AIDS and STDs; old enough to feel safe and secure at school or walking down the street, but young enough to avoid the social conformities of the 1950s; old enough to assume college was a given for any smart kid, but young enough to miss the crippling anxiety of getting into the “right” school or assuming massive debt. 

Even with all this happy talk about good fortune, I’m no Pollyanna about the bumps along the way, and I’ve tried to be as truthful as possible without going out of my way to settle scores. My goal is not to embarrass people, so in a few cases I have changed names, particularly those of some former bosses and colleagues in Washington. I haven’t said anything libelous or even unfair; they were nice enough to hire me, so I don’t want to make them feel betrayed, even 35 years later. To avoid cumbersome circumlocutions like “my new boss, who I’ll call John,” readers can assume that if I provide a given name and surname, it’s real. If I only mention a first name, it’s been changed.  

Some “real” names I’d like to thank for being early readers and editors are three of my oldest school friends, Jim Robinson, Philip Tasho, and Liz Prevett, who confirmed many of my memories, called out awkward writing, and generally kept me from making self-inflicted mistakes. I also had close editing help from a former colleague, Tim Clifford, who tragically died of ALS before I finished the drafting. My wife, Meg Ricci, also read an early draft. Finally, I had the assistance of a professional editor, Chloë Siennah. I didn’t always take their advice, so they are blameless for any offenses made against the historical record or prevailing political and social orthodoxies.  

This volume ends when I’m 34 years old, which is chronologically the midpoint of my life—so far at least. It also marks the conclusion of my searching period. During these first three decades, I was trying to figure out who I wanted to be. By the time I reach the last pages of the final chapter, I am more or less fully formed. And upon reflection I’ve realized that most of the major lucky breaks of my life—the moments when my path could have veered significantly in another direction—occurred during this first half of my life. Good fortune has continued to bless me since then, but the only remaining “hinge” moment of almost unbelievably good luck left to describe is the birth of my son. He truly has been a “fortunate son,” but that’s for another book.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

I think we can all agree that 2020 was the worst year in cinema that any of us can remember. The film industry, with its heavy emphasis on redundant and blockbustery comic book movies, was already headed into the toilet when the year began and the pandemic only drove the nail into the coffin. I deeply missed going to the theater for the big screen, in-person experience, but even the movies I saw at home tended to be disappointing. When, at the end of the year, I looked at the “top ten” lists from the major critics to see what I was missing, I saw that they had selected small, independent, depressing movies I’d never heard of. Watching someone else’ trauma didn’t really appeal to me this year, but what was the alternative? The usual mainstream movies with movie stars and well-known directors were absent, apparently being withheld by the studios until the pandemic is over and it’s safe to go to the movies again.

The last time I watched this few movies (and when I say “movies” I am including films that were or could have been released in a movie theatre but which I streamed at home) was more than 20 years ago when my son was too small to sit still for a full-length picture.

However, once the Oscar nominations came out I made a special effort to watch the Best Picture contenders and I’m glad I did because one of those small, independent depressing movies — “Nomandland” — turned out to be a masterpiece that salvaged the year after all, and many of the others were pretty good.

1. Nomadland

Every once in a while there’s a movie so original that you not only can’t predict where it’s going, you can’t even understand the parameters of HOW to predict where it’s going and need to just let it wash over you. Last year it was “Parasite” and a few years earlier it was “Boyhood.” I’ve never seen movie characters that seemed as real as they do in “Nomadland” and that’s because they actually are real-life modern nomads, who have chosen a deliberately rootless life, unencumbered from anything that will tie them down. Before I watched it, I thought this was a movie about the victims of capitalism but discovered it’s really about a certain kind of personal brokeness can only be salved by kindness, temporary community, and flight. The Frances McDormand character isn’t “houseless” because she has to be, but because she wants to be. Just like Huck Finn, Natty Bumpo and a dozen other characters in American literature and cinema before them. The director Chloe Zhao will probably win best director but I hope they don’t put her in the “identity” box as the first Asian woman to win because she’s much more than that. Although born in China, she’s a great AMERICAN director.

2. Soul

All year long I resisted subscribing to Disney+ out of principle but I finally plunked down seven dollars for a month’s subscription so I could watch “Soul.” If I hadn’t done that I probably wouldn’t have written a movie list at all because until then I didn’t have a legitimate Number One. “Soul” turned out to be a piece of art that literally changed the way I look at the world like nothing else has since I sat through “Our Town” for the first time — a work that expresses similar themes. I knew “Soul” was a Pixar movie about a guy who loved jazz but I didn’t understand until halfway through that the title referred to a person’s literal soul. Wrapped within a a very charming, funny, gorgeously presented, easy-to-digest animated movie is the answer to the profoundest question — how should you live your life? Here’s a hint — you should live you life by living it to the fullest.

3. Tigertail

I need to make it very plain that this movie is definitely NOT “Tiger King,” that uber-trashy Netflix series about big cats. “Tigertail” is a deeply affecting story about the personal choices made by a working class Taiwanese immigrant with conflicting dreams. This quickly becomes an allegory about the emotional price paid by generations of ambitious new Americans who sacrificed love, family and their own mental health to pursue an economically better life in the U.S. Beautiful filmed with understated acting.

4. Minari

Like “Tigertail” (see above) this is a the story of the Asian immigrant experience, except more optimistic. The family in “Minari” is not as damaged by broken dreams and although they face the usual setbacks (although not, surprisingly, any discrimination in their little Ozark town) there’s enough love to pull everyone through.

5. Judas and the Black Messiah

It’s one of those odd quirks of the year that two Oscar nominated movies — “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — both revolved around a related series of events from Chicago in 1969. “Judas” twists the facts a bit to make the cops and the FBI look even worse than they were, but it’s a David McCullough-quality history compared to “The Chicago 7,” which is a cartoon version of reality. “Judas” is about the betrayal of the charismatic Black Panther organiziser “Chairman” Fred Hampton, who was killed (or assassinated, as is claimed here) in a police raid. The filmmaking is compelling, story story is though-provoking, and the acting is superb.

6. Emma

We probably didn’t need another adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, but what a treat it was to have this one to entertain us in the early days of the pandemic. The title character is played by Any-Taylor Joy, who gained far more notoriety this year as the alcoholic chess whiz on “The Queen’s Gambit.” She was great, as was the entire cast except for Johnny Flynn, who lacked Mr. Knightly’s gravitas. Each generation gets the “Emma” it deserves and this one rightly focused more than others on the class distinctions among the characters. Very fun.

7. News of the World

I’m so sorry I didn’t get a chance to see this Tom Hanks western in the theatre because the cinematography of the wild west was just beautiful. I don’t know if this is a deliberate homage to “The Searchers” but it has some of the same plot points — young girl kidnapped by Indians who brutally massacred her family and then adopted her being returned to her kin. In a normal year this would have been a hit, but in 2020 it dropped into obscurity. Too bad.

8. 63 Up

The last movie we saw — in our beloved Avon Theatre — before in-person movie-going shut down for the pandemic. The “Up” series, which has followed the lives of a dozen British subjects as they aged from 7- to 63-years-old is the greatest documentary project of all time. This will probably be the last in the series (which has updated every seven years) because the director Michael Apted has died. Given that several of these people, who we’ve been watching grow older over decades, have also died, are dying, or are grieving other personal losses, this particular episode is unusually elegiac. I’d encourage anyone who cares about film to go back and watch the original “7Up” and then follow the updates one by one. It’s amazing to experience how a life really rolls out and how some people turn out exactly like you think they will and others surprise.

9. The Sound of Metal

What happens when a drummer with an addiction problem and nothing to live for except the love of his girlfriend-the-vocalist goes deaf? It’s not good. So many movies about damaged people this year! And yet all credit to our protagonist, who’s not really very smart but has a lot of courage as he addresses this challenge.

10. My Octopus Teacher

Certainly the dreamiest documentary of the year, about a man who makes friends with an octopus. I learned a lot about cephalopodas. The underwater filming, in an ecosystem I never even knew existed, is remarkable, as is the anthropomorphizing that occurs within this movie. I mean, can you really be “friends” with a mollusk? Still, the fact that this was made at all is astounding.

11. Mank

This is the movie I was most looking forward to this year: David Fincher’s account of how Herman Mankiewicz wrote the first draft of “Citizen Kane.” It’s told in lush black and white with a curlicue narrative, and since you can’t always tell what flashback you’re in as the movie unspools, it’s not that easy to follow. I loved the first half, with its scene-setting and depiction of old Hollywood, but the historical story goes way off the rails as Fincher tries to establish that Mankiewicz’ motivation for attacking William Randolph Hearst via the fictional Charles Foster Kane is somehow connected to California’s 1936 gubernatorial campaign. Huh??!! And then there’s the movie’s unpersuasive assumption that the “Citizen Kane” story and the Kane character were both conceived solely by Mankiewicz and not in collaboration with Orson Welles. It’s ironic that a movie about a near-perfect screenplay has, itself, such a messed up screenplay.

12. One Night in Miami

A play made into a movie with a lot of “Capital A” Acting. It’s a fictionalized look at the night when Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke all find themselves in a hotel room debating and soliloquizing about very big ideas. I generally don’t like film adaptations of plays but the subject is so fascinating and the acting so compelling that it generally held my interest.

13. The Truffle Hunters

A documentary about the elderly men in a northern Italian village who live to find and dig out truffles from the forest floor. Absolutely nothing happens but it’s nice to spend time with these charming old men, their florid Italian mannerisms and their cute dogs.

14. Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee is a great director but he goes intermittently goes off the rails, Rambo-style, in this story about four Black Viet vets of varying disposition who return to ‘Nam to reminisce and resolve some unfinished business. It’s exciting and emotional, especially when you admire the performance of Chadwick Boseman, who has since died, but some of the plot twists are asking too much of us.

15. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Heartbreaking and intense, with great high-octane acting by the dying Chadwick Boseman and the very-much-alive Viola Davis. Unfortunately, this is essentially a filmed play, complete with stilted theatrical dialogue and long monologues. Watching this I finally admitted to my self that I’m a philistine who just doesn’t like dramatic plays, even by someone as talented as August Wilson. The music was great, though.

16. Let Them All Talk

This movie is a hot mess. Meryl Streep is a novelist who wants to reconnect with her two former best friends from college (now estranged, played by Diane Weist and Candace Bergen) by taking them on a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary. Oh and her nephew’s on board too. Also her book agent, who’s is secretly spying on her. And then there’s a fabulously prolific John Clancy-type author who admires her greatly. Some conflicts get solved; some don’t; nothing really makes sense but it’s fun to watch everybody experience luxury cruising.

17. The Bee Gees: How Deep in My Love

Watching this documentary is more than a guilty pleasure — its a look back at two decades (the 1960’s and ’70’s) of rapidly evolving pop music. It’s the kind of movie that tries to make you feel guilty for ever scorning the amazingly prolific Bee Gees and largely succeeds. Be warned, though, that if you don’t like disco it’s because you are either racist, homophobic, or both (this, in a movie about three of the whitest, straightest, most hirsute guys in the business).

18. The Trip to Spain

This is the third “Trip to” movie involving a couple of British comics who go on exotic trips, eat fantastic meals, do Sean Connery impersonations, and have at least one existential crisis. The formula is always enjoyable but is wearing thin now. I literally had to go back and read a recap to refresh my memory about what happened in this one.

19. Wonder Woman ’84

This actually wasn’t as bad as the critics said, but in a year when a lot of movies “didn’t make sense,” this was the most disappoining. I had admired the original “Wonder Woman” in 2017 and hoped the director Patty Jenkins would build on that ,but WW84 was a sad step back into Marvel-grade territory. As usual, the future of the planet is in doubt, this time because a Donald Trump-like businessman has a self-esteem problem. Gal Gadot is great, though. I enjoyed watching her, even in civilian clothes.

20. The Book Sellers

I have nothing against this documentary, which is a pleasant, genteel look at the rare book store business in New York City, but it’s a trifle dull and doesn’t deliver the “Wow” moment of a great documentary.

21. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Another perfectly fine documentary about a marginally interesting subject — the band called “The Band.” This is not that different from the knock-off movies of other bands that you can watch on Amazon Prime and I only included it in the list because it was theatrically released and we paid to watch it during the first month of the pandemic.

22. The Trial of the Chicago 7

With a paint-by-numbers screenplay that sets out to hit all the usual beats and frame the action around the usual dramatic opposing protagonists, this Aaron Sorkin travesty reduces one of the most climatic and bizarre events of the 1960s to a banal, Hollywood-ized conventional movie. It’s possible that if you never heard of the Chicago Seven, who were on trial for causing a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention, you might find some of this plausible but almost every dramatic high point was concocted so that Sorkin can reach a couple of simple conclusions. No complexity allowed here. And are we seriously to believe that this wimpy Tom Hayden will go on to entrance and marry Jane Fonda?

23. The Prom

If you ever watched Ryan Murphey’s “Glee,” you can’t be surprised by the massively uneven way his full-length movies turn out. “The Prom” has an interesting premise. Four Broadway stars — Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells — cynically try to rehabilitate their careers by cynically taking up the cause of a high school lesbian in Indiana denied admission to her prom. You’l never guess what happens! Oh wait, you will. As in “Glee” there are some genuinely affecting moments, but they are buried beneath strata of cliches, absurdity, and blatant emotional manipulation.

24. Cats

I hate to pile on, but this really was terrible. I never saw “Cats” in the theatre or or even listened to the soundtrack before but didn’t realize that, except for “Memories,” the score is actually pretty bad. And that’s just the first problem. The plot is apparently about alley cats competing to see which of them will win the chance to — it’s a chance to die, right? I literally cannot explain how this Broadway musical became such a musical sensation.

Rich Gary Philip Jane Tip Top

Rich, me and Philip with our friend Jane in front of Tip Top Cafe in Brockton — mid-1980s

The COVID-19 crisis has turned much of America, but especially New York City, into a scared, furtive, grim place, and that conjures up memories of that other virus-fueled trauma — AIDS.  Unlike COVID-19, which has mostly (but not exclusively) targeted the elderly, AIDS was particularly ruthless with people in the prime of their lives.  Over 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS, including my childhood friend Rich Martel, who died 30 years ago this month on June 12, 1990.

We had grown up together in the working class city of Brockton, MA, best friends since first grade in the Ellis Brett elementary school, where he was known as “Richie.”  We were both skinny kids with buzz cuts who shared an interest in politics, history, and geography.  During our various sleepovers, he had introduced me to Superman, Batman, and the “Man From Uncle,” and we spent many hours on our bikes exploring our city’s distant neighborhoods.

He was remarkably creative, with a natural talent for drawing.  When the visiting art teacher came to our elementary school she would smile benignly at our crayon and fingerpaint efforts until she came to Rich’s desk, at which point she’d go “Whoa, what’s this?” and spirit his work away to a city-wide art competition that he’d inevitably win. He kept at it too, producing artwork in high school and college.  All his friends ended up with silkscreens, drawings, and paintings on their walls.  My own most treasured works of art are a series of three photographs of Hollywood actresses, taken with a Polaroid camera, blown up and framed. They hang in my dining room and every day I think how lucky I am to have these beautiful pieces in my house. (And thanks to his friends Amy and Eileen Morgenweck, who gave me the two portraits they inherited, so I could bring them together again.)

IMG-4170

Rich was smart too, which came out both in his academics and also in a thirst to launch imaginative projects, such as “Rich Richie’s Almanac,” a neighborhood newspaper he created in the sixth grade.  In junior high school he was placed in the advanced program for gifted students and in high school he was elected President of the National Honor Society. He was even accepted at Harvard but chose to go to Bowdoin instead because at Harvard they’d only admitted him as a commuting student.  His intelligence also manifested itself in humor.  He was one of the funniest people I knew, not only as a great story-teller but also as a trenchant observer of other people’s foilbles.

I was also struck by his kindness and sympathy for underdogs.  In high school he’d be the one to dance with the fat girl that the rest of us averted our eyes to, and when he snuck our friend Carol into his bedroom one night, it was because she had been kicked out of the house by her father and had no place else to stay.

Rich and I shared another best friend from Ellis Brett — Philip Tasho — and we all remained friends until he died.  We ate lunch together every day in the West Junior High School cafeteria and when we graduated from Brockton High, the three of us spent a week at my grandmother’s cottage on Nantucket, exploring the island, trying to cook our own meals, and playing Risk.  After this we all went off to different colleges and then moved to different cities, managing to keep the friendship alive in those pre-Internet days with the occasional long distance phone call, holiday trips back to Brockton, and overnight visits.  And we’d both deliver eulogies at his memorial service back in Massachusetts (which was not allowed to occur in his home parish in Brockton because he’d died of AIDS).

Rich on Nantucket after graduation

Rich and Philip on Nantucket senior year, the day our friends Jane, Pat and Merri came over for the day

In the 1980s, Philip and I were both working in Washington and Rich was in Manhattan.  Sometimes he’d come down to see us and sometimes we’d drive up to stay with him.  He took us to New York nightclubs, trendy restaurants, and arty movies, but my fondest memory is of the time the time we were riding the downtown subway and somehow we all ended up singing The Fifth Dimension’s cheesy song “The Worst Thing That Could Happen to Me.” We were oblivious to the other passengers and drunk on irony, nostalgia, and shared memories.  And when we got back to his apartment we just tumbled into Rich’s king-size bed — with a history of childhood sleepovers, we had no hang-ups about who slept where.

A few years before this, he had told me he was gay.  The surprise from this conversation wasn’t the orientation but the fact that he was actually interested in sex, because this was a subject that had never come up in any conversation over the previous 20 years.  He’d had a few chaste girlfriends in high school — relationships that lacked any sexual spark — and because he didn’t mention girls at all in college, I had just assumed he was asexual.  I have since learned not to make assumptions about other’s people’s sex lives.

Rich Gary Philip Ellis Brett

Rich, Philip and me outside Ellis Brett, our elementary school about 20 years after we graduated

But his sexuality wasn’t the most interesting thing about his life in New York.  He was working at BBDO, which was one of the big advertising agencies.  The “Mad Men” days were over, but it was still a glamorous and exciting career, filled with celebrities, location shoots, high-pressured pitches, and internal politics.  He and his partner Al managed the Diet Pepsi and G.E. accounts, and if you were watching television in the 1980s you’d recognize his stylish, funny, and sophisticated work.  (When he died the agency compiled his work into a highlight reel, which appears below).

In would be inaccurate to say that Rich made a life for himself in New York.  In truth, he made a life for himself in Brockton, expanded it when he went to Bowdoin, and expanded it even further when he moved to New York. He suffered no angst, lived no drama.  Life was good and always had been.  He had a huge appetite for friends and his day-to-day existence was one extended stream of people who had been meaningful to him over the years. In the fifth grade we once made a series of lists, ranking our favorite TV shows, movies, and comic books.  One of our lists was “best friends.”  I had put him and Philip as tied for number one, but his list had TEN kids tied as his best friend. The same was true as an adult; there were probably a dozen of us who considered Rich as one of our best friends.  And he was generous to us all.  He wouldn’t just lend you a book or record album that had piqued his enthusiasm — he’d BUY it for you.  His apartment was a veritable hostel for friends, cousins, college acquaintances, and others who wanted a free place to crash in New York.  And he’d be sure to take them on a tour of his favorite haunts.

In 1988, I moved to New York City myself.  By then Rich had a handsome committed boyfriend named Chris Hill, a great apartment on the Upper West Side, a thriving career and a solid group group of fun and loyal friends (like something out of, well, “Friends”) who had survived New York City together.  He found my first apartment and when I moved in discovered a big “Welcome to New York” basket that was filled with New York City tour guides, street and subway maps, local food delicacies from Zabars, hand towels and other Upper West Side treats.

He was immediately enamored with my girlfriend Meg, who fit the mold of his other female friends in New York — smart, unpretentious, opinionated, low-maintenance, and most important of all, “normal.”  She was taken with him too, noting how handsome he was.  What?  Rich Martel handsome?  But when I looked at him with fresh eyes, I noticed that he’d been working out, had a nice haircut, had grown into his face and was no longer the gawky kid I’d grown up with.  Since he got along so well with Meg, he was the only one I confided to when I was thinking about proposing — not because I needed his advice but because I needed his enthusiasm to give me the courage.

If you lived in Manhattan in the 1980s you thought about AIDS all the time.  Even if you were monogamous and weren’t worried about catching it yourself, the death toll among the most creative people in the city was staggering and there was almost certainly someone who you DID worry about.  So of course I was concerned about Rich, but didn’t have the nerve to ask him directly how much danger he was in.  He and Chris seemed to be in great health, so maybe they were the lucky ones who wouldn’t catch it.

But all of a sudden he began to lose weight.  I also started to notice the occasional purple blotch on his arms, which I feared might be Kaposi Sarcoma, the tell-tale sign of a severely compromised immune system.  But since he didn’t say anything I assumed things were still OK.  Then one Sunday night in late August, three weeks before my wedding, he cancelled our plans to go to the movies and asked me to bring him some soup because he was too sick to make dinner. When he opened the door he looked so terrible that I finally asked what the problem was.  In a way he seemed relieved to finally be telling me the truth.  Yes, he did have AIDS and had had it for three-and-a-half years.  He’d been taking AZT, but the benefits were wearing off.  The disease was pretty advanced and Chris, who actually looked healthier, was even sicker than he was.  In fact, Chris was so sick that he wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding.  But he made me promise not to tell anyone, especially Meg, because he didn’t want to spoil our celebration.

The night before I got married, Rich, Philip and my college friend Jim came over to the parents’ house for dinner with my parents, sister and grandmother.  That was my bachelor party.  He looked scarily gaunt and in a little pain but he held his own in the conversation.  And he played his part the next day, reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians during the ceremony.  When it was over, he even drove us to the Boston so we could catch a plane for our honeymoon.

Rich at Gary's Wedding

Philip, Rich and me at my wedding, with our high school friend Pat and her future wife Kathi

After this things spiraled down fast. The Martels were a close and amazingly supportive family so Rich’s sister Lisa quit her job and moved into Rich and Chris’s apartment to take care of them, make sure they got fed and went to the doctor. Chris died the next February. Despite his grief and illness Rich soldiered on at work, even flying to Budapest to film one last GE commercial.  That Easter, Lisa and Rich came to our apartment for the holiday dinner and Lisa told one hilarious story after another to distract us from our gloom.  On the end of May he took Lisa and his brother Billy to Paris so they could see France for the first time.  On the night he returned he called and asked me to bring over some grape juice and when Meg and I arrived we found him curled up in a ball on his bed, shivering from a fever.  A week later he went into the hospital, and a week after that he died.  These were the days when visitors were required to leave at a prescribed time but Lisa had fiercely insisted on staying with him the night before he died, and she was there in his final moments.

Through it all Rich was stoic, blaming no one and refusing to rail aganst the universe.  At his densely packed funeral even the priest marveled at his courage and wondered whether he, himself, despite being a man of God, could also be so calm in the face of death.  Rich had asked me to be one of his eulogists and I emphasized his humor, telling the story of how, when he asked me to speak at his funeral I had said he couldn’t die yet because he needed to live long enough to find out who killed Laura Palmer.  His response — “I’m pretty sure they have ‘Twin Peaks’ in heaven … and maybe even in Hell,” brought down the house, which was only appropriate because telling a funny story was one of his greatest pleasures.

It was also in that eulogy (which you can read, along with a second remembrance for he memorial service, here: Martel eulogies) that I uttered the immortal line “He especially loved politics and history — I’m so glad he lived to see the fall of both the Berlin Wall and Donald Trump.”  So there’s that.

When Rich died at age 36 I consoled myself that he’d had a good life.  He’d had a fulfilling career, had found mature love with Chris, and had died in the embrace of a loving family.  It was only with the passage of time that I realized how much he’d been cheated of.  He never met his nephews and nieces, whom he would have adored, or had the chance to reach his full professional potential.  He missed decades of love, the entire “Seinfeld” series, the reboot of “Twin Peaks,” Barack Obama, the second half of the career of Martin Scorsese, and the rebirth of New York City.

Rich wsn’t the last AIDS victim.  Not by a long shot.  His former boyfriend Rick Wiley died.  My dentist, another of his ex-boyfriends, died.  Each death was a separate and unique tragedy but for his friends and especially for his family, Rich’s death was a loss that created an unfillable hole in our lives.  Three decades later he still appears in my dreams and every glance at the art on my walls recalls the loss.  At least once a month something happens in the world that causes Meg and me to say to each other — out loud — Rich would have loved (or hated) this.  We are particuarly grieved that he never met our son and his talented, artistic friends, who remind us so much of him.

If there’s the tiniest sliver of a silver lining from Rich’s death it’s the solace of knowing that death itself is not completely the end.  Thirty years later his memory is as vividly alive to everyone who knew him now as it was then.  Would that the same could be said for all of us after we’re gone.

 

TV lineup

This has to be one of our most unusual national crises.  We are basically being told that it is our patriotic duty to stay at home and not be depressed.  Fortunately we are living in a Golden Age of streaming video so at least we have television to keep our spirits up.  I hope everyone will give me suggestions on what to watch, but if I’m going to make that request it only seems fair to offer my own recommendations.

Comedies

The sitcom has never been more necessary than now. And in one devestating week in April we experienced the end of “Modern Family,” “Schitt’s Creek” and possibly “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” (all of which are worth rewatching from the beginning.) Fear not, there are so many other commedies still worth streaming. Here are a few recommendations.

The Office

I wouldn’t both mentioning “The Office,”  which is an obvious go-to and still massively popular, except that Jenna Fisher and Angela Kinsey have launched a new podcast — The Office Ladies” in which they break down each episode from a behind-the-scenes perspective, in sequence and from the beginning.  This gives you a reason to rewatch a show that is, if anything, funnier than the first time around.  Listen to The Office Ladies” here.  “The Office” itself, now one of the most valuable properties is still available on Netflix, but not for long.

I’m Sorry

This is essentially a female version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” featuring a comedy writer without a filter who is constantly trying to extricate herself from embarrassing situations of her own making.  It’s also a pretty good satire of the upper middle class, politically correct society. (On Amazon Prime)

Derry Girls

An unlikely comedy premise: a teenage comedy set in the Catholic section of Belfast during “The Troubles” of the 1990s.  To say this is irreverent is putting it mildly. Teens will be teens, even in a low-grade civil war.  Subtitles are a necessity as is an abondonment of dogma.  Available on Netflix.

Lovesick

I have been trying like crazy to get people to watch “Lovesick,” which is about three thirty-something British flatmates who are friends and possible lovers, but can’t get anyone to stick with it.  It’s remarkable storytelling, unfolding through a series of flashbacks.  The ostensible premise is that our confused hero is diagnosed with clamydia and needs to get in touch with his previous sexual partners to let them know. The show is an updated and more realistic version of “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” On Netflix.

BlackAF

If “I’m Sorry” is a Yuppie “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” this is a black “Curb.” The show is ostensibly about whether it’s possible for a wealthy (and I mean quite wealthy) black Hollywood success story to retain his black authenticity, but its really about a still-insecure guy who keeps trying to prove to the world and to himself that he deserves all his wealth and success.  And like many insecure people he’s got an all-purpose excuse — it’s all the fault of slavery, although no one else on the show seems to suffer from slavery-related insecurity. Despte the formula, it’s still very funny, and with each episode gifted a happy ending or moral, it’s not a stringent as “Curb.” (On Netflix)

Documentaries

The Internet seems obsessed with the freak show that is “Tiger King,” a show I watched in the same way I might eat salty buttered popcorn until I want to throw up.  There are much better documentaries to watch:

McMillions

Almost 20 years ago someone cheated on the McDonalds “Monopoly” game and stole most of the million dollar pieces.  The documentary explores how the FBI unravelled the sprawling scheme.  Like all good documentaries, this is really about human nature — in this case how we balance our dark and light sides, our greed and our morality.  The cast of characters is as wide and diverse as in “Tiger King,” but closer to the mainstream.  You can’t imagine yourself being caught up in the “Tger King” scandal but it’s not hard to see how, with a little moral compromise, you could end up in a fast food game fraud.  (On HBO Go)

Circus of Books

A nice Jewish middle class couple ran West Hollywood’s most important gay porn shop for 30 years and this is their story.  It’s a living!  On Netflix

Last Dance

When The Chicago Bulls attempted to win their sixth national championship in 1998, a film crew was given behind-the-scenes access but that footage has sat dormant and locked away for decades. Finally Michael Jordan agreed to let ESPN to make a documentary out of this buried treasure.  The result is a portrait of a very unhappy team and a grumpy G.O.A.T.  The docu-series is still unfurling on ESPN but if you need a sports fix, this is a good place to start.

Amazon Music Documentaries

Back in the old days, boys and girls, when you sat down to watch TV with nothing in mind you would do something called “channel surfing,” flipping TV channel after TV channel until something good enough popped up.  My streaming version of channel surfing when I am looking for something to watch that’s not too challenging is to go to Amazon and search for documentaries on musical acts and genres.  These are not the best documentaries in the world but they are definitely good enough to watch in a time of stress.  The documentary subjects range from the Beatles, Neil Young, The Beach Boys and the Blood Sweat and Tears to whole genres like jazz, country and hip hop.  Just start searching the let the algorithm take over from there.

Dramas

For some reason, most of the dramas I’m recommending are set outside the U.S., possibly because I find it more interesting to experience a different culture.  In any event, here are my recommendations:

Shtisel

As Israeli soap opera, in Hebrew, about the trials of an Orthodox family in Jeruselum.  It’s fascinating to see human nature at work in another culture.  Much is the same as in American culture, since humans are findamentally alike, but different traditions do have their own impact.

The Young Pope/The New Pope

Easily the most flipped out recommendation on the list, and definitely not for everybody, “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope” are seasons one and two of a hallucinatory series about a young, sexy-but-doctrinaire priest (Jude Law) who becomes Pontiff and tries to remake the church.  This is like “The Crown” for Catholics, with gorgeous sets and cinematography, full of mysticism, eroticism, and cynicism. This is the craziest thing I’ve seen on TV since the reboot of “Twin Peaks.”  Christianity is full of mystery and that’s on full display here.  On HBO Go.

The Bodyguard

“The Bodyguard” This has been out for a while but if you haven’t watched it yet, this is the perfect time to catch up. Richard Madden (aka, Robb Stark) is put in charge of protecting a British anti-terrorism minister and it’s one heart-pounding scene after another. On Netflix.

Killing Eve

Another British psychological thriller/spy series about a murderous psychopath and the MI16 agent who’s trying to track her down.  AMC is airing Season 3 now but to start at the beginning you need to catch up on Hulu or rent the two seasons on Amazon Prime

Other great dramas

If you haven’t watched “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” “Deadwood,” “Justified,” “Mad Men,” or “Six Feet Under,” well, you better get on that right away.

The Good Place - Season 4

Over the past year my wife and I have watched only two TV series live (the old-fashioned way in real time): “Game of Thrones” and “The Good Place,” which had its season finale last night.

In some respects these shows could not be more different; the big budget, violent hugely popular mega-show vs. the sweet, small sitcom that hardly anyone’s watching.  But they have a surprising number of things in common.  They are both highly serialized, densely plotted shows that wrestle with deep questions on how to conduct yourself in a sinful world, especially when your own impulses sometimes lean toward the baser side of life.

Stretching the analogy too far would be ridiculous because they land on different answers.  In the dynastic power struggles of “Game of Thrones,” we learn early that being good itself is not enough.  The fate of the guileless Ned Stark is proof of that, and from then on the more moral characters are constantly debating among themselves what ends justify what means.  When we’re done with it, The “Game of Thrones” existential conclusion is that life is inherently tragic and that you need to do a lot of bad things to save the people you love — and then you’re punished for it!

There is no physical violence in “The Good Place,” but there is a similar struggle over how to live a good life.  The premise of the show is that Eleanor, an attractive but selfish white trash dirtbag played by Kirstin Bell, wakes up one day in the Good Place, a secular version of heaven, despite having lived a decidedly unvirtuous life.  She assumes she was sent there by mistake, a conclusion she tries to keep hidden from Michael, the architect of the village, played by Ted Danson.  From then on it’s a wild ride, with the show rebooting at least once a season and with at least one shocking twist to rival “The Red Wedding.”

Ostensibly the show is not religious.  The word “God” is not mentioned, never mind Jesus, Allah or Muhammed.  The Good Place and its counterpart the Bad Place are obviously based on popular conceptions of heaven and hell and those words are rarely used either; same with “sin,” “devils,” “Satan” or “angels.”

And yet, with its assumption that there’s an afterlife in which your earthy behaviors are rewarded and punished, the show doesn’t cater to atheists either.  If anything, “The Good Place” has a humanist approach to morality, assuming that humans can solve their own problems.  And this might be offensive to many conservative Christians, who believe that only God can save souls.

Despite explicitly rejecting religious themes, the show is definitely religious-adjacent.  Eleanor’s Good Place roommate and ostensible soulmate is a philosopher and over four seasons, the show spends a good deal of time explicitly teaching Eleanor (and by extension, the viewers) some of the basic tenets of philosophy.  This can’t help but overlap with a lot of Christian thinking.

I need to emphasize that even with the overt philosophizing, “The Good Place” is still a very funny stitcom.  In order to keep viewers from tuning out during the heavy thinking, the jokes come fast and furiously and they range from fart humor to wisecracks about modern life.  It’s this combination of the sacred and the profane that makes the show unique.

As the series wore on, it became hard not to cry at least once an episode.  The show eventually came to understand that love and forgiveness are the path to the Good Place.  Love and forgiveness for each other and love and forgiveness for yourself.  In a pivotal episode the main characters come upon a man who’s trying to live a blameless, sin-free life (by not harming the environment, not eating meat, living alone in a shack, etc.).  He’s  eking out a joyless existence, miserable because, as a human, he cannot be sin-free.  This is exactly the problem that tortured Martin Luther, who, as hard as he tried, could not stop sinning.  Luther’s answer, straight out of St. Paul, was the concept of unwarranted grace — the idea that if we ask for forgiveness and truly repent we will be forgiven.  Similarly, in “The Good Place,” you can achieve a form of grace-by-another-name by living in community with those you love; you don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be doing your best.

Coincidentally, just as the final episode of “The Good Place” came on, I was reading “Love Wins,” a book of pop theology written by the preacher Rob Bell.  The subtitle is “A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  I doubt the creators of “The Good Place” ever read the book but this is also EXACTLY what the show is about.  Bell rejects the premise that most of humanity is going to a place where they will be tortured for all eternity, arguing instead that over time, even in the afterlife, every soul will reject its sinfulness and find a way to God.  This is more or less where the show lands.  In the final scenes we see that people who acted hurtfully and selfishly in their earthy lives transformed after they died and made it to the Good Place after all.  Indeed, according to “The Good Place,” the best thing about the Good Place is being able to spend as much time as you want with the people you love.  And let’s face it, you can’t do that if the people you love are in Hell.

Some additional thoughts:

—  This is not a series to binge.  The best way to watch it is to go to Netflix, watch the first episode, listen to the show’s podcast (The Good Place: The Podcast), and then watch the show again, looking for all the jokes and nuances you missed the first time.  This podcast is brilliant.  It’s hosted by Marc Evan Jackson, who plays Shawn on the show, and in addition to recapping the show, he interviews the writers, producers, actors and other craftspeople who put the show together.  Not only do they analyze and explain the main themes but they provide the best behind-the-scenes commentary on how a network TV show is actually put together.

— I have a whole new appreciation for the acting of Ted Danson.  I probably took him for granted on “Cheers,” but now that he’s aged and mellowed his comedic abilities are even more obvious.

—  As great as Ted Danson is, the true acting genius on the show is Darcy Carden, an improv star playing Janet, a robot-like assistant who gradually becomes more human-like over the course of the show.  Famously “not a girl,” Janet manages to convey intense emotion while still maintaining the flat affect of a non-human.  And in a tour-de-force episode that should be taught in acting classes everywhere (“Janets”), the four main characters are hidden in her “void,” which means they take on her physical appearance.  Consequently, Darcy has to play all four characters throughout that episode, each with their recognizable tics and characteristics.

—  The “Good Place’s” concept of time is very similar to the eternal time that C.S. Lewis posits in “Mere Christianity.”  Time in the afterlife is not linear and leading from one place to the next. Instead it doubles back and loops around until it looks like the name Jeremy Bearimy in cursive English.  This is a good example of using silliness (the name “Jeremy Bearimy”) to sweeten a convoluted, mind-bending concept.

—  The show liberally name drops the names of philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Kant and dramatically illustrates some philosophical concepts like the Trolley Problem (i.e., would you be the pull the lever to divert a trolley that was headed toward a group of children if it meant sending it onto another track where it would kill just one innocent person?”)  In the final episode a couple of real-life philosophers played themselves — the kind of in-joke, or “Easter Egg” that the show has become known for.

—  The final line of the show is “Take it sleazy,” a joking homage to Eleanor, who managed to rise above her disadvantaged childhood but never forgot that she was the kind of dum dum who would only-semi-ironically say something like that.

One last comparison to “Game of Thrones.”  When the GoT series ended so atrociously there were many apologists who said that it’s impossible for a series to “stick the landing” because the fans want too much.  The end of “The Good Place,” which has been enthusiastically embraced by the fans, shows that it absolutely is possible to produce a satisfactory series finale as long as you have the vision and courage to see it through to the end.

I never thought I’d say this three months ago, but when I look back at what I saw this year,  I realize there are more good movies now than ever before — certainly more than ten years ago.  Of course there are more bad ones too and it’s a worrisome sign that so much of the box office goes to comic book adaptations that seem to tell the same story over and over.

The big news this year is the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, which is increasingly blurring the lines between cinema and television.  This creates a bit of a quandary when it comes to ranking: what to include?  For this year at least, I am including any movie that was released on a big screen even if I saw it at home on a streaming service.  Mostly, though, I do try to get out to see movies as they were meant to be seen — outside the house — and I feel that the effort for the good ones (“The Irishman” this year, “Roma” last year) is worth it.

Another ongoing trend is the many movies that are supposedly based on real events.  I saw nine of them this year (and that doesn’t include the documentaries) and in every single case I came home and fired up Google to see what was true and what wasn’t. Come on Hollywood.  Make up your own stories, instead of stealing someone else’s life and changing it around to make it more interesting.

1. One Upon a Time in Hollywood

I was so bowled over by this fairy tale about late Sixties Hollywood that I saw it twice.  It’s visually arresting, better at capturing what it was like to be alive in 1969 than anything made since 1969.  I usually stay away from Tarantino movies because of the violence, but for once the mayhem was cathartic and justified.

2.  1917

The level of tension goes up to the maximum in about five minutes and stays there the entire movie.  War is hell, particularly World War I, yet there are so many thrilling scenes here that you quickly lose track.  And speaking of tracking, the one long tracking shot is, on the whole, a little too distracting.  Still, what an achievement.  I’m glad it’s a hit.

3. Jo Jo Rabbit

An extremely dark comedy about Nazi Germany, which also has a lot to say about the way that people who feel powerless can sometimes fall under the spell of a charismatic leader who’ll make them feel part of a broader movement.  This movie is not realistic in any way so don’t cavil that “this couldn’t happen.”  The question is whether it is emotionally real.

4. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

When I went into the theater I never expected to come out ranking the last of the Skywalker movies this high.  And yes, the the first half of the film was kid of dull and it has plot problems so extreme that I cannot now recount 95 percent of what happened, but I do remember that I was emotionally drained at the end.  We were so wiped out we stayed through every last credit, until the blank screen came up.  I do recognize, that this movie undoes much of what was established in “The Last Jedi,”  and to that I say: good.

5. The Irishman

Slow and long but absorbing when seen on the big screen.  I imagine viewers might be easily distracted while watching on Netflix, which is why the traditional movie experience is better than one in the living room.  (In other words, don’t tell me it’s “too long” if you watched it at home.  Of course it is.)  Another remarkable recreation of the Sixties, almost of par with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”  It’s also very male.  I don’t have a problem with that, but some do.

6. Parasite

“Parasite” is the most original, genre-bending movie of the last five years, and not just because it’s Korean, a culture about which most of Western viewers know little. Going to see this is an experience that you won’t want to have “spoiled,” so I hope it’s not going to far to say that the first half is an amusing domestic comedy and the second half is a thriller, kind of.  And what, or who, is the parasite, you may ask?  The answer is: every character in this movie.

7. The Farewell

This movie is based on a story from “This American Life,” which I listened to when it aired.  In a way this is a good antidote to “Crazy Rich Asians.”  Both concern themselves with what members of extended Chinese families, some of whom have emigrated and some of whom stayed behind, owe each other.  But one is a fantasy and one is reality-based.  The family dynamics at work here seem true to life regardless of your ethnicity, though.

8. Where’d You Go Bernadette?

Bernadette is depressed, by what we don’t know until the end, although being a strikingly original person doesn’t help.  Fortunately she’s married to a Google big shot, who’s sensitive and supportive as well as rich. Cate Blanchette is great, as usual, as a famous architect who’s dropped out of her career and needs to recover her passion.  A surprisingly thrilling ending.

9. The Two Popes

You wouldn’t think a movie that boils down to a long conversation between two celibate septuagenarians would be so fascinating, but there you have it. Popes Benedict and Francis debate theology, guilt, humanity, and leadership in some of the most beautiful Roman locations I’ve ever seen.  Alas, most of it is made up but it’s still really thought-provoking. (Although I have to be honest, when I saw this in the movie theatre, there was only one other person that my wife and I and she left half-way through.)

10. Bombshell

Who ever thought that in this ideological landscape there’d be a movie in which Megyn Fox was the hero?  An acerbic look at what it it must have been like to work at Fox News.  It’s funny but also smart about the compromises that people (not just women) will make to get ahead.

11. Richard Jewell

This is Clint Eastwood’s taut, well-told story about the attempted framing by the FBI of the security guard who discovered and warned authorities to the bomb that would eventually explode at the 1996 Olympics, thereby saving numerous lives.  It’s funny that out of all the true-life stories depicted in the movies this year, many of which depart significantly from the facts, this is the one that the media are claiming foul over because they don’t like the way the portrayal of the reporter who first smeared Richard Jewell.

12. Little Women

Great adaptation by Greta Gerwig of the Louisa May Alcott novel.  I’d be more than happy if Saoirse Ronan won best actress Oscar this year.  My only hesitation with this film is that the timeframe flips back and forth so much that it’s hard to tell what period we’re in. I pity any husband or boyfriend dragged to this who hasn’t read the book and can’t figure out what the heck is going on.

13. American Factory

Fascinating documentary about a Chinese glass-making company trying to re-open a plant in Ohio.  This is told from the perspective of both the Chinese management and American workers and the film-makers don;t really take sides on who is right.  You learn a lot about the difference between the U.S. and China but also about manufacturing itself.

14. Knives Out

A fun whodunnit that would make Agatha Christie proud.   This is something that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would LOVE if they actually had a sense of humor.  The One Percent are HORRIBLE.

15. Ad Astra

Brad Pitt is an astronaut with daddy issues — a space cowboy who bends or outright breaks the rules in order to save earth.  Good action sequences.

16. Ford v Ferrari

Now that Daniel-Day Lewis has retired Christian Bale is the most actorly Hollywood movie star, really inhabiting each new role.  Here he’s a wild man auto racer hire by semi-wild man Matt Damon to win the LeMans car race for Henry Ford II.  The car races are fine but the moral dilemma posed by the need to compromise within bureaucratic institutions is the most interesting part of the movie.

17. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Someone else has daddy issues — the Esquire reporter hired to interview Mr. Rogers.  Tom Hanks is perfect as the man in the red cardigan sweater.  The movie tried to pull at the heart strings but doesn’t succeed as completely as the Mr. Rogers documentary that came out last year, but still, this is very sweet and worth seeing.

18. The Downton Abbey Movie

Not really a movie — more two episodes of the TV series smooshed together and inflated for the big screen.  As usual, the plots are preposterous, although not as lame as the story in the TV show about Mr. Bates being a murder suspect.  The production values are taken up a notch, though, with all that Hollywood funding, so it’s visually luscious.  Just go and turn your brain off.

19. Rocketman

This is a more ambitious and thoughtful bio-pic than “Bohemian Rhapsody” but not as much fun.  (They’re both about closeted British rock superstars who burn the candle at both ends.)  Maybe it’s just that Elton John songs don’t translate as well to the Big Screen at Queen’s?

20. Booksmart

This was supposed to be the girl’s version of “Superbad,” but it lacks the courage of its tasteless and hilarious precursor.  The premise is that two nose-to-the-grindstone high school seniors try to have a blast on their last night of high school.  It’s funny but not a riot and the plot elements are a little absurd.

21. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

A great documentary about Linda Ronstadt.  I was never a big fan, although I don’t know why not, now having seen how remarkable her career was and finally appreciating her voice.

22. Late Night

Mindy Kaling, who also wrote this somewhat acerbic depiction of late night television, plays the first female staff writer for a talk show starring a burned out Emma Thompson, who shows little solidarity with her own gender.  Very witty and knowing about TV writers’ rooms, but it never quite takes off.  And like “Booksmart” (see above) it’s burdened with a convoluted and pretty implausible plot.

23. Yesterday

Perhaps my expectations for this were too high but this was a bit of a letdown.  It’s perfectly enjoyable — what movie about Beatles songs wouldn’t be? — but even within the internal logic of the film, it doesn’t quite add up.  “Yesterday” posits an alternative universe in which there are no Beatles, aside from one man who remembers them from his original world.  And yet in the new world everything is the same, which doesn’t make sense because the Beatles literally changed modern culture.  Definitely worth seeing but keep your expectations in check.

24. Toy Story 4

After the highly emotional and tear-jerking conclusion of Toy Story 3, no one needed another sequel.  This is fine as a standalone movie but somehow the antic thrills and near escapes don’t have the same emotional resonance as they once did.

25. My Name is Dolemite

Saw it on Netflix instead of the theater and maybe I would have been more captivated if I had seen it on the big screen.  It’s a remarkable story about a dreamer and self-believer who somehow makes a hit comedy record and then a series of cheesy movies that appeal to Black audiences.  A classic American story, in fact.  It’s nice to see Eddie Murphy back too.,

26. El Camino

A sequel to “Breaking Bad” that picks up five minutes after the end of the TV series.  Although released as a movie, this is a lot like “Downton Abbey” in that it’s really a two-hour TV episode masquerading as a feature film.  It’s very well-done but if you are not extremely well-versed in the “Breaking Bad” universe or don’t have a photographic memory of a show that ended six years ago, it can be tough to pick up the nuances.

27. Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love

A documentary about Leonard Cohen and the beautiful woman who was his “muse” and girlfriend when he transformed from a impecunious novelist living on a romantic Greek island to a world famous rock star.  He moved on, she didn’t really.  Leonard comes across as the classic self-absorbed jerk artist that everyone forgives because he’s so darned sexy and talented.  This movie did make me want to move to a Greek island, though.

28. Hustlers

My expectations were a bit too high for this and I ended up being bored.  I was amazed at what great shape Jennifer Lopez is in and I appreciated that the film doesn’t try to make gender or class heroes of these women, who first drug, then steal from guys they pick up at a strip club.  Still, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone in the movie, which implies that everyone is always hustling everyone else.

29. Shazam

Cute. I always enjoy a boy-trapped-in-a-man’s-body movie.  But I forgot almost everything about it an hour after I left the theater.  The only comic book movie I saw this year.

30. Amazing Grace

This is ranked last but it’s not a bad movie.  Back in 1972, Sydney Pollock filmed Aretha Franklin performing at a Baptist church in Los Angeles, but for various technical and legal reasons it wasn’t released until after she died.  Aretha’s great, of course, but I did feel like I was watching somebody’s home movie.