2022: Best books and films
I really loved to go out and take pictures of the place around me. At the same time, 2022 was the official Year of Goblin Mode, and there were a lot of good books, movies, and TV series I enjoyed.
There goes a lot of creativity into writing a book or making a movie, and I am always curious which ones left a mark on people and what they liked about them. So please – share your favorites! And enjoy a few of these! Thus, without further ado – here is my year 2022 in media.
History, East Asia, Europe
Given our new home in East Asia, I wanted to get more up to speed on all things Greater China. (Trying to figure out whether and when the NLA might show up is also basic mental hygiene.)
- I scuffled through Jonathan D. Spence’s The Search for Modern China, a rather dry and academic but dense overview about… the history of modern China. I listened to the audiobook and didn’t take notes, so it was probably for naught, but hey – I’ll trust my unconsciousness to remind me in the future.
- Desmond Shum’s Red Roulette on the other hand was insightful and great fun. Shum made his millions in China’s development boom before leaving the country (after his wife went missing). Red Roulette is a captivating and entertaining first-hand report of his and his wife’s entrepreneurial scheming (I mean this in a discriptive and deferential manner!) and strategic campaigns – and a nice reminder of the kind of games part of doing business in China. (It is also proof that stuff popular in German Thalia branches’ China section like Sieren’s “Zukunft? China!” is at best naive bullshit, more likely instrumentalized propaganda – at short not worth your time.)
- Finally I read/listened to Evan Thomas’ Being Nixon and Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger to learn more about the crucial years of American foreign policy that lead to the One China Policy creating so many problems now. Both fascinating books, but leading a bit too deep into the weeds.
With regard to European history and classics:
- I reread Egon Friedell’s Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (link to my review) – out of pure hedonistic joy!
- I also had a burst with Stefan Zweig’s shorter biographies in Spring, of which I loved the one on Fouché and enjoyed the ones on Cassanova and Mesmer. Zweig is a master when it comes to portrait the complex and crooked characters of the late and post Renaissance centuries and their moral obliquity. He’s thus a very welcome distraction from the naïve idolatry of our time. (His Chess Novella is a good and short start if you don’t know him.)
It’s really weird to say that from my archetypal position of privilege (white male with good education), but: there is not so much fiction I can relate to! I mean… fiction seems a more female genre when it comes to both writers and readers, and many male authors reduce their white-man-protagonists to detectives/murderers, sex-obsessed racists (Houellebecq), people eaten by monsters (King), or children. Even Matthias Brandt writes coming-of age stories! So please – let me know if you have an author you like who writes about the Millennial quarter-to-half-life-crisis.
There was one highlight of that genre, though: Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex, a three-part French masterwork on an unemployed and homeless record seller who becomes a DJ-guru. Despentes deals with many of the ills and weirdness of contemporary Europe, featuring poverty, quests for purpose, racism, relationships, pornography, friendship, and alienation. Even though it’s a 35 hour beast (less if you listen on a higher speed…), I listened to it two times back to back over the course of a few weeks. (To be honest, the cast of characters is a bit overwhelming for a background audio track.)
My non-fiction highlights of this year were Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis’ Trade wars are class wars and Andreas Reckwitz Das hybride Subjekt (and Das Ende der Illusionen).
- Trade wars are class wars is a dense economic view on the current (unstable) trade equilibrium between the USA and China, with a strong showing of Germany’s economy and its myths. It helped me a lot to build a better idea on “what’s wrong with Germany” and as its thesis is still unfolding I will surely write more about it in the months to come.
- Reckwitz’ books are even denser sociological analyses of a cultural history of modern Germany, his hybrid subject a daunting and often dry dissertation thesis I carried over from 2021. His framework offers a brilliant alternative to the outdated social coordinate system of left vs. right and thus a complementary cultural axis to Klein and Pettis’ economic one to better map the tensions of contemporary Europe.
(I might be showing off a little bit here, but I mainly want to share my enthusiasm and provide a teaser for some of what I’m looking forward to write about this year. Trade wars… is actually quite accessible for those with a basic interest in economics and/or with strengths in mathematical thinking. Similarly, Reckwitz’ Ende der Illusionen is more timely and rewarding than his dissertation thesis, but he’s still a German sociologist, so you need to be ok with abstract theorizing a bit light on data.)
I’m not a big movie-person at the moment. A stronger connoisseur in the past, my favorite movies of 2021 were mostly lesser-known indie movies (if you are looking for highlights: Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd, John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, Relatos Salvajes’ Wild Tales, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, and Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs were great) – mostly as these were the most surprising and different, thus leaving the longest impression. (To be fair, the worst movies were also lesser-known indie movies; it’s a matter of the amount of risk the director is willing to take and his or her openness or neuroticism to write something for only a small group; I’m no punk, this is not about contrarianism or against “mainstream” entertainment.)
This year I didn’t watch too many of those, neither many others (you need some part of the day to read those books…), so very briefly: Zero Chou’s Untold Herstory was a nice movie about the White Terror era in Taiwan (see the mail from earlier this month); rewatching Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was great; looking at her filmography I also watched her documentary on Steve Bannon (of all people!), The Brink. I have a half-written review about that documentary that I’ll publish later.
The “nicest” movie was definitely Luca Guadagnino’s Call me by your name with the now it-boy Timothée Chalamet. It tells the story of a gay romance between young Elio Perlman, a French teenager spending his summer in Italy, showing the typical confusions, disinterests, and self-absorptions of an adolescent, and Oliver (just Oliver), a charismatic, boisterous American graduate student visiting to work with Elio’s professor-dad. The movie is as tender and complex, often allowing the actors and Mediterranean sun to talk or keep silent about the intricate ups and downs of a relationship, showing once more that love has to be lived, sometimes often too wonderful and strange to be understood or even described.
When it comes to more mainstream entertainment, I liked Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch, even so it left a less lasting impression than his other movies like Grand Budapest Hotel at their time. The Joker and the Batman were… ok?… I feel the “gritty superhero” trope becomes a big bland, even though both Phoenix and Pattison were great in their acting. I was positively surprised by Reminiscene, mostly due to interesting world-building and the genre: a true film noir! (All good airplane movies.)
Building on the AI-infused zeitgeist (and motivated by Simon DeDeo’s essay on the “Alpha Female”, which made probably 20% of the fun), I (re)watched some of the “humans meet other intelligences”-movies, namely Denis Villeneuve’s great Arrival, as well as Ex Machina and the mini-series Devs (both by Alex Garland). They were all really fun, mostly on “philosophical” grounds. (The fourth and last season of Joy and Nolan’s Westworld also fits this theme, unfortunately it never achieved the greatness and philosophical depth of the first two seasons.)
With all that out of the way, my definite movie-highlight of 2022 was watching Dune with my brother Jan in a cinema in Hanover. The grandness and simplicity of the narrative had something opera-like, a connection strengthened by Zimmer’s surprisingly deep score. (Not much of his work in the last years stuck, but I really love the playfulness, creativity, and collaboration that seems to be part of his process for Dune. It lead to stuff like “sub contra bass duduks made out of PVC” so what’s not to love – it also reminded me so well about the beautiful music projects of my past, as he explains is this YouTube-interview.) With all that said, this review section still feels rather bland. Seems like I’m a mainstream Chalamet fanboy myself, now 😉
Anna and I usually don’t watch that much TV, but as 2022 is still in the dusk-years of the Golden Age of TV, I would lie if I wouldn’t mention this category.
The strength of TV series are by now much appreciated (deeper character development, broader and more complex story arcs, to be able to watch in both shorter and longer stints than the usual 90-120 minutes, …). Yet, I sometimes still feel it’s a sub-Boomer generation phenomenon. (This hypothesis is mostly built on my first-hand experience with my parents’ generation in Germany, so the fact that there are much fewer good German shows as well as that it’s still kind of cumbersome to set up a streaming account and service on your big TV screen would definitely explain some of this phenomenon if it is true.) Anyway: If you are still focusing on movies alone, you are probably missing out! Here are five ★★★★★-series, all well-acclaimed and much-awarded.
I rewatched Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s Dark when lying flat with Covid in May. The three-seasons German Netflix series tells the story of a web of characters in the (fictional) Western German town of Winden. The show centers around the year of 1986 but quickly branches out into the past and future as the series introduces its major topic: time travel and its paradoxes! Dark tells a story of unparalleled, obsessive complexity, a true feast for someone with a mind as unruly and boisterous as mine. I really liked it for its deep philosophical questions around time, space, and its creative way to focus less on individual characters but more on the social web between them. (A rare approach I otherwise mainly know from the earlier series of Game of Thrones.)
The amazing two new (to me) shows of 2022 were Jesse Armstrong’s Succession and Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso, two American series both rightfully showered with Emmy awards. Succession tells the story of Logan Roy and his family, a billionaire media mogul about to step down (or not?) from his empire. It is a deeply cynical, funny, and smart show about money and power and what you can and cannot buy with it. The voyeuristic aspect of the show alone is great fun – watching the Roys play their Machiavellian games in their castles and summer ranches, on their yachts, and in their private planes and helicopters. But there is a second layer that I liked even more: For someone like me who grew up in a more traditional middle-class European family, the neoliberal American model of society with much stronger currents of transactionalism, financialization, and individual hedonism is often hidden and hard to grok. (We Europeans of the traditional “akademische Bürgerschaft” also love to frown upon these ideas with moral righteousness, of course.) Succession takes a refreshing nonjudgmental (yeah yeah, context, I know) perspectives towards these principles, their strengths and weaknesses, and thus offers a fascinating (while of course hyperbolic and totally unrepresentative) study of some of the core tenants of a culture that is omnipresent and yet strange once you leave the surface of Hollywood and culture wars, the US-American one.
With regards to “vibes”, Ted Lasso couldn’t be further away from Succession. Ted Lasso (the character) is an American American football coach who moves to the UK to coach the crisis-struck European football/soccer club Richmond. The show is incredibly funny and fun. The core issue of the show is – in my reading – modern masculinity and its paradoxes, one of the core themes men who show and deal with their feelings, and its scenes are often so vulnerable and moving that we had to secretly shed some tears not only of laughter. What connects both shows for me is that both are quite “educational” when it comes to my discipline, but where Succession offers great lessons in power, Ted Lasso offers those in leadership. Another strong recommendation!
As we talked about gurus: Another truly truly great series is the Duplass brothers’ Wild Wild County, a documentary on Chandra Mohan Jain aka a Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka a Osho, an Indian guru who – together with his confidant Ma Anand Sheela – set out to the US to build Rajneeshpuram, a 7,000-people ashram/ranch/city/commune for his Rajneesh movement. (Cult! Definitely cult!) The documentary accompanies Sheela from India to the (spoiler not spoiler) end of the commune, and it. is. perfect. If you wrote the story you wouldn’t make up a better one, the characters, the narrative arc. Sex, drugs, weapons, luxury cars, and rock’n roll. Oh the chutzpah! (Really, I used to think burning man is bold, but this!?) Wild Wild County too is a very good case study – on strategic interventions… and hubris.
Finally, we watched/rewatched Johan Renck’s Chernobyl, a great HBO miniseries on the MCA in Chernobyl. As both of us were born in the early months of 1986, the topic hit close to heart and heritage. The show seems to be mostly true to historic facts, is incredibly well produced, and takes a very clear approach to the corruption of the UdSSR just as a respectful approach to the Russian/Ukrainian motto/myth of dedication and readiness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause. If you typically don’t watch TV series, Chernobyl might be a good starting point to try. (If you figure out how to screen it from HBO on your TV, that is…)
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