In 2020, I foolishly made a New Year’s resolution to read 366 feature stories over the course of the year — an effort to read more, be inspired by the good work of other writers, and keep me from wasting time on dumb stuff like games on my phone, TV or actual work. It was a chore, but it paid off with tons of good stories, which I recounted over the year HERE.
This year… I didn’t read very much at all. It’s probably akin to going on a crash diet, then once you’ve lost the weight, heading to Golden Corral. I just went in the opposite direction, burned out from my yearlong endeavor.
Still, at the end of every year, I like to compile a list of my favorite stories I’ve read (find my 2020 list HERE or 2018 HERE. What happened to 2019? No clue.), and so I was faced with the harsh reality that I’d not devoted nearly enough time to great journalism in 2021. That’s a shame, and something I need to remedy in 2022. No, I won’t be reading 366 features (at least not purposefully), but there should be some happy medium. So, when I do this list again in 12 months, it will certainly be a better cross-section of the year’s best writing (I hope).
In the meantime, I did read just enough in 2021 to warrant at least a top 10 list (and a few others for good measure)…
So the bad part about getting COVID is… pretty much everything. I give it zero stars and do not recommend.
The silver lining, however, is it leaves a little time to catch up on movies, and again, thanks to COVID, pretty much every movie is available on a streaming service now, so no need to go to the theater.
And with the Oscars coming up, I felt like I should try to watch any of the movies getting buzz, which turned out to be a pretty extensive list.
So, over the past few weeks, I’ve watched 18 movies while largely relegated to my couch. Some were great. Some were awful. But I put together a quick review of each in case you’re also looking for something to watch.
One Night in Miami⭐⭐⭐⭐ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom⭐⭐⭐
Both were transplanted from stage productions to movies, and while the performances were phenomenal in both (Chadwick Boseman absolutely needs to win the Oscar for best actor in “Ma Rainey”), I think “One Night in Miami” made for a much better overall movie. “Ma Rainey” felt like a stage production on film. “Miami” had a real movie quality to it in its pacing. In the end, it’s probably the social justice version of “My Dinner with Andre” in that it’s largely just one long conversation between interesting people, but it’s elevated by both the terrific acting and the nuanced look at race and the roles Black men — particularly famous ones — were asked to play in the 1960s. My mind could be changed on this, but “Miami” feels like it’d be my choice for Best Picture this year. (MRBB on Netflix, ONIM on Amazon Prime)
Like ONIM & MRBB, this is meant to mimic a stage production… but my God is it self-indulgent. As a musical, it’s a bore. The songs are mediocre at best. As a story, it’s largely a series of meta jokes about Broadway. And as a performance, it’s intended, ostensibly, to parody self-important stars and instead wallows in its own gravitas. Just awful. (Netflix)
Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself⭐⭐⭐⭐
If you’ve not yet seen it, I’m not going to say anything about it because it’s best enjoyed without pretext. All I’ll say is that it’s the most unexpected viewing experience I’ve had in a long time. And I call it a “viewing experience” because that’s what it was. Like the previous films, this was a stage show… though this was actually filmed during the live performances and benefits from being able to overlap several of them throughout. It’s part magic show, part fable, part motivational speech… but really, it’s about the ride DelGaudio takes you on. You will not regret it. (Amazon Prime)
On the Rocks⭐⭐
Two actors I genuinely enjoy in almost anything (Bill Murray and Rashida Jones) are again pretty enjoyable, but the story offers next to nothing to back up the star power. There’s no real plot here, just a series of excuses to put Murray and Jones together in front of a camera. That’s fine, but disappointing that it didn’t amount to something more. (Apple TV+)
A documentary on a mock government for high school boys in Texas offers a lot of insight into the reality of politics. It could be interpreted as a black comedy if not for the reality of our political climate that somehow makes satire impossible. Worth the watch. (Apple TV+)
Da 5 Bloods⭐⭐
I love the premise, which is largely a riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre while delving into the burdens of Black soldiers in Vietnam. The presentation from Spike Lee is, as you’d expect, unique. Some of it works, like the monologues from Delroy Lindo (who is terrific). But so much of it doesn’t, from the insane leaps in logic in service of the plot to the obvious problems with the timeline to the unnecessary additions like one character’s long-lost daughter (which culminates in the film’s final scene in a moment so dishonest it nearly ruins all that came before it). In the end, Lee made a perfectly watchable movie that never lived up to the bigger promise he clearly was working hard to inject. (Netflix)
The story of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is a really fun watch. Gary Oldman just chews up the scenery with a terrific performance that would be Oscar-worthy if not for Boseman’s role in “Ma Rainey.” The story bounces between two critical points in Mank’s life: The California gubernatorial election of 1934 and the writing of “Citizen Kane” in 1940. The film works hard to connect these two events, and it doesn’t work. It’s all too forced. But the two stories, independently, are both incredibly fun and worth the watch. (Netflix)
Pieces of a Woman⭐⭐
The first 30 minutes of the movie verge on tragedy porn, indulging every grueling moment of an ultimately tragic stillbirth that should set the stage for an emotional juggernaut of a movie. Unfortunately, the film fizzles out after that opening sequence and veers into pointless distractions, including a focus on Shia LeBouf’s character rather than staying with the broken mother. (Netflix)
News of the World⭐⭐⭐
Tom Hanks is great, as always, in what amounts to a pretty standard Western that moves from action at Point A to new action at Point B to new action at Point C, etc. It’s your archetypal “hero goes on a journey” story. It’s fun and has enough suspense to keep you off your cell phone, but doesn’t really amount to anything special. (Available for Download)
Judas and the Black Messiah⭐⭐⭐
Of all the movies on this list, this is the one I probably need to really watch again to appreciate fully. It was, without question, well made, well acted and well scripted. The story hits all the right notes in building depth for the antagonist and creating real stakes for the protagonist (which, as it’s based on real — and tragic — events, makes sense) and in the end, it should clearly make you angry. All of that works. And yet… I just never felt hooked by the movie. It all functions better as a think piece than a movie. But perhaps that’s just me… or the time that I watched it… or something. I know it was good, and so I’m going to revisit it at some point. (HBO Max)
Trial of the Chicago Seven⭐⭐⭐
I hate Aaron Sorkin. “The Social Network” makes me genuinely angry. So I went into this with very low expectations. Turns out… the Sorkin-ness of it was dialed way back, and the story — while largely following a standard courtroom drama plot line — added up to something more. While it covers some of the same ground as “Judas and the Black Messiah” it does so in a more traditional means, which is both good (for entertainment sake) and bad (for genuine insight) but all amounts to an entirely watchable two hours, including a surprisingly adept performance by Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. (Netflix)
The Forty Year Old Version⭐⭐⭐
I’d be underselling this to call it “Clerks” for an older and/or Black audience (though this film’s target audience probably doesn’t have a ton of overlap with Kevin Smith’s), but that’s what I was thinking about as I watched it. In part, this is because of how the film is shot — in black and white, with a largely unpolished feel. In part it’s the casting, which includes plenty of amateurs and few big names. And in part, it’s the subject matter — a character adrift and unsure, torn between pursuing the thing she thinks she’s always wanted and something new and possibly better (if just shifted ahead by about a decade compared to “Clerks” mid-20s cast). Like “Clerks,” it’s also scathingly funny without a hint of pretense, which works marvelously. In the end, the rough edges will likely turn off a part of a general audience, but like “Clerks,” if you can embrace them, they actually manage to elevate the overall movie. (Netflix)
I couldn’t even finish it. How you take a story that combines space and the apocalypse, have George Clooney as the lead, and it all comes out incredibly boring is just beyond me. But that’s what you get here. (Netflix)
Sound of Metal⭐⭐
It’s a good movie with some strong performances, but like “Da 5 Bloods” or “News of the World,” it felt like it could’ve been something more but never really reached that point. The story of a metal drummer who loses his hearing takes us through his journey and ultimately his semi-acceptance of his fate, but it didn’t really connect for me. I think this largely comes from scenes that I didn’t quite enjoy lasting too long, and other parts — like the main character’s relationship with a class of young deaf children — being rushed in service of getting back to the main plot. It’s worth the watch but left me thinking how much better it might’ve been. (Amazon Prime)
Malcolm & Marie⭐⭐⭐
This movie is of the same pastiche as “Ma Rainey” or “One Night in Miami” — what in TV terminology is called a “Bottle episode.” There are just two characters and the whole film takes place in their Malibu home over a single evening. The acting is terrific and the dialogue is mostly sharp, but it also can’t quite escape a level of self-indulgence that leaves you feeling like you don’t really want to have just spent the past two hours with these people. It’s worth the watch because of the exceptionally strong performances, but it’s really hard to set an entire movie around two fairly unlikeable characters. (Netflix)
The Little Things
Arguably the dumbest movie I’ve seen in a while (though “Wonder Woman ’84” was still far worse). Rami Malik is incapable of playing a normal human being. Denzel Washington’s character is supposed to be a deeply wounded cop that somehow never comes across that way, and the third act is effectively a series of just mind-bogglingly dumb decisions made by the main characters mixed with ’70s cop show action and reaction shots. I hated this movie with the passion of five Denzels. (HBO Max)
Promising Young Woman⭐⭐⭐⭐
This is the movie that I’ve spent the most time thinking about since watching it. First off, it’s a terrific premise: A woman whose life has been upended due to a sexual assault tries to get revenge on predatory men who seek out drunk women for easy sex. It’s part “Falling Down,” part “Inglorious Basterds.” But that’s not quite right either. The movie veers between a love story, a revenge fantasy, a mystery, a black comedy… and at times, that feels a bit off-putting. I was a bit distracted by some of the casting choices, too. While Carey Mulligan is terrific, the secondary parts were essentially all recognizable TV comedy veterans, which felt like an odd choice for a film ostensibly about such serious subject matter. But I read a good review after the fact that suggested this is part of the allure — and that after a traumatic event like a sexual assault, it’s realistic to be mixed up, to not know how to treat your surroundings, to be unsure what type of narrative your life is now following. That makes sense to me having ruminated on it for a while, too. I’m still not sure that I loved all the aesthetic and casting decisions, but I’m also still thinking about them… and that’s the sign of an effective story. (Available for download)
I’m still not entirely sure how I felt about it. It was good. Frances McDormand gives a very Frances McDormandy performance, and the story was undoubtedly unique and insightful and in some ways a modern day “On the Road.” But the movie was so full of contrasts — the beauty of this life vs. the security of an established existence, the independence required vs the need for community — that it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it all. Perhaps that’s the point. More than anything, however, I can say there was not a more gorgeously filmed movie this year. If Joshua James Richards doesn’t win an Oscar for the Cinemetography, they should just stop giving out awards.(Available for download)
Still want to see: Soul, The Father, Minari
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
When I finally regained my sense of smell, I immediately quoted this scene from Dewey Cox, which then reminded me I should watch the whole movie again. My God it’s great. If you’ve never seen, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. One of the 10 funniest movies of all time and a worthy addition to the canon of great parodies alongside “Spaceballs” and “Airplane.” (Amazon Prime)
After reading so many awesome stories, however, I don’t expect you to cull through all 366 to find your favorites, so I’ll share mine below.
Of course, these are always supposed to be top 10 lists, and that’s an impossible task when I’ve read so many great pieces, so I’ll cheat a bit to get a few more into the mix…
Best oral history: Brian Van Hooker’s amazing deep dive into the impact of The Simpsons’ “Steamed Hams” bit. There’s a full day’s worth of laughs in here & it goes well beyond the basic history, which is great. As a side note, as a reporter, my favorite part of the Steamed Hams oral history was imagining Brian calling an astrophysicist to ask if it was theoretically possible the Northern Lights could be contained entirely in someone’s kitchen.
Best series: Eli Saslow’s first-person “as told to” accounting of normal people’s battles with COVID-19 was haunting and essential, and none got to me more than this one about parents who nearly lost their two sons to the virus.
Best story by one of my friends: Lots of good work from the great ESPN folks this year, but nothing better than Andrea Adelson’s emotional look at David Shaw’s battle to save his brother’s life. Just a beautiful story of what we’ll do for the people we love.
Best non-college football sports story: Tom Junod’s tale of what actually happened on a Maine baseball field and the tragic backstories of the people involved is so deeply reported and emotionally intense. Then again, it’s what you expect from Tom.
Best sports essay: Ryan McGee’s personal appeal to NASCAR fans after the sport banned the confederate flag is the takedown of “History not Hate” that was desperately needed. It takes courage start pulling the skeletons out of the family’s closet, and this was a courageous piece.
Best feel-good read: In a year without much good news, we all needed a pick-me-up, and Sam Anderson’s profile of Weird Al Yankovic was exactly that… a joyful & surprisingly emotional treatise on the pleasures of being different.
Most prescient story of the year: Back in February when we all assumed COVID-19 would go away soon enough, James Hamblin’s story offered an astonishingly prescient alternative, that before hardly any Americans had it, the virus had already won.
Most deeply reported story of the year: Matthew Shaer goes around the world and back to find the real truth of a man who claimed to be a lost US commando lost in Vietnam for half a century. Nobody dug deeper on a story this year.
Best narrative essay: Sarah Viren’s wife was accused of harassment. The accusations were all lies. The taut narrative here reads like a crime thriller while exposing the dark underbelly of higher education.
Reporting MVP of the year: The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe had more stories I absolutely loved than anyone else this year. Just a terrific run of deeply reported, narrative driven pieces, one of which I’ll include in my top 10, but also wanted to share a couple others…
Now my top 10 favorite stories of the year. The one common thread among them is that they each go deep on their subjects, and if that’s all they were, they’d all be excellent stories. But in each case, the writer elevates the content into something bigger and better and more lasting. Hope you’ll read them all.
Reminder: please please please continue to support good journalism in 2021 by subscribing to your favorite news outlets & sharing the stories that impact you.
10. Linda Rodriguez found perhaps the most outside-the-box approach to telling a COVID-19 story this year with her piece on a man who’s spent nearly his whole life in an iron lung. It’s beautifully reported and written and perfectly captures the humanity of a man whose existence requires machines.
9. I mentioned Greg Jaffe’s outstanding work this year, and you could pick one of many for the top 10, but this piece on the soldier turned in by his own platoon who became a conservative hero after a Trump pardon. The depth of reporting & visceral emotions are next level here.
8. The reporting here is great, too, but the writing in Burkhard Bilger’s deep dive into high-end reno projects in NYC is the type of thing that keeps me up at night I’m so jealous of it. The quotes are amazing, too. Contractors got jokes.
7. Michael Lista’s story of a poorly planned sting operation in Canada goes so far beyond the narrative thrills of a crime story and results in a heartbreaking tale of loneliness and despair.
6. Caroline Randall Williams wrote the most powerful piece I’ve seen on how to address the country’s fraught history with race. Too many of our big debates are had with excess emotion and too little empathy, and Randall Williams flips the script in gut-wrenching fashion.
5. I hate celebrity profiles but Taffy Brodesser-Akner upends all the tropes and actually finds something deep and meaningful in her story about Val Kilmer that, in the end, feels like a story that mattered so much more because of the time in which it appeared. It’s beautiful.
3. Jesmyn Ward’s essay on losing her husband just before the pandemic upended the world was simply heartbreaking. It reminded me of “The Leftovers” subplot in which personal grief gets upstaged by national tragedy and the additional hurt that comes with that.
2. Chris Solomon’s essay on the love shared between his parents and the toll that commitment took as they got older and his father dealt with dementia. Just gut-wrenching and beautiful at the same time. Not sure any story will stick with me more than this one.
1. Sarah Zhang’s story on prenatal testing & Down Syndrome is touching and heartfelt but also asks some big questions we face as humans. It’s one of those rare stories that deeply connects with its subjects but is about something so much bigger.
So I’ve been slacking. Yes, I’ve still been reading… just not nearly so much. My goal of 366 stories in 366 days is… possibly not going to happen. I write this with 21 days remaining and 26 stories left to read. But hey, I was one of Pocket’s top 1% this year, so that’s got to be good for something, right?
Anyway, as I’ve also slacked on posting these, I’m skipping most of the commentary and just including links. I am worthless during football season. Forgive me.
We’re more than halfway through our project of reading 366 feature stories in 366 days in 2020. It’s been a helluva ride so far — through a pandemic, protests, Mike Gundy. But, here’s to better days ahead.
Watched “Hamilton” for the first time over the weekend and it belongs in that pantheon of things that were so hyped in advance that there seemed no way for them to live up to the billing, and yet somehow they managed to exceed expectations. Everything in this piece is true — but there’ve been about a million “Hamilton” think pieces in the past week and there could be a million more. There’s just so much to unpack.
In January, I decided to read 366 feature stories this year — averaging out to one per day. It’s been a nice experience, though far too many of the stories have been entirely depressing, which comes with the territory in this depressing era we’re all trying to survive. It’s also been an interesting calendar of sorts. Looking back over the past six months, it’s almost amazing to see how much the tone, subject matter, urgency of stories has shifted. There’s probably something more to be said about all that, but I don’t have the energy at the moment, so let’s just get to the 10 best stories I’ve read so far this year…
I initially posted this as a thread of tweets, but the thing about Twitter is that, after just a few hours (or minutes or seconds) online, ideas can easily disappear into the ether, never to be seen again. I didn’t want that to happen here, if for no other reason than I want to be reminded of this every so often, like stepping on the scale to refresh your goal to eat healthier (which I also need to do, but that’s a different story).
Still, the starting point comes from Twitter, from @PrimeDiscussion, a Florida State fan I’ve followed for years, who continuously offers insight that requires me to think deeper about my own opinions and choices on things like race and politics and, occasionally, FSU football.
Y’all need to learn to respect these players and where they come from. And I don’t mean that in some pre-game college game day Ronaldi tear jerker special way. It’s not all tragic stories being overcome. I’m talking about them as actual human beings.
(Note: There’s more to Adam’s thread that’s also worth reading, but this was the jumping off point for my thread.)
(Second note: This is lightly edited from the original Twitter thread to add context and account for the lack of a character limit here.)
Adam’s tweet got me thinking a lot about how we tell the human stories of college athletes, and that’s required me to take a hard look at the process. Adam’s larger issue is 100% right but I want to address the “tragic stories overcome” trope, which runs deep.
First, since he’s mentioned in Adam’s tweet, let me say that there’s no nicer human in this business than Tom Rinaldi, so none of this is a critique of him. Rather, it’s a critique of me and (hopefully) a point to consider for all of us who tell stories for a living.
I like to fancy myself a feature writer. Maybe not a good one, but it’s the part of the job that gives me the most satisfaction. The best advice I’ve ever gotten is that all stories are stories about people, and features let me tell the best people stories.
When telling a feature story — or any story, I guess — you’re really giving your perception of someone else’s story. I hope my reporting is thorough enough that my perception matches experienced reality, but that’s especially hard when writing about black athletes as a white reporter.
My goal to read 366 feature stories in 366 days is proceeding on schedule, but given the percentage of those stories that have just kicked me in the stomach, it’s been a more arduous journey than I’d imagined when we began in January. But part of the reason for this adventure was to see what impact consuming so much in-depth journalism would have on my outlook, and I must say, it’s been exhausting and, at the same time, inspiring. Hope it’s been the same for those of you reading along with me.
This piece is not for the faint of heart. It’s long, and it’s deep, but it offers some genuine historical perspective on why so few Republicans are willing to step out from behind Trump’s coat tails to speak truth to power — and why a few of them do. It’s fascinating.
The woman who wrote this is a freshman in college. A freshman. My god. I might as well quit the profession because if an 18-year-old is already this much better than me… well, what hope do I have? But seriously, this is an absolute tour-de-force of journalism. If I were teaching a course in feature writing, I’d pass out this story and just tell the students, “do this.” (Note: I wouldn’t be a very good teacher.)
The inherent question in the two stories above are the same: How do journalists balance their personal beliefs with their role as objective observers. I think a big part has to start with this: Objectivity is not about giving equal footing to all arguments, many of which are made in bad faith or not supported by evidence. It is our job to discern reality from narrative and present the most accurate version to our audience. Too much of our industry, on shaky ground as it is, has been bullied into “both sides-ing” everything, when in fact, one side is just eager to muddy the waters. On the flip side, it’s essential that un-muddying those waters is done with facts and reporting, not our own personal ethos. In fact, good reporting answers a lot of the problems we’re facing.
It’s May. We’ve been holed up for two months. The country is demanding we march back toward normalcy, even if nothing has really changed in the fight against Covid-19. Fun times. How about some reading material to distract you?