Dave reviews movies that have been out for months: Part 1 (of perhaps 1 but maybe 2)

I had a fun conversation with a friend of mine the other day about “Top Gun: Maverick.” I saw it in the theater shortly after it was released, and I loved it. It was the type of genuinely exciting, popcorn flick that absolutely needs to be seen on the big screen and that so rarely gets made anymore outside of the Marvel movies.

On the other hand, it was still a popcorn flick. The dialogue was superfluous, the characters were cut-and-pasted from the first movie, and the plot could essentially be boiled down to an early level of a first-person video game about flying. This was not high art.

And yet, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a nominee for Best Picture. That’s crazy, right?

On the one hand, comparing what went into making “Top Gun” with something like “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” or “Banshees if Inisherin” underscores just how light “Top Gun” is. There’s no depth to it, no deeper message it wants to convey. It’s largely what a really good algorithm might’ve written in that it hits on all the elements of an enjoyable movie without actually having any feeling behind them.

On the other hand, as my friend argued, you unquestionably feel something watching “Top Gun.” It was exhilarating. It was the type of movie where, cliched as it sounds, people stood up to cheer. How rare is that these days? And isn’t the point of a movie to make you feel something?

That’s the case my friend wanted to make. Just because the feeling evoked by “Top Gun” wasn’t sadness or introspection or existential dread doesn’t make the feeling evoked any less significant. Indeed, the feeling of watching “Top Gun” in the theater for the first time might be far rarer than anything the other Oscar movies delivered this year.

So, is it reasonable for “Top Gun” to be a Best Picture nominee? My sense is its presence on this list is as much about gaining a wider audience for the awards show as it is about the movie’s actual quality. But that it forced me to consider what art really is on the big screen probably supports its inclusion either way.

As for other movies that got some serious buzz in 2022, I’ve spent the past few weeks playing catch-up on all I missed throughout the year, and I have thoughts below.

Of note: Movies I have no intention of seeing:

Avatar: The Way of Water – I’ve never seen the first one. I’m not going to see this one. I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything.

All Quiet on the Western Front — I’m sure it’s great, but I just don’t think I have it in me to watch a 3+ hour German war movie. I’ve got to draw a line somewhere.

The Whale — Tom Hanks in “Elvis” was enough “actor in a fat suit” for me this year.

Movies I plan to see in the near future and may write about then:

Triangle of Sadness — Finally someone is speaking out about how awful rich people are. Oh, I’m being told that’s literally what 70% of all new shows and movies are about…

The Eternal Daughter — I need to see it to be certain it’s not just a fake movie from an episode of “Seinfeld.”

Women Talking — Assuming this is just an episode of “The View” but I’ll give it a shot when I can see it on a streaming service for free.

Babylon — This looks like if they remade Leo’s “The Great Gatsby” but, you know, good this time.

Moonage Daydream — I love Bowie but I also have to be in the right mood to go through a Bowie looking glass. And by that I mean I probably need to secure some edibles.

RRR — People seem to love it, and I’ve chosen to pronounce it only in a pirate voice.

Decision to Leave — I’m assuming this is Tim Robinson in a hot dog suit for two hours and I’m very excited to see it.

The Fabelmans — It’s about time indie director Steven Spielberg gets some national recognition.

Aftersun — I enjoyed “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” so I’m looking forward to this sequel which I’ve not researched at all.

Empire of Light — I have nothing funny to say about this. I actually don’t know a damned thing about it.

If you’re interested in digging into the vault, here are my reviews from last year’s Oscar binge.

As for this year…

Tár (Rental, 3.5 stars)

“Tár” opens with fictional conductor Lydia Tár being introduced on stage for a conversation with NPR’s Adam Gopnik. During their conversation, he poses questions about the role of a conductor, and how different conductors can alter music through their own interpretation of the creator’s intent. Tár’s true muse is Mahler’s Fifth, which she says, unlike all of his other work, remains mysterious beyond a dedication to his new bride.

This, to me, is the mission statement of a movie that virtually every criticism I’ve read has missed. In “Tár,” critics want to see a treatise on cancel culture or misogyny or #MeToo or power dynamics in relationships or classism or political correctness or… you name it.

All of this is in the text of the film, too. But while “Tár” appears to want to broach these subjects through the gradual fall from grace of its title character, it always wades into the water only to turn back without making a real statement.

It’s why the film has been cast as both a comment for and against cancel culture; a biting criticism of Gen Z’s culture of feelings or a cynical satire of an older generation’s “fuck your feelings” mantra. It argues for separating art from artist, then shows us an artist who seems very much worthy of our disdain and never asks us to root for her. To know what the movie thinks about any of these issues is to fill in your own blanks.

All of this would be interesting enough, I think, if that’s where this ended: As a conversation about the film’s true intent. But what I think is missing is something far more obvious than the subtext so many want to apply to it.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I would simply say that there is a lot on the screen that begs the viewer to ask questions about what they’ve just seen. There is so much that simply doesn’t make sense as objective truth, and as a result, an ostensibly political movie actually plays as a ghost story, a whodunit, a psychological thriller, a twisty mind-game — and yet almost none of this seems to be discussed in most of the reviews of the movie I’ve seen, save this one, which astutely leans into the less political but very clear signals the movie offers.

I watched it with my wife, who upon its conclusion assailed the film as “boring.” That’s perhaps a fair review, too, and one I probably shared to an extent in the immediate aftermath of a movie that offered no clear conclusion. But the more I thought about it and read and dug in… the more I fell in love with all it offered — from what was on screen and, more importantly, what wasn’t.

What is “Tár” about? I think it’s like Mahler’s Fifth. It’s about everything or nothing. It’s what you want to see in it. It’s a mystery. It is, like a great composition of music, something that exists entirely within the context of how the conductor chooses to interpret it, and in this case, we are the conductor of our own orchestra.

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (Showtime, 3 stars)

What a weird, fun, hilarious, strange, interesting, philosophical ride this movie was. How to explain it? No, it’s better not to. It’s inexplicable. It has so much to say in so many strange ways. No one has ever taken the literal idea of an everything bagel to its logical conclusion, but this movie does. No film has ever made better use of a butt plug joke. This is like the most elevated “Rick and Morty” episode on steroids. It defies convention at every turn and I absolutely loved that. Was it all executed perfectly? I don’t know. I have a sense that it’s a movie I’ll enjoy more upon a second viewing because, honestly, I spent most of my initial watch just wondering how the hell someone came up with all of this.

Oh, and Biff Wiff is in it. I am a huge Biff Wiff fan since learning of his existence in Season 2 of “Dave.” I would really like to read a 10,000-word feature on Biff Wiff’s life.

The Banshees of Inisherin (HBO Max, 4 stars)

There’s a rich tapestry of “Hollywood doesn’t make anything original anymore” complaints these days, and usually, I’m inclined to agree. But boy, this year’s crop had some genuinely surprising narratives and unique ideas — with “Banshees” right near the top of the list.

It’s not that the story itself is entirely inventive. It’s an elegy of male friendship, which shouldn’t feel so surprising, but that’s a topic that is so rarely examined in popular culture.

Every performance in this movie is riveting — so much so that it’s easy to overlook Barry Keoghan or Kerry Condon in supporting roles — and the cinematography is just breathtaking. But it’s the friendship — or lack thereof — at the movie’s core that unveils so much depth and humanity.

Most reviews have focused on the wonderful performance of Colin Farrell as Padraic, and for my money, Farrell absolutely deserves the Oscar for best actor. He’s amazingly expressive, funny and sympathetic. I say this as someone who’s never been much of a fan. (Farrell’s typical style that’s akin to if a homeless guy could be a d-bag has always rubbed me wrong.) And indeed, the movie’s point of view asks us to largely view Padraic as our avatar, the jilted friend who’s desperate to find something of substance in his life.

Brendan Gleeson’s Colm largely takes a backseat, because we’re meant to find his explanation for ending this friendship confounding, frustrating, mysterious. But I think that serves to overlook what truly makes this movie special, because the tragedy of Colm’s life — a true Greek tragedy of self-inflicted misery — is so significant, too.

The setting and backdrop for the movie are essential here. The largely desolate island in Ireland allows for a close examination of loneliness and determination to find meaning in one’s life when, in fact, significance is a rare commodity. That this despair is examined against the backdrop of war — always seen in the backdrop, but never infringing on our characters’ lives — only underscores how insignificant our these men are — except to each other. And the fact that the movie’s climactic event occurs as a matter of pure happenstance — a series of choices resulting in a tragedy that couldn’t have been foreseen — effectively offers a reminder that, whatever meaning there is in life, it’s typically thrust upon us rather than hunted down.

This movie has little in common with “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” in terms of its production. “Banshees” is small and quiet, where “Everything” is, as the title might suggest, immense. But they share the same DNA at their core, about how we find meaning in life when, by all practical measures, our choices are meaningless — either because we’re small men on a small island in the middle of nowhere or because we’re small women in an infinite universe where anything that can happen already has. In a macro sense, the message of both movies is clear: We don’t matter. But each movie is far more interested in a micro view, where our choices matter to those we surround ourselves with, and value and significance are not determined by the universe, but what we choose to care about.

Causeway (Apple+, 2.5 stars)

I could list about a dozen somewhat glaring flaws with this movie — from the weirdly inconsistent use of the New Orleans setting to the significant lapses in plot development — and yet, I can’t say it wasn’t a suitably enjoyable viewing. It is, in a sense, the alternate narrative of “Banshees” — the start of a friendship and the pitfalls that accompany that delicate time. Like “Banshees,” it’s a small movie, almost entirely driven by quiet scenes of dialogue between two characters. Jennifer Lawrence is fine, given what she has to work with, but it’s Brian Tyree Henry who really shines. I’d watch Henry in pretty much anything, but his ability to play both detached but caring observer and wounded tough guy — hard and soft together — is his wheelhouse, and he nails it here. The movie checks in at a brisk 94 minutes, which is both a blessing (it’s an easy watch given the limited payoff) and a curse (it feels like there’s a lot more character development that could’ve been done here).

Nope (Peacock, 2.5 stars)

I really liked “Get Out.” I thought “Us” was interesting and ended on a particularly disquieting note that I found to be poignant and unnerving enough to make the movie feel bigger than it might’ve actually been. But “Nope” is just… fine. It’s a movie that’s perfectly watchable, reasonably suspenseful (though never actually scary) and moderately interesting, but it falls short of Jordan Peele’s previous work in that it never really amounts to much of anything. It feels like there should be deeper symbolism within the narrative, something more meaningful than just “people fight an alien” and yet it never really comes through. There’s tons of set up but no real payoff. Even the movie’s grand conclusion feels unearned — just a sort of a deus ex machina. There are fun characters here that never really get developed, motivations largely left unexplained. In short, “Nope” is more of an interesting idea than a fleshed-out world.

Elvis (HBO Max, 1 star)

I have no comprehension of why this movie was reviewed so glowingly other than reviewers were simply happy to see a music biopic that didn’t feel like every other music biopic.

I’m not a fan of music biopics in general. “Dewey Cox” pretty much ruined the genre by so perfectly skewering the blueprint that it’s hard to take any of them seriously. So, I suppose it’s reasonable to suggest that Baz Luhrmann wanted to do something different. In that, he succeeded. It is different.

It also lacks any sense of narrative focus and essentially feels like a two-and-a-half-hour montage scene.

Austin Butler is getting real buzz for his portrayal of Elvis, which may be good, but it’s hard to tell given that, aside from the music, he doesn’t really do anything besides sweat a lot.

I’ve never seen a Tom Hanks movie in which I didn’t enjoy Tom Hanks’ performance (even “Joe vs. the Volcano”) but I genuinely hated watching him here. And the decision to build the narrative around Col. Parker’s point of view is utterly perplexing. Why? Would you make a Batman biopic through The Joker’s point of view? (Actually, that’s kind of an intriguing idea. Never mind.)

I get the need to do something with Elvis beyond the typical “Behind the Music” style rise and fall narrative. But this has no narrative at all. There’s almost nothing explaining Elvis’ inner drives beyond what Col. Parker tells us as an unreliable narrator. It’s a fever dream based loosely on facts about Elvis’ life. Even the music doesn’t get a true chance to shine.

Perhaps there’s something to be said about “Elvis” as a piece of art. As a movie, however, it’s a total mess.

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (Roku, 3 stars)

No this was a good music bio. OK, in fairness, it wasn’t exactly a biography. I’m sure there were some tidbits of Weird Al’s real life in there, but this was essentially a parody of parody, and it worked on every level.

The satire of a stereotypical music bio wasn’t as overt — or quite as damning — as “Dewey Cox,” but it did hit on many of the main tropes of the genre, while never straying too far from the silliness that ultimately has made Yankovic a star for four decades.

“Weird” is all the fun of an old-school Zucker Brothers satire — sharing more DNA with something like “Airplane” or “The Naked Gun” than with a true music bio, from the zany slapstick comedy (Weird Al killing Pablo Escobar) to the wonderful celebrity cameos (excellent use of Lin Manuel Miranda).

And unlike “Elvis,” which had, you know, a real music library to pull from, “Weird” actually celebrates the songs in a far more enjoyable way than Lurhmann does in his movie.

But the best part of “Weird” is the lead performance from Daniel Radcliffe, who is genuinely brilliant. He plays the whole thing straight — a la Leslie Neilson in “Naked Gun” — which allows the comedy to work so much better. But the pathos, as silly as it is, still feels earned. And I’d have given him an Oscar just for his delivery of the line “Hard pass!” in the pool party scene.

“Weird” actually reminded me a bit of “Top Gun: Maverick” in that it is the type of movie you just don’t see much anymore — something fun, light and cool. It had the same irreverent, silly, disarming, fun, charming and underground vibe that so much old-school comedy — National Lampoon’s stuff, “Caddyshack,” “Kentucky Fried Movie,” etc. — had… a veneer of cool laid overtop a fully nerd-based core.

If “Elvis” was a tribute to the artistic pretense of its creator, “Weird” was the exact opposite. It was an homage to all the underground comedy nerds that have kept Weird Al relevant for all these years.

The Menu (HBO Max, 4 stars)

I watched this within a few days of finishing Season 2 of “White Lotus,” a show I genuinely liked, if didn’t always find myself entirely invested in. Still, it served as a fine precursor — or, perhaps in this case, amuse-bouche — for “The Menu.”

Both “White Lotus” and “The Menu” (as well as a lot of other media out in recent years) is intended as dark comedy taking aim at wealth and privilege. Both succeed in their own ways, but what “The Menu” does so exquisitely is execute that satire in an utterly original way, while also saving some of its most pointed barbs not for the ultra-rich but for the bourgeoisie who feign their own inclusion in the elite class by mimicking many of the worst behaviors of the rich and entitled. In other words, it made me squirm worrying if I do that, too.

Ralph Fiennes is absolute perfection in the lead role, playing a role that asked him to appear both utterly crazed and yet entirely buttoned-up. Anya Taylor-Joy, whom I loved in “The Queen’s Gambit,” is equally mesmerizing here, too. And smaller but utterly wonderful performances from Judith Light, Nicholas Hoult (who is brilliant playing utterly detestable), John Leguizamo and Hong Chau all round out a fantastic cast.

It’s rare to find much that feels truly original in Hollywood these days, but “The Menu” is unlike anything else out there. It’s biting satire that takes its subject matter seriously and delivers an eloquent treatise not on food, but on food culture. It could easily serve as black comedy, genuine food porn, gothic horror or biting satire. It was all of it. It was a film filled with genuine surprises, real depth of character, and an absolutely perfectly executed finale.

“The Menu” was my favorite movie of the year, and it wasn’t particularly close. I predict, too, it’ll hold up as an utterly re-watchable tale that will continue to unveil more depth and humor upon subsequent viewings, too.

She Said (Showtime, 3.5 stars)

I was dubious going into this movie. For one, I’m rarely a fan of journalism movies for the same way I’m guessing a lot of doctors don’t watch “Chicago Med.” To see your profession dramatized is to see your profession lose the nuts and bolts — which is really everything. Worse, I assumed this could be simply a Hollywood movie congratulating itself for Hollywood finally taking women’s complaints about Harvey Weinstein seriously. At best, I figured, this would be “Spotlight” redux.

In some ways, all of those concerns turned out to be a little bit true. I’m not sure the movie covered any new ground. It certainly ignored some of Hollywood and, in particular, The New York Times’, roles in allowing Weinstein to prey on women for so long. And, of course, no movie worth watching will every truly show journalism as it actually is (example: I doubt the real Megan Twohey was making critical reporting calls while walking down a busy NYC street).

But that’s nitpicking at a movie that was absolutely stunning.

Carey Mulligan and, in particular, Zoe Kazan, depicted actual reporting better than I think I’ve ever seen dramatized in any film or television show before — the struggles, the monotony, the failure again and again and again. In both of them, I saw so much of other journalists I know. They absolutely nailed the roles — Mulligan as the more established and cynical veteran, Kazan as the sincere believer. Both deserve genuine Oscar buzz.

More importantly, the movie was never about Weinstein, per se. He was a plot device, really. The movie was instead an examination of the victims, of the impact Weinstein’s actions had on their lives, the grief and chaos and turmoil that lasted for decades after he assaulted them. It was as much a film about grief as it was about sexual assault or journalism or #MeToo. And because of that, the movie’s climax, as witnesses agree to go on the record and the story finally comes together, has such a genuine emotional payoff that far exceeds anything you could expect from a story that most viewers already knew well.

Of course, my bias here is for the journalism aspects of the film, and on that note, “She Said” belongs among the genuine great movies about reporting. It may be the absolute best.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix, 3 stars)

Here’s the seemingly ubiquitous review of “Glass Onion,”: It was good, but not as good as the first one.

Alas, “Knives Out” was such a thrill in part because of some spectacular performances (including Chris Pine and Jamie Lee Curtis playing against type) and wickedly sharp dialogue but also because it had been forever since we got a genuinely sharp whodunnit that didn’t feel like an overt regurgitation of something we’ve seen 1,000 times before. As good as “Glass Onion” might’ve been, it was invariably going to feel derivative in a way “Knives Out” didn’t.

I genuinely enjoyed the performances and dialogue again this time, and while the satire of rich privilege was brilliantly executed in the original, I actually preferred the send up of disruptor culture here.

But in the end, my real gripe with this installment was something the movie seemed to lean into: The simplicity of it all. I love a good murder mystery. I watch too much “Dateline.” And while I don’t typically obsess over the “who” in most whodunnits, the payoff in this one felt sort of… thin. Again, the movie readily admits this and tries to use it to its advantage, but I’m not sure it worked as well as it could have — at least for me.

On the flip side: Any and all jokes about Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce earn a solid stamp of approval.

Death on the Nile (HBO Max or Hulu, 2.5 stars)

As I noted on “Glass Onion,” I love a good murder mystery, and I’m usually a fan of even rudimentary Agatha Christie remakes. In this case, Kenneth Branagh does a fine job here injecting some new energy into a well known story, and the scenery, set design and wardrobes are all fantastic. (Gal Gadot dressed to the nines is always worth tuning in for.) Branagh, himself, plays Poirot with at least moderate depth of emotion (even if it doesn’t always feel earned) and the denouement played nicely whether you’re well aware of how the story ends or a first-time viewer. Was it something special? No, not close. But it was an enjoyable enough way to spend two hours.

X (Showtime, 2 stars)

This movie got some serious buzz as a brilliant homage to ’70s slasher films, and it certainly attempted to mimic the aesthetic. But it played as more stylized horror than as a horror movie with something interesting to say about repressed sexuality, religion or, most significantly, the marginalization of old people. It hinted at interest in all of those topics, but largely left motivations and depth aside in favor of getting the look and style of the ’70s right, then leaning into a “aren’t old people weird and gross” crutch that was far less interesting than the premise the movie might’ve been built around. It’s odd, too, that the film really takes its time building to the real gore, and yet in that time offers so little in the way of character building. It was fine, but frustrating that it could’ve been so much better.

Best reads of 2022

I read a lot of journalism because I feel like it’s impossible to be good at something if you don’t also spend a lot of time studying others who do that thing well. And, since I read a lot, I’ve made a habit of, each December, putting together a list of my favorite stories I’ve read during the past year.

You can find my 2021 list HERE.

You can find my 2020 list HERE.

As for 2022, I struggled to narrow things down to 10 (and, as a result, my top 10 actually includes 12 stories) so here’s the list along with a bunch of honorable mentions.

Happy reading!

Honorable mentions:

  • December offers a truly endless supply of lists, most of which are simply opportunities to remind yourself that, oh yeah, “Severance” was a thing I watched in 2022. This one, however, was actually insightful, funny and thought-provoking: Tom Whitwell’s 52 Things I Learned in 2022 in Medium.
  • Speaking of thought-provoking, I enjoyed Jason Kehes “Of Course We’re Living in a Simulationfrom Wired. I’ve done a rather embarrassing amount of reading on metaphysics and the possibility we are, indeed, all part of a simulation, including a book Kehe mentions in his piece,Reality+” by David Chalmers. But if I’m going to recommend one item from my long list of “what does it all mean?” research, I’d suggest A Trip to Infinity on Netflix, which was completely mind-bending and yet entirely accessible.
  • I sometimes worry that stories like this one — Madeleine Aggeler’s “In the Court of the Liver Kingfor GQ — do just enough to glamorize the subject while intending it to be something of a circus freak show that they add credibility to something or someone who doesn’t deserve it. Still, I can’t argue that this wasn’t a fun and ridiculous read.
  • I’ll write more on the topic of government agencies that have long since exceeded their value with my top story of the year, but this piece from Darryl Campbell in The Verge on the utter misery of working at the TSA is an exceptional example of well intended government bureaucracy going awry.
  • My pal Tommy Tomlinson says a story should have two central points: 1.) What’s it about? And 2.) What’s it really about? What I loved about this piece from Kelsey Vlamis in Business Insider about a mountain climber’s fall on Denali has a genuinely engaging narrative that also asks the deeper question of what we owe to a complete stranger in moments of great stress.

Honorable mention, Part II: What has become of our society?

I found myself reading less than usual this year. It wasn’t intentional, but more a byproduct of the fact that so much of the best journalism was about stuff I simply lacked the emotional bandwidth to consume after years of stress and anxiety about politics and pandemics and — well, everything. I think, of all the divisions in our country right now, one of the most problematic is the one between the people who have found meaning in the fight and those of us who are simply exhausted by it, and want to find some small sense of normalcy again.

It feels like land mines are hidden around every corner by folks who have found an identity in culture wars, political crusades, conspiracy theories, cancel culture — on and on and on — and I, for one, am just tired of being eternally vigilant. I think about movies like “Das Boot” or “Jarhead,” where soldiers are damaged less by those rare moments of genuine stress and more by the ceaseless need to be prepared for disaster for weeks and months and years. We all deserve a break, but there never seems to be a means of escape.

As such, I found myself reading a lot this year about the people who have been victimized, in one way or another, by this endless war on… what, exactly? The specter of potential danger? The threats of an unseen enemy? The belief that the very survival of our family and friends and country depends on us, individually, fighting endlessly? The fallout of those battles is everywhere, as these pieces showed.

  • I think Senator Chris Murphy oversells what government can — or should — do to address the problem, but his essay in The Bulwark on the epidemic of loneliness in our country hits on what may ultimately be the defining issue of our time.
  • This piece in the New York Times from Campbell Robertson feels so insanely tragic: A Kentucky man goes down the conspiracy theory/end times rabbit hole, builds a bunker under his house, and then sees his daughter murdered by another man obsessed with the end times and the need to secure his own safe space when the inevitable civil war comes.
  • Becca Rothfield‘s piece in The New Yorker certainly isn’t the first to address “the Shaming Industrial Complex,” but it’s yet another reminder that the cost of making ourselves feel better is often a cruel and unusual punishment for those who’ve made mistakes. As a society, we lack any sense of grace these days.
  • I’m not an Andrew Yang fan by any means, but his essay in The Washington Post, backed up by boatloads of data, about the price males are paying amid a societal reckoning on sexism and misogyny, is really eye opening.
  • David Wolman‘s New York Times story on two men who set out for Hawaii to escape Covid-19 lockdowns is yet another example of how the right-wing media’s obsession with conspiracy theories and outrage led to the (likely) deaths of people who buy in to the whole narrative.

The Top 10

  1. What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic

First off, I cannot emphasize enough what a terrific follow Derek Thompson is on Twitter. Perhaps part of this comes from his work really being in my readership wheelhouse — contrarian, data-driven, thought-provoking, and often with a nice analogue to sports. (In fact, if you’re looking for a pure sports-and-data piece, here’s another exceptional piece from this year on the most amazing statistical achievements in sports.)

As for this story, it hits on something I’ve been thinking about for a while — that imperfection is actually essential to humanity. I starting considering this with regards to replay in college football. I hate replay. Hate, hate, hate it. Yes, it may correct incorrect calls — but the cost, in my opinion, far outweighs the benefits. It slows the game down, priorities tedium over the bigger picture, and asks officials to go against their instincts to make calls with the expressed intent of “fixing” them later on replay.

But Thompson’s piece goes bigger: By determining the ideal blueprint to maximize an advantage, we remove the fun from the entire system. This is true in baseball, clearly, but I think you can see it all over these days when so many things are determined by an algorithm programmed toward efficiency when, at least to a degree, I think most people enjoy the messiness, the unexpected, the chance that, in a chaotic world in which anything can happen, at least one of those outcomes might be something truly remarkable.

The point: Efficiency has diminishing returns, and beyond a certain point, more order equates to less enjoyment.

  1. A Pirate Looks at 61 by Spencer Hall and Holly Anderson for Channel 6

Holly and Spencer have somehow become the go-to obit writers for complex characters. I had a good relationship with Mike Leach. I liked him. It was hard not to. But he was not a man without flaws, and he was not someone whose life could — or should — be summed up in a neat package. The Channel 6 reckoning with his sudden death this month did a fantastic job of capturing the man behind the character, and it was one of the few truly fitting send-offs to the Pirate.

8 (tie). How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student by Rachel Aviv in The New Yorker

and In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things by Bill McKibben in The New Yorker

I included these two stories together because I felt the same way about them when I was done reading them: I had questions.

I don’t mean this as a negative, per se, because obviously I loved the pieces overall. They were challenging and insightful and well reported — and yet I felt each had a clear thesis, delivered a stirring argument in support of it, and yet left me with some follow-up questions I wish could’ve also been answered.

In Rachel Aviv’s piece about a girl who was abused by her mother, escaped that horror, then was thrust back into it when Penn decided it didn’t believe her story, the obvious emotional response is outrage. How could this happen? How could so many people fail to believe this girl? How could Penn victimize her all over again? In fact, the question of how this could happen — and how her mother seemed to escape sincere scrutiny for so long — was so big that I came away wondering what I was missing.

In McKibben’s piece, he includes tons of research to support his opinion, but I think he too often shrugs off the politics of the situation in favor of the obvious “we should be doing this!” mantra. He’s probably right — and I think there’s a huge issue with assuming the status quo is better than an alternative because the immediate expense is large and the rewards come over a longer term. Ultimately, McKibben makes the case that there is no panacea to our energy and environmental concerns, that we have to take the bad with the good, that we must make the leap now, even at great cost, to avoid a far higher bill in the future. Again, I think he’s probably right. But I had so many follow-up questions afterward.

I think that good stories should do that — leave you wanting more. Both of these stories opened the door to stories where I simply wasn’t satisfied with what was on the page. I wanted to live among them longer, to ask my own questions, to dig deeper and deeper until I was utterly comfortable with the narrative.

(And, of note, Aviv’s piece led to a reversal by Penn. Again, the mark of great journalism is creating actual change.)

  1. At 88, Poker Legend Doyle Brunson Is Still Bluffing. Or Is He? by Joe Levin in Texas Monthly

There’s no magic trick to this story. It’s just a good, old-fashioned profile of someone I knew a little about and enjoyed every new detail I learned. Great writing matched with a great profile subject equates to a great story.

  1. I’ve Always Struggled With My Weight. Losing It Didn’t Mean Winning by Sam Anderson in The New York Times

When I read a personal essay, I’m far less concerned with it being “good” so much as engaging and honest. Thankfully, Anderson hits those notes with ease while still delivering a really well written, funny, emotional and thought-provoking piece that asks some important questions about diet, health and how we manage the very strange relationship we have with our own bodies.

5 (tie). The Sordid History of Hunter Biden’s Laptop by Andrew Rice and Olivia Nuzzi for The Intelligencer

and ‘He’s Not OK’: The Entirely Predictable Unraveling of Madison Cawthorn by Michael Kruse for Politico

I loved these stories because they approached two very flawed human beings with an empathetic eye that allowed the central figures to feel human rather than the caricatures they often seem to be on cable news.

In Rice and Nuzzi’s piece, the reporting into the most-discussed and least-understood laptop in history is terrific, tracing its origins and custody throughout the entire ordeal leading up to the 2020 election. It reveals a story that is somehow both far more scandalous than Democrats want to admit and far less of a stinging indictment of the Biden family than Republicans want to believe. But more than all that, it’s a tragic story of a guy who has enormous demons — both self-inflicted and as a result of circumstance — that ultimately feels more sad than scandalous.

Similarly, Kruse’s profile of Cawthorn is deeply personal and oozing with genuine empathy. For those of us unwilling to dive into the deep end of the political crazy pool, it’s easy to look at someone like Cawthorn and ask, “How does someone end up this way?” Kruse actually finds answers. He’s become arguably the best political profiler in the country (check out his profile of Rafael Warnock, too) and this piece on Cawthorn ranks among his best works.

  1. Untold by Tom Junod and Paula Lavigne for ESPN

I’m a bit biased here, too, in that Paula is one of the best in the business and the person I turn to every time I need to dig into a real investigative piece. She’s done so much unbelievably good work for ESPN over the years, but few stories have matched this one for vivid detail and intense humanity. It’s impossible to read this and not come away outraged, but it’s even more frustrating to know that this was certainly not the only predator allowed to upend lives on college campuses for years and years while escaping any public scrutiny because schools were all too happy to cover up for athletes and ignore women. But the beauty of this story is that it doesn’t allow the evil of the central figure to overwhelm the humanity of the victims. This is, at its heart, a story of survivors, who even decades later, still demand to be treated as people.

  1. Endgame: How the Visionary Hospice Movement Became a For-Profit Hustle by Ava Kofman for ProPublica

In most years, this deep dive into the money-making enterprise of hospice care would rank as the story that made me angriest, but our No. 1 story this year had that title on lock down. Still, this was an exceptionally reported piece that showcased what an absolute scam many hospice providers are and the impact it has on both your tax dollars and, far worse, the folks being scammed into signing away their rights in hopes of (maybe) receiving some kindness from businesses that promise to take care of them.

  1. It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart by Jennifer Senior in The Atlantic

I noted Chris Murphy’s essay on the epidemic of loneliness earlier, and I think this piece hits so many important notes on why it’s a far trickier topic to address than Murphy suggests. From the piece:

When you’re in middle age, which I am (mid-middle age, to be precise — I’m now 52), you start to realize how very much you need your friends. They’re the flora and fauna in a life that hasn’t had much diversity, because you’ve been so busy — so relentlessly, stupidly busy — with middle-age things: kids, house, spouse, or some modern-day version of Zorba’s full catastrophe. Then one day you look up and discover that the ambition monkey has fallen off your back; the children into whom you’ve pumped thousands of kilowatt-hours are no longer partial to your company; your partner may or may not still be by your side. And what, then, remains?

I’m 44, early middle age according to Senior. My kids are still young enough to want to spend every moment with me. That ambition monkey is loosening its grip, but it hasn’t fallen off. My wife still tolerates me. And yet I felt this story in my bones.

I have a lot of friends — friends from high school and college, friends from work, friends from towns where I haven’t lived in more than a decade, friends whose kids go to school with my kids, friends from… it’s impossible to say quite where. I’m lucky in that sense. And yet there’s an eternal feeling of tenuousness, that the whole enterprise could collapse under the weight of the real world. I have a near constant guilt that I don’t put more effort into these friendships, that I don’t see people more often, that I don’t set aside other things for more nights out for drinks or road trips to a football game or all the things that help keep friendships going, that provide a new set of inside jokes and quotes to be used and reused, over and over. I worry that, too often, when I see friends, we just talk about the old times, and we’ve ceased to have experiences that will one day be the fodder for our conversations about a new set of old times.

We are so incredibly divided as a society these days, and sometimes that feels natural — to isolate from all the people who’ve hurt you, disappointed you, believe something different from you, or just want a portion of your time you can’t afford to offer. And yet, those relationships are the things that sustain us. We need connection. It’s as essential to our lives as food and shelter and air to breathe.

  1. “We Need to Take Away Children” by Caitlin Dickerson in The Atlantic

The first thing to say about this piece is that it might be the most detailed investigative story I’ve ever read. But because of that, I’m guessing a lot of people who needed to read it did not. It is long — a two-hour read, according to Pocket, but I’m much slower than that. It’s tough to digest at times, too, because such a huge part of the story is the bureaucratic nightmare that ensued, and bureaucracy is inherently a hard thing to make interesting. But the substance of the story is so relentlessly exasperating.

What’s great about this piece beyond the depth of investigative reporting that went into it is that, much like the Cawthorn or Biden pieces mentioned earlier, it finds its pulse in understanding the people involved rather than focusing on the policy or the rhetoric.

Yes, the policy of family separation was abhorrent. Yes, for some people — Trump and Stephen Miller, most assuredly — the cruelty was the point. And yes, in the final chapter of the story, the gut-wrenching impact of the policy is laid bare.

But where the story mines its best material is in the way it explains the sheer laziness, incompetence and bureaucratic nonsense that allowed all of this to happen.

Long before this was the biggest story in the country, dozens — hundreds? — of people made clear that the policy had no chance at success. And yet on the strength of fear, incompetence and self-interest, it happened anyway. It is an astounding indictment not just of the Trump administration’s morals, but of how insanely dumb so many of his sycophants were and how frustratingly spineless so many of the career bureaucrats were.

There are so many takeaways from a piece like this, including the obvious issue of kids STILL separated from their parents. But I think the three things that have stuck with me most are:

1.) The levers of government are not built to withstand the sheer force of will of zealots.

2.) ICE, as an institution, needs to go. The culture within that department is unfixable.

3.) The situation at the border is legitimately awful and people who suggest it is untenable are not evil or malicious. The problem is that the issue is so deeply politicized that any measures that might actually help are unlikely to be implemented.

We’re caught in a debate between open borders and approaching caravans, and the truth is what we desperately need is a coherent immigration strategy that allows people to enter the U.S., find community, and add value to our society. There’s no easy path to that point, but we can get there if we’d just stop ignoring the obvious in favor of rhetoric.

20 win total bets for 2022

A quick refresher on my philosophy for betting season win totals.

1.) I don’t pay much attention to schedule. We overthink this, despite only a handful of teams being obvious mismatches each year. For the most part, everyone is playing the bulk of their schedule against the meat of the bell curve and we tend not to be great at guessing successful teams before the season.

2.) I heavily consider luck. Did a team have awful turnover luck? Awful field position differentials? Win a bunch of close games? All those factor into my thought process.

3.) Who under/over performed from a year earlier? Yes, stats from the previous year don’t always matter much in an era of significant roster turnover, but still, when a team’s EPA/WPA/successful play rate, etc. look good and their record does not — it’s usually a sign that something weird happened and is unlikely to happen again.

With that in mind, my 20 win total bets for 2022.

Florida International, Over 3 (-140) [UPDATED: 3 (-115)]

FIU was an example of a team that was a complete train wreck because virtually everyone cashed in their chips by the end of September. Butch Davis was leaving. The team wasn’t going to win many games regardless. The end result was misery. But we’ve seen this before, right? Think 2017 Baylor or 2018 Louisville or even last year’s Utah State. New coach, new energy, new results. And in a league as weak as Conference USA, there’s really no reason to assume FIU can’t turn things around quickly.

Update: FPI projects FIU with 4.3 wins for the season. Even SP+, which ranks FIU as the third-worst team in the country, projects three wins. The schedule includes Bryant, Texas State, New Mexico State and UConn in the season’s first five games, so it’s entirely possible we could hit this over by October.

Toledo, Over 7.5 (-145) [UPDATED: 8 (-125)]

over 3
current: 2
FPI proj: 2.7

Maybe my favorite bet of the year. The Rockets ranked 17th nationally in EPA/play last year. Of the 16 teams ahead of them, 15 won 10 games or more. They finished 7-6. Of Toledo’s second-half offensive drives last year, 71% were played with the Rockets either ahead or within 3 points. Louisville is the only team with a higher rate of 2H drives within 3 who won less than eight games. Indeed, Toledo went 0-4 in games decided by a FG or less last year. Bill Connelly’s metrics show Toledo with at least a roughly 50/50 shot to win all but one game (Ohio State) this year. Some marginally better luck and Toledo is a 10-win team this year.

Update: The line has moved up to 8, which certainly increases our odds of a push, but I’m still happy to back the Rockets even at that number.

over: 8
current: 4
FPI proj: 9.2

Louisiana-Lafayette, Under 8.5 (-105) [Update: 8.5 (even)]

The Cajuns were one of my favorite under bets last year — and it didn’t pay off. Why? Because they went 7-0 in games decided by a TD or less. ULL and Nebraska had essentially the same cumulative EPA in 2021. The Cajuns were 7-0 in close games and finished 11-1 for the regular season. Nebraska was 0-8 in close games and finished 3-9 for the regular season. These things matter. The Cajuns also had among the highest differential of drives starting in opponent territory (a bit of luck that doesn’t often repeat itself). The Cajuns have been among the luckiest teams in the country for two straight years, but they’re now without their longtime starting QB and their head coach, so this is the year when the luck runs out.

Update: FPI projects 8.2 wins. SP+ has Louisiana at 8.7. I remain confident in a bigger drop-off than those projections suggest, and since there’s no juice here, why not?

under 8.5
current: 2
FPI proj: 5

Central Michigan, Under 7.5 (even)

CMU won eight regular-season games last year, but three came by four points or less (as did a bowl win over Washington State). The impetus for that good luck begins with field position. CMU was +22.5% — best by a wide margin — in percentage of drives beginning in opponent territory. For comparison, that’s about the same differential USC enjoyed in 2020, and look what happened to the Trojans in 2021.

Of note: I also leaned heavily toward the Eastern Michigan under (6.5, -160), but the juice was a bit too high for my liking, and frankly, someone in the MAC has to win games this year.

under: 7.5
current: 1
FPI proj: 4.8

Penn State, Over 8.5 (+105) [Update: 8.5 (-105)]

Last year, Penn State was also one of my favorite over bets. They had awful luck during the crazy COVID season of 2020, including two losses in which they out-gained their opponent by 200+ yards. That simply never happens. So, did their luck turn in 2021? Ah, no. The Nittany Lions played 95.5% of their drives either ahead or within a TD and still managed to lose six games. Four losses were by four points or less, including an L vs. Iowa because their QB got hurt in the second half.

Update: I still think this is a 9-3 team, but this is a number I’m a little less enthusiastic about now. SP+ has Penn State as the No. 13 team in the country, but projects 8.2 wins. It’s a tough schedule with too many 50/50 or 60/40 type games.

over: 8.5
current: 5
FPI proj: 9.3

Ball State, Under 5.5 (-130) [Update: 5.5 (-150)]

Ball State had a successful play margin (successful offensive rate minus unsuccessful defensive rate) of -6.6% last year — good for 111th out of 130 teams. No team worse won more than four games. Ball State won six. They were +7 in turnover margin for the year but were out-gained by an average of 83 yards per game.

Update: That’s a lot of juice for a very low number. I’m probably out on this one now. The MAC is too unpredictable.

under: 5.5
current: 3
FPI proj: 5.5

UTSA U8.5 (-150)

Roadrunners are one of four teams that have seen a 3 points per game increase in points-off-turnover differential in each of the last two years. Their +3.85 shift from 2020 to 2021 was the 21st-largest move. Meanwhile, UTSA was 6-0 in games decided by a TD or less. In addition, UTSA struggled down the stretch, with a negative scoring differential over their last five games (3-2).

under: 8.5
current: 4
FPI proj: 8.7

Arizona State, over 6.5 (+105) [Update: 6 (-105)]

No part of me likes this bet. Between the truckload of guys who transferred out and Herm Edwards’ job status a daily talking point, there’s every reason to assume Arizona State goes off the rails this year. But — I’m letting the numbers tell the story for me. The Sun Devils went 8-5 last year. Four losses were away from home. All were by 14 or less. The defense held opponents to 28 or less in 10 of 13 games. And then there’s this number: Arizona State saw a nearly 14 points/game swing in points off turnovers from 2020 to 2021. That’s two TDs PER GAME based solely off turnovers. So it a seven-win season — even with all the other issues — too much to ask?

Update: In the Pac-12, I see no reason Arizona State can’t finish .500. That this number actually went down shows how much the public thinks it’s a team about to go off the rails… and there’s a reasonable chance that’s correct. But SP+ and FPI both project seven wins, and unless Arizona, Stanford, Washington State and Colorado are markedly better in 2022, the Sun Devils won’t have six games in which the opponent is clearly more talented.

over: 6
current: 2
FPI proj: 4.9

Indiana, over 4 (-120)

Speaking of Arizona State’s insane swing in points off turnovers, Indiana was also really darned unlucky, with a nearly 9 point-per-game year-over-year shift in the wrong direction. Another way of looking at it: Indiana had one of the worst starting field position differentials in 2021, again a product of bad turnover luck. Part of this can be attributed to a particularly lucky 2020 campaign in which the Hoosiers won their fair share of games they had no business winning. But this also wasn’t nearly as awful as the 2-10 record in 2021 suggests, and with a better QB situation and lower expectations, there’s no reason to think a bowl game can’t be in the cards.

over: 4
current: 3
FPI proj: 4.2

Louisville, over 6.5 (-105) [Update: 6.5 (+105)]

Another team with bad luck in 2020 that I expected to swing back in 2021… and it didn’t happen. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that 2020 was an inherently strange year, making identifying bad luck metrics tougher than other seasons played under normal circumstances. Still, it’s hard to argue that Scott Satterfield’s bunch hasn’t been one of the unluckiest teams in the country the past two seasons, including an 0-3 record in games decided by a FG or less last year. Virginia won on a last second field goal. Clemson won only due to a second-half injury to Malik Cunningham. Last season, Louisville was within 3 points or ahead on 71% of its second-half drives vs. FBS teams and won just five of those games. Michigan State, Utah, Utah State, Iowa and Purdue all profiled about the same — and all won nine games or more.

over: 6.5
current: 3
FPI proj: 5.7

TCU, under 6.5 (+110) [Update: 6.5 (+120)]

I like the Sonny Dykes hire, but I’m not sure this is a Year 1 boon. The Frogs won just five games last year, and still were among the most overachieving squads in the country. They had the same explosive play differential as ULM and Northwestern. They ranked 105th in EPA/play. They went 3-0 in games decided by a FG or less.

under: 6.5
current: 5
FPI proj: 9.1

Syracuse, over 4.5 (-105) [Update: 5 (+120)]

The Orange were a breath away from bowl eligibility last year, losing three straight games in the middle of the season by 3 points each. The defense was actually quite good — just two teams topped 400 yards of total offense against them — and Sean Tucker is one of the best runners in the country. But Syracuse was hurt by bad luck with takeaways — just four INTs all year after having 44 in the previous three seasons combined, and just three fumble recoveries after collecting 11 the prior year. They also were killed by late transfers, and figure to be a deeper team this time around. The biggest obstacle to five wins is that there aren’t many obvious wins on the schedule and the ACC Atlantic is deep.

Update: I really think Syracuse can be a bowl team this season, but the ACC Atlantic is deep, and Cuse is probably the least talented of the seven teams in the division. Odds of a push are high here, so probably not worth letting your money sit for three months on that bet.

over: 5
current: 5
FPI proj: 8.4

Mississippi State, over 6.5 (-120) [Update: 6.5 (-125)]

The Bulldogs had the seventh-best successful play differential in college football last year and still went 7-6. They lost games by 2, 3, 4 and 10. They return a QB who seems perfect for Mike Leach’s offense. They’ve got Memphis, Arizona, Bowling Green and East Tennessee State out of conference. Georgia and Alabama are the only two games I see as obvious losses.

Update: I’ve only gotten more confident in Mississippi State since June. The cause for concern is that, per FPI, they have the second-toughest schedule in the country. I don’t buy it. SEC West is never easy, but Auburn, LSU, etc. are not guaranteed to be any better than they were last year.

over: 6.5
current: 5
FPI proj: 8.1

Northern Illinois, under 6.5 (+120) [Update: 6.5 (+130)]

The books are already taking into account NIU’s extremely good luck last year — but I’m not sure they’re taking it into account enough. NIU was 4-0 in games decided by a FG or less (including four wins when trailing in the fourth quarter). They won nine games despite a successful play rate differential of -3.9 percentage points. Only three other teams with a -3% or worse rate won more than six (and none more than seven).

under: 6.5
current: 1
FPI proj: 4

Bowling Green, under 3.5 (+120) [Update: 4 (+125)]

No team had a bigger year-over-year shift in a positive direction in points off turnover differential per game. Still, the Falcons went 4-8 last year and how they beat Minnesota should be a 30 for 30 one day.

Update: So bettors seem to think the opposite of me on Bowling Green. Indeed, a number of folks whose opinions I respect are high on the Falcons — largely due to the fact they bring back FBS’ most experienced roster. Meh. Returning bad talent means nothing to me.

under: 4
current: 2
FPI proj: 3.5

Utah, under 9 (-135) [Update: 9 (+105)]

Did the Utes catch lightning in a bottle last season with Cam Rising at QB, a lot of emotion on the line, and a weak Pac-12? Maybe. They had among the most advantageous field position in the country (+18.5% differential on drives starting in opponent territory) and had the largest overall field position differential in FBS.

under: 9
current: 4
FPI proj: 8.9

Houston, under 9 (-105) [Update: 9 (+105)]

I really want to be a buyer on Houston, but the numbers say otherwise. The Cougars won five games last year in which they trailed in the second half (three in which they trailed in the fourth quarter). They had the sixth-highest year-over-year shift in points off turnover differential. And, at the end of the day, the public likes them too much.

under: 9
current: 3
FPI proj: 6.9

Marshall, over 6.5 (-160) [Update: 7 (-140)]

Aside from the juice, I absolutely love this bet. Four of Marshall’s five regular-season losses came by a TD or less last year. The Herd were ahead or within a TD on 82% of their second-half drives last season vs. FBS and still won just six of those games. They ranked 28th in successful play margin and 37th in EPA/game and every team ahead of them in both metrics won at least seven games. The move to the Sun Belt makes this a bit more complicated, but there are nine winnable games on the slate and in Year 2 under Charles Huff, I think real progress is made.

Update: Looking back, I’m scratching my head at why I thought laying -160 was a good idea. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Marshall wins nine this season, but I’m out on this one.

over: 7
current: 3
FPI proj: 7.3

Louisiana Tech, over 4.5 (-105) [Update: 4.5 (-120)]

La Tech had approximately the same percentage of snaps last year in which it had a 50%+ win probability as Iowa and Western Kentucky. Iowa won 10 games. WKU won nine games. La Tech won three. They’re not going 0-3 in games decided by a field goal or less again in 2022.

over: 4.5
current: 2
FPI proj: 5.7

Kent State, under 5 (-105) [Update: 5 (+125)]

They went 7-7 last year despite being +13 in turnover margin. They had a negative points differential for the year. Their best wins were NIU by five and Miami (Ohio) but one. They lose a very good, veteran QB. I’d still love to see this go to 5.5. Would feel much better about that.

Update: Boy, under 5 seems awfully low. This is another one I’m not sure now why I liked so much two months ago. Alas, the return could be solid, so I might ride it anyway.

under: 5
current: 2
FPI proj: 5.9

Well, ACCtually: The Archives

These days, everyone has a podcast. It’s lame. It’s so 2021.

The cool kids — the ones who really have their finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist — those kids don’t do podcasts. They do Twitter Spaces. I mean, think about it. It’s basically the same as being best friends with Elon Musk. Or something like that.

Anyway, I’ve teamed up with Andrea Adelson for a regular Twitter Spaces discussion on all things ACC, and if you’ve missed any of the episodes, you can catch up on them all here.

(NOTE: Spaces keeps recordings for 30 days. Older episodes will not be available.)

July 11, 2022: We’re talking NIL, NFTs, BLM and lots more with former Clemson player Darien Rencher. Darien gets into what people got wrong in criticizing Dabo after George Floyd, what Tony Elliott will do at Virginia, and how Ben Boulware made a habit of suplexing dudes in high school.

July 1, 2022: It’s an emergency spaces to talk realignment! Me and Andrea dig into the implications of USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten for the ACC and Notre Dame, then we draft our own 20-team super conferences.

June 27, 2022: It’s an old-fashioned ACC mailbag in which me and Andrea discuss Jell-O shots, offer Simpsons references, describe Miami’s SUVs for driving recruits around (SUVs: black on black?) and reminisce about the old Dr. Galazkiewicz Bud Lite commercial.

June 13, 2022: Who’s got a better job than The Bear? Chris Fallica‘s spun a stint interning in the Miami sports information department into the best gig in the country working on “College GameDay.” He gave us details on his career path, his time working with Lee, Kirk & the gang, his thoughts on the Miami revival, his picks in the ACC and his favorite (non-Miami) ACC campus to visit.

June 6, 2022: Will Notre Dame ever man up and join a league? Is Dave Clawson smarter than everyone else? What does Kid Rock understand about beer that the rest of us could learn from? The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna joined us to talk through some of the most important conversations of our time.

May 31, 2022: What’s a good season mean for FSU? Could Deion be the Noles next head coach? What’s Brendan Sonnone recommend drinking after a 7-5 season? And why is he naked? All of that and lots more from Jeff Cameron as we dive deep on the Seminoles.

May 23, 2022: We’re ranking the ACC’s quarterback situations, 1-14 with our special guest, Roddy Jones. Who’s the biggest wild card? Who’s the sleeper pick? Who’s most critical to their team? We answer all those questions and at least one of us might be right.

May 16, 2022: Checking in with the dean of ACC media, the great David Teel. We talk about increased football investment at Virginia and Virginia Tech, the future of the ACC’s middle/lower-tier teams, how the ACC might’ve avoided financial hardship, plus which UVA/VT beat writer would look best with a mustache.

May 9, 2022: Live from the ACC spring meetings, we talk NIL enforcement, ending divisions in the ACC and we catch up with UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham.

May 2, 2022: NC State offensive lineman Grant Gibson discusses Jordan Davis, Ikem Ekwonu, NC State’s big expectations, getting the running game going in 2022, Dave Doeren’s beard, NIL gone wild and lots, lots more.

April 25, 2022: NFL draft preview with ESPN’s Jordan Reid, with discussion on Mario Goodrich, Justyn Ross, Ikem Ekwonu, Zion Johnson, Andrew Booth, Sam Howell and many others from the ACC.

April 18, 2022: Is Clemson still the ACC’s best team? We talked with Larry Williams of Tigers Illustrated and Matt Connelly of On3 to get the latest on the QB battle, the search for O-line help, Dabo’s aversion to the portal and what the new offensive staff means for 2022.

Stuffing a year’s worth of movie viewing into six weeks (Or how I spent my February non-vacation)

For most of the year, finding time to watch a bunch of movies is tough. But just as football season ends, the Oscar talk starts heating up, and I find myself — at least for the past couple years, with so many films available for streaming — catching up on a year’s worth of movies in the span of about six weeks.

Last year, I did a round up of all the films I watched (largely while dealing with COVID) and so I figured I’d do the same again now. Among the Best Picture nominees, “Licorice Pizza” and “Drive My Car” aren’t streaming , and I have zero interest in seeing “West Side Story.” That leaves “King Richard,” “Dune” as ones I still need to get to, but my interest is minimal.

As for the others, read on…

CODA (Apple+) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A deaf family in working-class Massachusetts comes to rely heavily on their teenage daughter, who can hear, but the daughter has bigger dreams of a singing career, creating tension between individual goals and the family bond. It’s a pretty succinct conflict, and it could easily turn into teen melodrama. There’s a moment early on in the movie where the mother, played wonderfully by Marlee Matlin, asks her daughter, “If we were blind, would you have wanted to be a painter?” It’s a significant moment because this is how we might expect this film to unfold — the cliches about teenage rebellion and family discord are the same, using whatever catalyst for conflict seems most interesting.

Instead, “Coda” blossoms into something else — a coming-of-age drama, a musical, a comedy. But most of all, it’s a story about family, the bonds that are forged through facing life’s challenges together, and the challenge of letting go of the people you love most in the world.

This movie won’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, but it’d be my choice. It’s beautiful and heartfelt and funny and real and the performances — particularly Troy Kotsur as the father — are so damn good that it’s just a joy to spend time with these characters. My pal Joe Posnanski wrote a few weeks ago about “happy movies” — the ones that, when you watch them, will always bring a smile to your face. “Coda” should undoubtedly take a place among the best of those movies, because of all the things this movie is, in the end, it’s a story about finding happiness with the people you love.

BELFAST (Rental) ⭐⭐⭐

In my meager attention to Oscar buzz, this one seems like the favorite to win Best Picture. Should it be? The movie — based on director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood in Northern Ireland — certainly looks the part. It’s shot beautifully in black and white, with the feel of a Broadway show, from the set design to the way characters interact within the small mixed neighborhood where it’s set. (It has a sort of “West Side Story” quality to it, ironically enough.) The performances are strong — particularly from Caitriona Balfe, who might be the singular most beautiful human being on the planet — and there is no shortage of Van Morrison music (always a perk). That the story is largely told from the viewpoint of Buddy, a young boy growing up in 1960s Belfast, is both a strength and a problem. The insanity of the street wars between Catholics and Protestants, alongside the serious marital and financial troubles his parents face, feels all the more surreal when viewed through the lens of a 10-year-old. But that naivety also somehow stalls the story, because the stakes are less clear and the deviations from the primary tension are routine. In the end, it mostly works, but more as a rumination on childhood and innocence lost than a true narrative.


It wants to be a modern take on “Rear Window.” Instead, it’s essentially “The Net” with better technology. It feels like there was more to say within the story here about the surveillance state, about the claustrophobic nature of the pandemic, about a world that is entirely too connected and yet leaves us insufferably alone (a tone set, unintentionally, in how flat the supporting characters are and how quickly some of their plot lines are just dropped). Instead, it quickly becomes little more than a standard cat-and-mouse thriller. It’s filled with convenient details that set up the later plot movement, none of which says much of anything about the characters or the larger scope of Big Tech in our lives. Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is Steven Soderbergh’s camera work (he handles the camera himself) which alternates between making the camera a character for dramatic effect (a skill perfected by Hitchcock and occasionally used well here) to a tonal distraction that constantly reminds the viewer “YOU’RE WATCHING A MOVIE!” which seems like the last thing you want when the tension created by the plot is the only thing really pulling the movie along.

SUMMER OF SOUL (Disney+) ⭐⭐⭐

I actually watched this over the summer when it was first released, and unlike Peter Jackson’s endless “Get Back” documentary on the Beatles, this is a tight trip through a largely ignored piece of music history. There’s plenty to love here, from the scenery to the performances… but damn, Mavis Staples is just the best.

ATTICA (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

First, let me say that this is as well crafted a documentary as you’ll see — a film stuffed with first-hand footage, news accounts and powerful interviews with the subjects who lived it. Both “Attica” and “Summer of Soul” have similar aims — to shine a line on stories about race in the 1960s and 1970s that most people have some passing awareness of but little serious insight into. But if “Summer of Soul” is a remembrance of the joy to be found within an overlooked and marginalized community, “Attica” is its tonal opposite. The story of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 still feels entirely relevant — particularly as the country once again deals with the dynamics of a desire for “law and order” while finally more aware of the disproportionate toll that takes on communities of color. “Attica” clearly has a point of view sympathetic to the prisoners, but it is not ignorant of other side — the predominantly white community in upstate New York that exists, almost entirely, as a home for the prison. The culmination, however, is an affront to both points of view, as national politics and old-fashioned brutality overtake any semblance of nuance. It’s a powerful history lesson, and one you shouldn’t miss.

BEING THE RICARDOS (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐

There’s a good movie in here — perhaps a very good one — but I was thrown by the decision to use a very specific framing device to largely tell the tale of one week in the lives of Desi and Lucy. There’s some additional backstory, but it’s sparse and comes at seemingly arbitrary moments. There’s also a real push to make this story seem relevant in OUR MODERN TIMES of “Me too” and political witch hunts that might be vaguely true of the actual humans portrayed in the story, but that’s never firmly established either. What really stands out from the movie are the acting performances. Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman are terrific as Desi and Lucy (particularly the latter, who, for the first time I can remember, actually nails an American accent consistently), but the real treats are the supporting stars. Tony Hale is wonderful (in a role that feels like both a departure for the actor and yet intrinsically similar to Buster Bluth), and his “Arrested Development” costar Alia Shawkat is good (but I wish there was more to the character). Nina Arianda was fantastic as Vivian Vance (I’d previously only seen Arianda playing Pizzerina Sbarro, the sexy heir to the Sbarro pizza fortune, on “30 Rock). And then there’s J.K. Simmons as William Frawley in a role that should remind everyone that J.K. Simmons is a goddam American treasure.

THE POWER OF THE DOG (Netflix) ⭐⭐⭐

My wife is confounded by the attention this movie is getting (nominated for Best Picture, among other accolades). I mostly understand her position. If you’re not simply enraptured by the lead performances (and Benedict Cumberbatch is awfully compelling here) it’s largely just a Western about a dysfunctional family that revels in its own misery. Until the ending. I will not spoil it here other than to say, the end justifies the whole ride and utterly reshapes the perspective. Viewed amid that new perspective, I can see why it’s a strong contender for the Oscar. The problem, of course, is that you won’t view it through that perspective until you’ve finished watching it. Perhaps it’d be more enjoyable on second viewing, knowing what each note of the plot is building toward. My wife is unlikely to invest that time, regardless. To me, this was a movie better enjoyed as a conversation topic after viewing than the actual viewing, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it’s beautifully shot and the scenery is so gorgeous that it’s not all that bad spending time in this world, even when not much else is going on.


“Ghostbusters” is among my all-time favorite movies. “Ghostbusters II” is a flawed but perfectly entertaining sequel. The all-female “Ghostbusters” is a movie I have never seen and never will, but it made clear where the trend line for the franchise was pointing. So, my hopes for this were minimal. Instead, what “Afterlife” delivered was something both nostalgic and somehow new. In a literal sense, this is a continuation of the “Ghostbusters” story, and there is a ton of fan service here (most of which works). Some of it comes at the cost of plot, but that’s OK, because the plot never made a ton of sense in any of the “Ghostbusters” movies. There’s a level of suspended disbelief required to enjoy these movies at all. But once you moved past the nods to the franchise’s history, the movie felt less like a continuation of “Ghostbusters” than of something like “Goonies” or “Stand By Me.” I can’t remember the last movie that felt so quintessentially 1980s — in the best of ways. Hollywood just doesn’t make those blockbuster adventure flicks like “Back to the Future” or “Ferris Bueller” anymore — a stylized mix of comedy and adventure and… fun! “Afterlife” was a 1980s movie made in 2022, and I loved every bit of it. Were the characters particularly well developed? No. But it was still a delight to spend time with Paul Rudd (his generation’s Bill Murray?) and Carrie Coon and McKenna Grace was absolutely delightful as the film’s protagonist. There are a few moments that could’ve been executed better — particularly a long Dan Aykroyd monologue that essentially fills in the blanks on what the Ghostbusters have been up to over the past 30 years — but it’s easily overlooked when the ride is so enjoyable. And, perhaps more than anything, “Afterlife” serves as an absolutely beautiful and heartfelt tribute to Harold Ramis. It may have gotten a bit dusty in the room during the movie’s climax as a result.

THE TENDER BAR (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐

This movie fits squarely into the genre of films where Ben Affleck drives around in an old car through white, working-class neighborhoods in New York or Massachusetts, listening to 70s classic rock and picking up his buddies while making vaguely funny jokes. All of these movies are fine. This movie was also fine.


Anthony Bourdain’s suicide got to me about as much as any celebrity death has. If you’d asked me in high school about the person I admired most, I probably would’ve said Kurt Cobain, a man whose ability to speak to a deeper truth and thumb his nose at authority matched my suburban outrage at the world. In college, I was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway and viewed him as the epitome of masculinity, a flawed human who nevertheless represented an archetype I was supposed to strive for. In my 30s, as I began to define my actual place in the world, if you’d asked me whose life I most envied, it’d have been Bourdain. It’s not lost on me that there’s a common thread between all three of those men.

I recently read Charles Cross’s “Heavier than Heaven” biography of Cobain, which was terrific, but also maddenly depressing. In high school, I viewed Cobain as a god. Reading about him now, I realized we were very similar in so many ways that it was easy to envision a world where he had just a bit more love in his life and survived… or one in which I had just a little less, and didn’t.

“Roadrunner” does a great job of capturing the complexity of Bourdain as a human — not the romanticized ideal of the rebellious world traveler, but as a very flawed man who might’ve been running from something more than exploring the world. Unlike my deep dive into Cobain, I came away from this film seeing all the ways Bourdain wasn’t like me, wasn’t like I thought he was, wasn’t what he wanted to be either. Bourdain wasn’t so much a tragic figure as he was simply a flawed man who needed something the world couldn’t provide. It’s a sad film, but also perhaps an appropriate coda for a life that so many of us envied. I used to think, “Damn, if Antony Bourdain was so unhappy he killed himself, what hope do the rest of us have?” Now, I realize that what he was missing was something I already have — a place to belong, people to love, an acceptance that there is no perfect reality I have to endlessly pursue, just a few moments here and there that feel pretty close to perfection.


I feel quite certain this was good but… I’m just not a smart enough human being to appreciate Shakespeare. It was shot beautifully, it included some terrific actors who I assume did a terrific job emoting while reciting the Elizabethan English, but I ended up playing on my phone through most of it because I’m a big, dumb American. I apologize for nothing.

TICK TICK… BOOM (Netflix) ⭐⭐

I’m not much of a Broadway aficionado, but I am so enamored with the talents of Lin Manuel Miranda (making his directorial debut here) that I was convinced to watch. And it was… not bad. It gets the tone of Broadway down, particularly in the first half of the movie, which includes some fantastic musical numbers. The latter half of the movie leans more toward traditional film making as the plot climaxes, and that largely works, too, even if there are some stretches where you think, “Wasn’t I just watching a musical? This feels more like a ’90s drama now.” Andrew Garfield is also terrific as Jonathan Larson, a character whose world boils down to one thing: He’s about to turn 30, hasn’t had a show produced yet, and he just can’t get anything written for this super important song he needs for the second act of his latest project. Meanwhile, the supporting characters have their own, very real, very serious issues that he neglects while obsessed with his own career. It’s very ’90s, but for a character the audience is supposed to sympathize with and root for, this version of Larson is pretty damned unlikeable. The music is great though, so worth the watch just for that.

DON’T LOOK UP (Netflix) Negative 50 ⭐

I hated this movie. Hated it so very, very much. Hated with the red-hot intensity of a thousand suns. While watching it, I kept thinking of the “South Park” episode when everyone who bought a hybrid car loved smelling their own farts because that is essentially what this movie was — just Hollywood A-listers being so smugly self-righteous about this movie they were making that it turned into one deep inhale of their own farts. It was, ostensibly, meant to be in the arena of “Wag the Dog” (a movie I also hated), but it ended up as essentially “Ocean’s 12” with politics. (Side note: I’ve never hated a movie more than “Ocean’s 12.”) Political and social satire done well can be exceptional. Look at Key & Peele or Chapelle or “Confederacy of Dunces.” But there was nothing subtle or funny about this. Just Hollywood elites turning an actual crisis (the environment, per director Adam McKay, though it felt more about COVID-19) and, rather than turning a mirror on it, it used some sort of funhouse mirror, broadening every character to the limits of credibility, all meta commentary and no actual commentary. It’s so self-serious that nothing in the movie can actually be taken seriously. Which would be OK if it was a comedy, but it’s not that either. It’s essentially just an opportunity for a bunch of very rich, very famous people to talk down to the idiot commoners and tell them: “This movie is about important things and you probably can’t understand that so we’ll dumb it down for you.” I hated this movie so much that I longed for an actual asteroid to hit the earth just so I didn’t have to continue to exist in a world where this movie was nominated for an Oscar.


A thriller starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Willem Defoe and directed by the best monster-movie creator of a generation in Guillermo del Torro was… pretty dull. A remake of the 1947 classic, it largely sticks to the script, and as a result, doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s like a decent cover band — it sounds fine, but you’d never confuse it for the real thing. The sets, which mimic the art deco look of the 1930s and 1940s are wonderful, however, which almost warrants a viewing on its own. My biggest complaint is that I was expecting so much more.

And beyond movies, a handful of TV binges, too…

WOLF LIKE ME (Peacock) No stars

The premise seemed to have some promise: A widowed father falls for a woman who connects with his emotionally fragile daughter. One problem: The woman is a werewolf. This premise could work in so many ways — horror, black comedy, silly rom-com — and yet this show never really decides it wants to be any of those things. Take, for example, the male lead, Josh Gad. I have liked Gad in exactly two roles. The first is as the voice of Olaf in “Frozen.” The second was as Elder Cunningham in “Book of Mormon.” In both cases, he plays a naive but lovable doofus. His role in this show is meant to be the exact opposite. To say the least, it’s awkward. The plot really amounts to nothing, and the climax of the six-episode series is arguably the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen on a TV show. There’s a great bit on an episode of “30 Rock,” when Tina Fey’s character notes, “You can’t just create an ending out of thin air by playing music and having people give each other meaningful looks.” And that is exactly how this show ends – with a tedious montage of the three main characters exchanging looks while music plays … for close to five full minutes! There are a dozen other awful things about this show I could get into, but I’ve already thought too much about something that doesn’t deserve an ounce of your energy since the creators clearly put no effort into it themselves.


Perhaps I’m nitpicking with this show, because overall, it was enjoyable enough — tons of plot and action and suspense, enough to justify the binge. But there was also just so much I didn’t like. There was a ton of gore, and I have no problem with that when used to the right effect, but this continuously felt as if it was used as a way to signal HOW VERY IMPORTANT AND SERIOUS THIS SHOW IS!!! It wasn’t that it was simply gratuitous in the way it might be in a teenage horror movie. It was that it was utilized as a substitute for actual depth. The show could be easily pitched as “Lord of the Flies” but with girls, and “Yellowjackets” occasionally steers hard into that turn, as with the second episode when all the girls stranded after a plane crash get their periods at the same time because of course their cycles all sync up after just a few days together. (Never mind that this theory has been proven false repeatedly or that the “ugh my period!” jokes feel more than a bit stereotypical and misogynistic.) The casting, particularly among the adults, is off, too. Juliette Lewis is borderline unbearable, and her particularly brand of white-trash disaster doesn’t at all correlate with the troubled but likable version of her younger self. I love Melanie Lynskey in nearly everything she’s ever done, but she just can’t hit the right notes in a leading role here. Her husband on the show, played by Warren Cole, is even worse, and the climactic scenes in the final two episodes of the season lose any sense of tension or credibility because neither can play their part believably. And as for plot — it had a lot of echoes of “Lost,” occasionally to the show’s benefit, but mostly in a “I don’t think they’ve thought any of this through and are probably making it up as they go” sort of way.

STATION 11 (HBO Max) ⭐⭐⭐

Like “Yellowjackets,” the plot here is a train wreck. It’s less noticeable in the moment, but the more you think about it after the fact — a thing, I think, the show wants you to do — the less sense it makes. The show itself deviates wildly from the source material, which is both good and bad. The larger story becomes something of a Frankenstein’s monster, as the show tries to stitch together enough of the original book’s elements with the new threads it has created, when it should’ve simply picked a lane and stuck with it. Indeed, one of those new threads is the relationship between Himesh Patel’s 20-something Jeevan, deep in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, his drug-addicted brother, Frank, and an 8-year-old played beautifully by Matilda Lawler, as they struggle to survive an apocalyptic pandemic. There are two full episodes dedicated to this trio – including the premier – and they’re by far the best of the series. The show hits so many home runs in its small moments, when it’s focused on just a few characters. Every time it zooms out, however, things go haywire. Still, the performances are strong enough to make the viewing enjoyable, and my biggest complaint is I just wanted more of the good stuff and less of the rest.

Is NIL really ruining Olympic sports?

You may have seen the NBC Sports story that’s been making the rounds on social media today suggesting that Olympic athletes are a dying breed due to those pesky college football players stealing all the money that used to fund their sports. It is, to say the least, a problematic take. But is it entirely wrong? I’ve reported on NIL quite a bit, so let’s dig in to the realities.

Let’s go through the story, which was written by Noah Pranskey and can be found HERE.

Don’t let this last part be a throwaway line, as it so often is. If college sports were treated as a real business — which it is! — no one would be arguing that too much attention is given to the only products that turn a profit. Now, if the NCAA rebranded as Meta, that’s a different story…

Ah, I just love stories of “economic anxiety.” I genuinely wonder how many people who espouse this theory also devoutly crusade against wealth redistribution in every other aspect of life. The truth is, the U.S. is alone in shifting the responsibility of preparing Olympic athletes from the government to universities (just as it is unique in allowing universities to essentially be a minor league for pro sports). If the U.S. acted in any way like other countries, the USOC would be on the hook for funding these sports. Whether it is a good or bad thing that we do it differently here is a worthy debate, but let’s not act like the U.S. would simply disappear from the Olympics if colleges didn’t fund athletic training.

First off, NIL is absolutely NOT allowing athletes to “share a piece of the profit pie.” None of the NCAA, conference or school “profits” are going directly to athletes beyond their scholarship and “educational benefits,” which is a nebulous term that will be at the center of the “athletes as employees” debate. This, however, is about the Alston ruling, not NIL.

Additionally, Kristi Dosh is an exceptional reporter and knows more about NIL than anyone, and it should be noted here that her quotes is discussing a) something different than NIL, and b) what the school’s perspective is, not what her perspective is.

Lastly, let’s point out that any economic system has its advantages. Slavery, for example, made a lot of folks rich and made the cost of crops like cotton cheaper for everyone. That economic boon was possible because of a massive moral failing. So whatever the economic fallout of treating athletes as employees might be, the single most critical issue in the discussion is whether the current system is legal (or moral).

Here is some very good data that is not at all related to the premise of the story.

First off, hard to blame NIL — a thing that took effect in 2021 — for events that happened between 2001 and 2020.

Second, all those programs cut in 2020… can you think of anything else that might’ve been going on in the world that year?

Lastly, note the sports mentioned here. MENS swimming. MENS tennis. MENS gymnastics. MENS wrestling. The reason there are fewer scholarships available in these sports is because, starting around 2001, there was drastically more enforcement of Title IX, which previously had largely been ignored by schools beyond some basic window dressing.

Here’s a point of distinction: The NCAA does not mandate how many Olympic sports schools sponsor or how much those schools spend on those programs. That’s determined by the schools themselves. And yes, those schools’ athletics departments are run like a business, which is entirely reasonable. Because if football and basketball struggle, that also hurts the bottom line — significantly more than if the other sports struggle.

As Matt Brown has written many times, Olympic sports are actually a source of revenue for most schools. Or, I simply googled and found this good piece from the BC student newspaper. Places like Stanford, however, sponsor far more sports than average, and much of that is paid for not simply through football, but through earmarked donor support. And, as is also noted in this story, programs that were cut were, in many cases, reinstated.

The assumption here is that our system is better. Maybe it is. But the fact that no one else does it this way should force the question of whether we should be doing it this way, too. If nothing else, it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing it because, while the system does give Olympic athletes an athletic and academic platform, it does the same for thousands of other athletes, too. Only about 1,000 U.S. athletes participate in the Olympics, and only about 750 of them trained in a college program. That’s a very small percentage of the total number of non-revenue sport athletes currently being supported by football and basketball money. If the goal is simply to create Olympic athletes, then there are far more cost-effective ways to do this.

We’re way into this story now, and I’ve yet to read a single word tying NIL to anything of substance in the piece. A lot of talk of nebulous “changes” but not NIL. Interesting that the headline suggests NIL is at the heart of the problem. It’s almost as if NIL has to be used to shift the blame to greedy athletes instead of the schools actually making investment decisions.

In other words, if these sports were forced to also act like businesses and find cost effective ways of operating, they’d be better prepared for a changing college sports landscape. What a novel concept!

The fact is, for better or worse, spending on non-revenue sports has skyrocketed at a roughly proportional rate as revenue for football and basketball has increased. They’ve benefited massively from those sports’ success, and quite frankly, they don’t all *need* the kind of money that’s in their budget. Alabama’s softball coach makes more than $300,000 a year. That’s great, but it’s not necessary to have a softball program. It’s possible because football brings in such massive amounts of money.

Hey, our first real mention of NIL and… it’s about how great it is!

And here’s the thing: It IS great. NIL can be a boon for Olympic sports, too. Athletes like LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne are so high profile that her NIL promotions are actually a great window into the world of collegiate gymnastics. In the longterm, giving athletes like Dunne a bigger platform for earning money can translate to more fans, more participation, and … more revenue!

Now, here’s where I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment: NIL is not without its problems, and yes, it might be impacting athletics budgets (a little) and could do so down the road (a lot).

I spoke with Jim Cavale, CEO of INFLCR, for a story last week. He did a nice job of summing up where things stand with NIL, 6 months into the new world order.

[Schools] quickly realized you couldn’t just answer NIL and recruiting as a coach with ‘We’re going to help you grow your followers on social.’ You had to have some deals, some deal flow to talk about when you were recruiting. The easiest way to do that and start to think about the entire team was to be creative and get them all paid — but if you’re doing that without fulfillment, it starts to really make you wonder if it’s NIL or pay-for-play. The folks who think it’s NIL just say it’s non-traditional vs traditional. But others will say it’s legitimate vs. illegitimate. And that’s going to become a center stage argument in 2022 as booster collectives emerge.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the basics are:

  • There are lots of genuine NIL deals happening out there reflective of what any other sort of sponsorship and advertising would look like. Folks like FSU’s Dillon Gibbons have done a wonderful job of using NIL for charitable purposes and others, like Kenny Pickett, spun their NIL success into perks for their teammates. But those deals take time, effort and, often, celebrity. Most student-athletes do not have excess of any of those things.
  • A lot of recruits — both high school and in the portal — want NIL money and coaches want to give it to them, while skipping the middle man of actually finding a company to partner with an a fulfillment item (like an ad or a social post) that warrants the investment. So boosters for individual schools are setting up NIL “collectives” which essentially funnel money to those athletes and get them paid. For what? That’s the problem.
  • NIL should inherently be tied to YOUR name YOUR image and YOUR likeness, which should, of course, be transferable wherever you go. But these “NIL” deals are instead tied to you going to a specific school. That’s not at the heart of what NIL was supposed to be.
  • Booster collectives are, largely, not a violation of the rules — mostly because there are no rules. It’s a free-for-all, and the NCAA chose for that to be the case. There was ample time to form a framework for NIL, but NCAA leadership and its member institutions decided to punt.
  • Those booster collectives probably are taking money out of the pockets of athletics departments, as it’s entirely likely some portion of that money would’ve gone to donations to the school rather than directly to the players.

So, is NIL hurting athletics budgets? Probably not in the short term. But if this is the first step toward pay-for-play, athletes as employees, unionization, etc., then yeah, there’s a real chance that athletic department budgets will take a real hit.

Of course, that also forces the question: Is that a bad thing? If the market suggests players could’ve commanded more money, and the courts agree that they’re employees who should be paid — well, then those changes to the budget are a necessary outgrowth of correcting a flawed system.

Moreover, this isn’t necessarily all bad for Olympic sports. For one, Olympic athletes — i.e. athletes from non-revenue sports with a real shot at the Olympics — might be able to command more money themselves.

Second, if football, for example, is deemed to be a business apart from the school, and its athletes are employees, then it is exempt from Title IX, and therefore wouldn’t tilt the scales so far toward men’s scholarships that other men’s sports must be cut.

Lastly, there will always be boosters willing to fund non-revenue sports. Sometimes it’s because their kid plays that sport… or they did when they were in school… or they just like the sport… or they want some power within the athletics department and they aren’t a big enough fish for football… or any number of other reasons.

Long story short, NIL and player empowerment are likely both necessary and inevitable, and once again, we’re blaming the players for the flaws in the system created by administrators and taken advantage of by coaches and recruiters.

Best reads of 2021: Everything is awful edition.

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)…

Continue reading Best reads of 2021: Everything is awful edition.

Mark Hale (1954-2021)

Mark Hale died at age 67 on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Mark was loved by his wife of 45 years, Linda, his three children, David, Amy and Stephen, their spouses, Meredith, Kevin and Audrey, his seven grandchildren, Alexa, Kalli, Nathaniel, Lola, Madison, Willa and Thomas, and his sister, Susan.

Mark was preceded in death by his father, Thomas, and mother, Lola.
He will also be missed by countless friends, coworkers, extended family and Home Depot employees.

Mark possessed a truly epic collection of “dad jokes” long before anyone thought to coin that term. If the house erupted with high-pitched squeals and uproarious laughter, there was a good chance “Pop-pop” was chasing or teasing or playing a game of “gitsy bug” with his grandchildren. He loved dogs — from Jake to Duke to Timber to Winston and Sophie, and grand-dogs Wrigley and Emerson, Charlie and Mia. They were his kids, too, and he took such joy in playing tug-of-war or wrestling on the floor with all of them. The cats though? Well, every man has his limits.
Mark never met a stranger. He’d strike up a conversation with anyone, no matter how much it might embarrass his kids, from a server at a restaurant to the cashier at Wawa to that small army of folks at Home Depot who always knew what he was working on and the latest obstacles in his to conquer a project.

Mark loved engines. Born February 28, 1954, he got his driver’s license at the height of the muscle car boom. As a kid, he’d go with his best friend, Jack, to watch cars drag race down Kirkwood Highway. He believed the most important product of American engineering was the 389-cubic inch V-8 that powered his Pontiac GTO, which he raced through the streets of New Castle County, only occasionally needing to elude the police. In recent years, Mark and Stephen would go to classic car shows, and Mark reminisced about the thunderous cars he and his friends raced down the entrance road at Dickinson High School. The last car show they attended together, Nate tagged along, too — another generation hoping to be just like Mark.

By the time kids came along, Mark’s racing days were over (except for the time he nearly blew through a border check point at 90 mph while driving a Mazda across the country for David). His white 1965 GTO still sits in his basement workshop, the engine in need of an overhaul. The inspection sticker on the license plate reads “78,” the year David was born.

Instead, Mark found thrills watching Dale Earnhardt eviscerate NASCAR tracks across the country. Earnhardt exuded the traits Mark respected most: A tireless work ethic, a drive for perfection at his craft, a ceaseless determination to do the job the right way. “Finishing races is important,” Earnhardt once said, “but racing is more important.” That’s how Mark lived. The results mattered, but not as much as the work itself.

Mark grew up in his father’s shadow, following Tom into the garage to tinker with engines or into the workshop to hammer out plans for a home project. He mowed lawns and he changed oil, but he also rebuilt engines and restored rusted fenders to their former glory.

It’s no surprise he met the love of his life at work, too. Mark was the head cashier at a department store. Linda was the new cashier, and she saw Mark as a sweet boy who reminded her of Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days.” They were 17. They’d be together nearly every day for the next 50 years.

There was a time, however, when they were 19, Mark all but disappeared. He had a project, he said. Typical Mark, lost in his work. For Christmas that year, however, Linda got an invite to the house. When she arrived, Mark handed her a gift box. Inside, she found a set of keys. He then led her to the garage and revealed what he’d been working on: A maroon 1967 GTO he’d bought off the scrap heap and restored for her. A small stuffed Santa and reindeer were lined up along the hood scoop, and “Little St. Nick” by The Beach Boys played on the radio.

A week before he died, Mark sent a version of another Beach Boys song to Amy: “Don’t Worry Baby.” That was Mark’s mission in life. He took the worries and stresses and problems from the people he loved, and he fixed them.

Shortly before they were married, Mark and Linda scraped together enough money to buy a house that Mark completely renovated, adding a second story when David was born. There was another house and more projects by the time Amy came along in 1982. When Stephen arrived, in 1991, it was on to house No. 3 and countless new projects. Mark shoveled snow for neighbors without ever being asked. He covered the house in Christmas lights each year, and neighbors called him “Clark Griswold.” As paramedics left the house after trying to save his life, a neighbor pulled one responder aside. “Mark was a really good man,” they said.

Mark worked for more than 40 years at Astra-Zeneca, and coworkers remember his endless patience and flawless memory. He was as at ease correcting management on a critical mistake as he was pulling practical jokes with his coworkers in the plant. If a problem cropped up at 4 a.m., colleagues called Mark, and he’d walk them through it, step by step, as long as it took. Mark was like a safety net for those around him, his friend and coworker Jimmy Taylor said. No one worried about making mistakes, because Mark was always able to fix them.

After three decades, Mark decided to retire. It lasted less than a year before he went back, supposedly for a temporary project. More attempts at retirement followed over the years, but he always went back. He’d just wrapped up his latest temporary job in June, surely figuring there’d be another around the corner.

David grew up going to countless ballgames with his dad, including a road trip to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Cubs, even though Mark was never a big sports fan. Mark took David to his first concert, too — an impromptu decision made after a Phillies game, when a scalper offered a pair of tickets for $10. It was Neil Diamond, and Mark knew a deal when he saw one. David was never particularly handy around the house, but Mark was always there to help. When David and Meredith had a baby on the way, Mark came to Charlotte, North Carolina to help assemble Lola’s crib. He talked with Meredith for hours, going over plans for a bathroom restoration. On his last visit, he insisted on crawling through a sweltering attic to find out why the air conditioning wasn’t working quite right.

Mark always played a prominent role in Amy’s family, often shuttling kids from place to place when Amy was juggling too many things at once. Alexa and Kalli each have fond memories of rides in Pop-pop’s blue Suburban — the one he kept driving for nearly 25 years, because no vehicle was ever beyond repair — and along the way, he’d always impart some bit of wisdom about the world, usually a lesson he’d learned from his dad. A few days before he died, Mark surprised Kalli with a ride home from high school. They talked about life, just as they always had.

Eventually, Amy bought a house just a few blocks from Mom and Dad. Mark came by several times a day, installing new floors, expanding closets and remodeling bathrooms, eventually storing more of his vast collection of tools at her house than his. Mark rewired so many outlets, he went back and labeled each switch for Amy — even a few he called “future fans.” He taught Alexa how to change the oil in her car, quizzing her on the steps each time, and beaming with pride when she had the right answer. He taught Nate — his little “Bubba” — how to cut the grass and wash the car. Two days after Mark died, Nate was out cutting Grammy’s lawn because that’s what Pop-pop needed. On days when the weather looked bad, Mark inevitably sent Amy the same text message: “Storm’s coming. Might want to put down the patio umbrellas.” Before a recent thunderstorm, Amy wrote back that Nate had already done it. “Atta boy,” Mark replied.

In Stephen, Mark found his counterpart, an engineer with a passion for cars. In college, Stephen and his automotive engineering club built a car, and Mark helped paint it. Then Mark towed the car from Delaware to Nebraska for a competition. Stephen was late for his first date with Audrey. He’d gotten busy helping Mark install windows. Still, Mark and Audrey, now a doctor, shared a similar understanding of how the world worked. She’d explain some facet of biology, and Mark would nod and relate it to a machine he’d helped build. When Stephen and Audrey bought their first home in Baltimore – an old house in need of love and a skillful hand – Mark made the 90-minute drive nearly every day to fix sagging plaster, replace the 100-year-old wiring, and teach Stephen about carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. In the past year, Mark loved watching little Thomas toddle behind them, his play tools in hand, wanting to be just like Daddy and Pop-pop.

When his brother-in-law, Ed, suffered a stroke a few years ago, Mark made the three-hour trek to Virginia, day after day, to help him through rehabilitation. After Linda’s best friend, Carol, lost her husband suddenly, Mark sat with her on her back porch and made a promise: “Anything you need, I’ll be there.” Mark spent last spring refurbishing the old swing set and playhouse his kids had used, so Alexa, Kalli, Nate Madi, Thomas, Lola and Willa would have a place to play when they visited. During the COVID-19 shutdown, kids from the surrounding houses flocked to use it, too. On the top of the playhouse, Mark added an American flag. That was his favorite part.
He quoted Ernest movies. He loved Mexican food. He was surprisingly good at ping-pong. He loved Billy Joel and The Beach Boys and, recently, found an affinity for Yacht Rock. He loved real bacon and hated turkey bacon. He insisted on staying busy, but he’d stop on the side of a road to snap a photo of a pink sky at sunset or a field covered in snow. He was most comfortable in an old t-shirt and jeans. He took Linda camping for their honeymoon. He was honest. He was brilliant. He was kind. He was a million other things that no accounting of his life could ever measure.

Mark loved projects. He loved the work. But he hated endings. He was a perfectionist. If his work served as an expression of his love, there was no room for the tiniest blemish. He was happiest if one small job led to another, then another. He once promised to help David repaint his living room and proceeded to spend two weeks sanding plaster across three rooms before a speck of paint was applied. Keep working. Keep finding new problems to solve, new ways to make the world a little better. The race was always more important than where he finished.

So as we grieve our loss, please don’t let this be an ending. Celebrate Mark’s life now and often. Give him the gift he gave so many of us. Start a new project by telling stories and sharing memories. Talk to strangers and help your neighbors. And most of all, make sure the people you love always have someone they can rely on when the job gets too tough.

Due to COVID-19, the family is celebrating Mark’s life with a private ceremony. In the near future, however, they will host a larger gathering for friends, neighbors, coworkers, extended family, dogs and the lumber guy at Home Depot.
The family is immensely grateful for the gifts, food and flowers from so many wonderful friends. Thank you. For others wishing to express their sympathy, we ask you please consider a donation in Mark’s name to The American Heart Association or The Delaware SPCA.

What I watched on my COVID vacation

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)

The Prom

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+)

Boys State⭐⭐⭐

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)

Midnight Sun

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)

My favorite stories of 2020: An awful year with some great journalism

This year, I set a New Year’s resolution goal: Read 366 feature stories in 366 days.

We’ve still got a few days left, but you can find everything I’ve read (closing in on 366) here:  January’s readsFebruary’s readsMarch readsApril readsMay reads, June reads, July reads, August reads and a whole mess at the end because I was lazy.

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…

The pandemic hit and this car became home for a family of four — stunning storytelling that illustrated the massive and disproportionate impact the virus had on people who were already struggling to get by…

A pandemic, a motel without power and a potentially terrifying glimpse of Orlando’s future — Another deeply reported and detailed piece that’s haunting in its specificity and also how universal these stories are becoming…

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.

4. Hannah Dreier’s story of a police standoff just days after de-escalation training in Alabama is the type of nuanced and objective reporting on police violence we so desperately needed this year. It doesn’t take sides. It just puts the reader in the midst of the chaos.

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.