Stray Thoughts—The Best of 2017


Some things that happened in 2017:

  1. I saw only three movies in the theater: Thor: Ragnarok, Dunkirk, and The Last Jedi. I am a big movie nerd and so it was a hard thing to give up but the cost, both in money and in time mapping out logistics, is high enough when you have a kid to watch that it’s just too much for a bit. That said, I absolutely cannot wait to take Lev to the kids’ matinees at the Film Forum in a couple of years. Anyway The Last Jedi was fine, Thor was just delightful, and Dunkirk was the longest 100-minute movie ever made and its isn’t-he-clever structure was totally unjustifiable garbage and I’m beginning to think Christopher Nolan’s main use is as a competent hack who made some good Batman movies. I caught a couple of others on airplanes and on the streaming services we have in lieu of cable:
    Get Out is a terrific horror flick and one of those like The Exorcist or the original Halloween that manage to start enough conversations that they can’t be ignored in the way that the genre usually is. I liked it all the more for this tremendous essay on it by Zadie Smith.
    –The new Spider-Man movie, if not as good as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, is terrific fun, better than the other three, and a bona fide high school movie, which is what Spider-Man movies really should be.
    Wonder Woman was shockingly mediocre. The more I think about it the more it annoys me; there’s not a single interesting or inventive sequence in it. A thing I love about, for example, the James Bond or Mission: Impossible movies—or the more recent Marvel Comics flicks—is that each one is put together by a team of very serious action movie buffs who do their damnedest to make every sequence either a completely new idea—a knife-fight in the dining car of a train! A laser-gun battle on hang-gliders!—or a clever homage to a classic sequence like the Dark Knight’s bank robbery scene, a great twist on the best scene in Heat. Wonder Woman was a completely bland superhero flick that wanted a big cookie for having cast a woman in the lead role and I guess it got one. It wasn’t as bad as the rest of the subnormal non-Batman DCU flicks but those movies aspire to mediocrity.
    Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was so slick it didn’t feel like there was any movie underneath but it wasn’t actively bad or, like Wonder Woman, boring.
  2. Politics was very bad, wasn’t it? I wish the middle-aged white Christians who felt the need to put a Nazi-loving gameshow host in the White House had thought harder about why everyone hates them. Is it because they’re a persecuted group of innocent religious folks who must count it all joy when they suffer for Christ, or because they’re a bunch of thin-skinned tyrants who constitute the most important voting bloc in the country and exercise veto power over every single sitting politician and are thus personally responsible for the last forty years of anti-worker monetary policy and the ongoing violent hazing of immigrants?
  3. I had a hard time reading anything, partly because I had a sort of slow-motion quasi-breakdown (might just be new parenthood, who’s to say) and partly because it just became hard to switch off and get out of my head. I’ve come to the conclusion that reading is the opposite of Twitter; Jonathan Franzen said a few years ago that no one with an active internet connection on their writing machine could produce good fiction. I’m not sure I’d go that far but I see what he means. I enjoyed and was frustrated with his 2015 novel Purity this year; I caught up on Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, every page of which ought to be framed and hung in in a separate museum, and I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s slim book of Norse Mythology, which I read to the baby in his very, very early days. Currently I’m finishing The Erstwhile, by Brian Catling; his work is difficult but really unusual and unlike any other fantasy writer I know.
  4. I enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus immensely. HZD is a vast open-world action game in which the primary mechanic involves hunting robot dinosaurs, and Lance Reddick (whom I love) is in it. Wolfenstein is just gorgeous. It’s a big, defiantly overdesigned campaign-driven first-person shooter and it has no loot boxes, no pushy co-op component, no hints that the game really isn’t any good without the multiplayer, and it’s just really well-made. The machine guns handle differently from one another and the enemy AI is smart enough that when the game runs you through progressively crueler gauntlets of sci-fi Nazis you must kill or be killed by, you get an actual sense of accomplishment for despatching them. The game is of its moment, too: Fighting Klansmen is part of the fun and the alt-right gets more than a couple of shout outs. It’s funny—the Wolfenstein games for years were not much more than tech demos, made mostly because lead designer John Carmack had found some amazing technical trick he could use to square the computing circle, and Nazis were convenient villains. Now that Nazis are a topic of conversation and debate the games have become super-woke and it works surprisingly well. I liked Superhot a lot, for a gimmick that doesn’t get old—it’s a first-person shooter in which you control time, which moves only when you move—and I enjoyed the latest Ninja Theory game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, about a young woman whose mental breakdown takes the form of the Norse underworld. It’s similar in tone and texture to From’s brutally difficult Dark Souls games, though it’s not nearly as hard, and the acting and design are very good. Screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland was a primary creative force on the last few Ninja Theory games, so I tend to keep abreast of what they’re up to. This one felt like they were trying to make a game that outclassed its budget category—the non-boss enemies are very samey and the combat is engaging but extremely simple—but I’d say they succeeded even though you could feel the strain.
  5. Here are the comics I liked best this year, in no order:
    Providence. Alan Moore is a genius; this isn’t particularly controversial any more. But this year, the act of even trying to write something that grappled with our current awful moment, with the possibility that we may honestly not be the dominant form of life on this planet in the next hundred years, felt like it was in bad taste. We had not yet arrived at exhaustion and the need for comfort, or at least I hadn’t; I wanted to look at it. I wanted to stare at the abyss and demand that it tell me its name. Moore wrote something for that need. It’s a horror graphic novel, set in New England, about a young closeted Jewish man who travels around the countryside running into people who approximate but aren’t quite the protagonists or monsters from HP Lovecraft’s short stories. As it draws to a close, it begins to make sense not merely as a picaresque, mildly funny horror story, or even as commentary on Lovecraft’s work, but as a pitiless examination of our present state, doom and all. It’s a magnificent piece of work during a bad year for comics, splendor amidst the Splenda, and I’m glad I read it.
    Boundless. Jillian Tamaki is a remarkable cartoonist and no two pieces in this short story collection are alike; it’s a fantastic double bill with Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, a book that should have won some kind of national award last year.
    Love & Rockets. Los Bros Hernandez are wonderful. They have always been wonderful, they will likely remain wonderful, and their work takes place in a zone I don’t know much about, partly because big chunks of it are invented and partly because it refers to a specific kind of SoCal punk culture in the 70’s and 80’s that I’ve only ever read about in L&R (feel free to recommend additional reading in the comments, I’m sure there’s lots more to know). The latest issue traces the borders of Maggie’s deep love for Hopey and it does that so generously; Jaime’s work has always been warm but somehow he’s kept himself from getting sloppy in his late career. It’s a deep pleasure to read.
    Mister Miracle. Tom King, master of mood, is at it again on this very weird superhero book with artist Mitch Gerads, who’s going for a kind of hi-fi Bill Sienkiewicz thing that really, really works. I’m not sure what the deal with the story is at the moment; it feels like it’s building but it’s hard to see what the ultimate structure will look like. I like King and I like that he’s having a moment; his Batman stuff was truly excellent and I liked his Omega Men even when I found it a little hard to follow; his Vision series was a little overpraised but very solid. I’m hoping this book goes someplace.
    Songy of Paradise. Gary Panter is both an amazing primitivist and one of the greatest living scholars of epic poetry; this completes the loose trilogy that started with Jimbo’s Inferno, and honestly it’s the easiest and most fun to read of the three. An odd thing about this book: It’s standard comic-book length, despite being a gigantic hardcover on fancy paper. 40 pages total including the front matter.
    One More Year. I wrote about how much I like Simon Hanselmann’s angry, drugged-out humor comic earlier this year on this blog; it’s great. It’s very funny and its denouement lands like a slap.
    My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. I’ve written ad nauseam about how much I love Emil Ferris’s phone book/art exhibition/roman a clef/murder mystery, and it’s still true. It’s a beautiful book, a genuinely great piece of graphic literature that just fell out of the sky this year, from a never-before-published talent. It’s marvelous.
    Grandville: Force Majeure. I wish Bryan Talbot could find his way onto those lists of great auteur comics creators. He’s a terrific British SF writer with an adroit sense of pacing and a marvelous, vital imagination; his Luther Arkwright stories are so close in tone to Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories that you’d be forgiven for thinking Talbot is ripping Moorcock off, but he’s not. He’s doing something subtler and stranger. The same is true here, in the final volume of Talbot’s Grandville series, set in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals—but also humans, all drawn like Tintin characters and part of kind of low-caste subculture. I think there’s far more than meets the eye to these books and I need to go back through them again to see what else I can pick up; each one is a murder mystery and each one is filled with fascinating, sometimes jarring fine-art parallels. The best is the Christmas volume, Grandville: Noel, but Force Majeure was a lot of fun.
    Diaspora Boy. Eli Valley is such a good political cartoonist I actually have hope for the form. He’s a hardcore lefty and a practicing Jew whose work contains a lot about our current moment I don’t think anyone else could have said, or not as well or as bravely. His tactic of calling out Likudniks for being bad at their religion because of their politics is dear to my heart for what are probably obvious reasons, if you’ve read this blog before, and he’s a hell of a draftsman, somewhere between Aline Kominksy and Charles Burns.
  6. I saw two art exhibitions this year, one a really gorgeous historical reckoning by Kara Walker, who is, I think, probably our greatest living artist, and another, a David Hockney retrospective at the Met. I also saw the simultaneous Michelangelo exhibition, which was fine, but Hockney’s figures just seem to walk off their canvasses to me, or rather, to be trapped there in amber. Looking at them I kind of can’t believe people agreed to pose for him—his figures are so troubled, selfish and alienated. But I’m glad they did.
  7. I got a baby, Lev, who is the single best use of contiguous carbon atoms in the universe as it currently stands. Currently he scoots around on the living room floor and says “a-DUH” with an air of finality after he has spent a few minutes thoroughly examining a new thing small enough to turn over in his hands. He likes salmon. He has slept through the night maybe four times this year, certainly fewer than ten. Watching him get born was the best moment of my entire life. His mother is perfect.
  8. I lost my job, which I really loved, when the baby was just about three months old. It was difficult. I loved the job and I loved my colleagues but cost-cutting is cost-cutting; it’s something I try not to be angry about but that is difficult.
  9. I broke my elbow on my final assignment, which was unpleasant and resulted in two weeks of being unable to pick up the baby.
  10. In the intervening three months between losing my job and finding a new one I went to Spain with my wife for her research, which was partially funded to an extent that allowed us to used a not-completely-irresponsible amount of my buyout money so I could tag along and provide childcare. While there, I failed to write anything of substance but learned a great deal about what is important, namely the baby and Picasso, and what is unimportant, namely reporters’ egos, mine specifically. And I resolved to try and make something.
  11. In July I found a new job, working as an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo, where I busied myself trying to get interviews with or documents written by people who had been accused of doing very bad things. I succeeded in this more often than I thought I would, which pleased me.
  12. I got very paranoid and depressed, despite the new job.
  13. I worked on a comedy show with some amazing actors and writers, contributing a little to writers’ meetings and some ideas about direction to the research team, and the occasional writeup of a complicated issue to the writers themselves. Being in a writers’ room, even as a too-talkative fly on the wall, was profoundly wonderful. I’m scared to death of stand-up but I loved so much being around people who were trying to make something funny, whether or not they succeeded.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: