The Best Movies I Saw in 2017 (and the Rest)

I saw 134 movies in 2017, across a variety of media – on planes, in cinemas around the world, and in snatches on my phone. (They did not all come out in 2017.) Movies are listed alphabetically within category, although Ixcanul really was my favorite film of the year.

Here are my absolute favorites:

Ixcanul A young woman rebels against the dreary life ahead of her and inequalities of all sorts manifest. Starts out seeming predictible but then is anything but. (My full review.)
Lady Bird Wonderful coming of age story. Funny and real.
Maudie Sally Hawkins is wonderful as a woman in a small town with few opportunities who makes beautiful art.
Okja Korean girl and Superpig on the run. Awesome.
Queen of Katwe A young school dropout in Uganda is inspired by chess. Inspiring and engaging. (My blog post.)
Sunset Boulevard The cruelty of Hollywood in 1950s noir.
The Big Sick Sweet, funny, surprising romantic comedy.
Thor: Ragnarok I love a film that is surprising and hilarious. This is that film.

Here are a bunch more that I loved, just not quite as much.

Baby Driver
Battle of the Sexes
Captain Fantastic
Get Out
Guardians of the Galaxy — Volume 2
Ha’khata’im [Past Life]
Hidden Figures
Human Flow
I Am Not Your Negro
I, Daniel Blake
Ingrid Goes West
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Le tout nouveau testament [The Brand New Testament]
Little Men
Logan Lucky
Midnight in Paris
Mr. Holmes
Mulholland Drive
Que Horas Ela Volta? [The Second Mother]
Song of the Sea
Still Mine
The Founder
The Incredible Jessica James
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The Other Side of Hope [Toivon Tuolla Puolen]
The Red Turtle
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Wedding Crashers

Here are a bunch that I really liked.

Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont [The African Doctor]
Blade Runner [Final Cut]
Blade Runner 2049
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Despicable Me 3
Don’t Think Twice
Dr. Strange
Force Majeure
Guardians of the Galaxy — Volume 2
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Mr. Mom
On Golden Pond
Ruby Sparks
Spider-Man: Homecoming
The Dressmaker
The Fly
The Little Hours
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Squid and the Whale
The Town
Tropic Thunder
Uma História de Amor e Fúria [Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury]
Upstream Color
Wonder Woman

And here are a bunch that I liked reasonably well.

Bridget Jones’s Baby
Café Society
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Frances Ha
Friends with Benefits
La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil [The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun]
Lady MacBeth
Lost in London Live
Marjorie Prime
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates [airplane edited]
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Nocturnal Animals
Ocho apellidos vascos [Spanish Affair]
Saneamento Básico: O Filme [Basic Sanitation: The Movie]
Sky High
Sleeping with Other People
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Star Trek Beyond
The Last Man on Earth
The Lego Batman Movie
The Spy Next Door
The Tempest
Their Finest
To Catch a Thief
Tô Rica! [I’m rich!]
Trading Places
Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément [Blind Date]
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Here are a bunch that I thought were so-so. I don’t regret watching them, but I wouldn’t recommend them.

Bad Santa
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Daddy Day Care
Dr. No
Fast & Furious 6
Home Again
Mes Trésors [Family Heist]
Ocho apellidos catalanes [Spanish Affair 2]
Terminator Genisys
The Fast and the Furious
The Fate of the Furious
The Lego Ninjago Movie
Viy or Spirit of Evil
A Seed of Memories
Around the World in 80 Days
Boss Baby
Justice League
Nancy Drew
O Homen do futuro [The Man from the Future]
Suicide Squad

Here are four that I thought were pretty bad (especially Runner Runner)…but I still watched them through to the end. Make better life choices than me; avoid these films.

Des vents contraires [Headwinds]
Ghost in the Shell
Why Him?
Runner Runner

The Best Books I Read in 2017


Here are the best books I read or listened to in 2017 (out of a total of 42).

Best Fiction

  • #1 Overall Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebayo. Gorgeous novel: delicious prose, constant surprises, deep emotion.
  • Most Fun Overall – Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. Delightful update of an old tale of prison and revenge. Advice: Review the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest before reading (for example, on Wikipedia). (My review. And in case you want another economist’s endorsement, here’s Tyler Cowen’s.)
  • Most darkly funny and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya. This book will make you groan, cringe, and shudder as the protagonist goes to increasingly precarious lengths to maintain his pretense of success in America after emigrating from Nigeria. (My review at Brittle Paper.)
  • Most uncomfortably funny A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen). “Magnificently comic and sucker-punch-tragic excursion into brilliance.” -Gary Shteyngart in the New York Times.
  • Most frightening as a parent and a husband – The Dinner, by Herman Koch. Serious questions about inheritability of character and responsibility to our children versus others, all wrapped up in a thriller.
  • Most eerieFever Dream, by Samanta Shweblin (translated by Megan McDowell). “This powerful and at times deeply sinister tale is anything but straightforward.” -Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian
  • Awesomely craziest audiobook Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Audiobook incorporates 166 different voice actors, several recognizable. Wild ride. Won this year’s Man Booker Prize.
  • Best botany-themed The Seed Thief, by Jacqui L’Ange. A botanist travels from South Africa to Brazil “to infiltrate a religious sect and find some seeds.” Excitement and botany ensue. (My review.)

 Best History

Best Memoir

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay. Astute essays on living life as an obese woman in America. Powerful and traumatic. (My review.)
  • The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans. Dual memoir of growing up gay and Mormon, and of taking buses from Washington, D.C., to southern Chile, en route to Antarctica. (My review.)

Best Economics and Social Science

Best Self-Improvement

Best Graphic Novel

  • Marvel (Volume 6): Civil War II, by Wilson and Miyazawa. This isn’t the best of the Ms. Marvel books (and I recommend all of them), but even so, it endearing and thought-provoking around the price we are willing to pay for safety, as well as family and friendship.

Best Children’s and Young Adult

What did I get wrong? What did you read and love?

I also read a number of books of religious history or religious thought. You can read about my favorites among those here.


Books by friends

One of the pleasures of getting older is enjoying the professional accomplishments of friends. This year, at least 10 friends wrote books. I’ve only read one so far, but I’m working on it!

dionne 1Global health — Doomed Interventions: The Failure of Global Responses to AIDS in Africa, by Kim Yi Dionne. Says Rachel Sullivan Robinson: “Dionne uses fascinating cases across a number of sub-Saharan African countries to demonstrate how the mismatch between donor and citizen priorities limits the effectiveness of HIV programming, as does the sheer number of actors involved at multiple levels of governance.”

boustan 1Economic history — Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, by Leah Platt Boustan. Says Amazon: “Traditionally, the Great Black Migration has been lauded as a path to general black economic progress. Leah Boustan challenges this view, arguing instead that the migration produced winners and losers within the black community. Boustan shows that migrants themselves gained tremendously, more than doubling their earnings by moving North. But these new arrivals competed with existing black workers, limiting black–white wage convergence in Northern labor markets and slowing black economic growth.”

hendrickson 1Religious history — The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church, by Brett Hendrickson. Says Amazon: “Nestled in a valley at the feet of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, the Santuario de Chimayó has been called the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in America… The book tells the fascinating stories of the Pueblo and Nuevomexicano Catholic origins of the site and the building of the church, the eventual transfer of the property to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and the modern pilgrimage of believers alongside thousands of tourists.”

steenblik 1PoetryMother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother, by Rachel Steenblik. This is a beautiful collection of reflections on the divine feminine.

NovelArchaeopteryx, by Dan Darling. Says Amazon: “John Stick, zoodarling 1 keeper and giant, just wants to sit alone in a dark room with his pet tarantula. However, when ten thousand birds fall dead from the New Mexican sky, the woman he loves, an ornithologist with severe facial deformity, begs him to decipher the cause.”

black penguin1Memoir — The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans. My cousin (and good friend!) wrote this account of growing up, coming out, and traveling to Antarctica almost entirely by bus. (I raved more about it here.)

Another memoir — The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by Tracy McKay Lamb.lamb 1 Says Joanna Brooks: “For every woman who makes the heartbreaking but utterly necessary choice to leave, to start over, to make a new home, for her kids, for herself; for every woman who will wake up alone this morning and do by herself the hard work of holding a family together; for every woman who puts one foot in front of the other, this book offers a safe space of wisdom, warmth, and understanding.”

taylor 1Young adult science fiction — Twists in Time, by Angie Taylor. Says Amazon: “Grant and Ava begin a mysterious journey of love and risk that extend beyond their past and present and possibly into a future that transcends time.”

Bible studies — The Sun Has Burned My Skin: A Modest Paraphrase of Solomon’s Song of Songs, by Adam Miller. Says Amazon: “A loosemiller 1 paraphrase that aims more for the replication of a certain mood than for the correspondence of particular words and phrases. The songs themselves are a collection of age-old Israelite love songs, searing and intense, sung principally by a young woman who is bold, confident, and only just exposed to the tidal pull of love and sex.”

narayanan 2And a little something else — Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, by Amrita Narayanan. Says the publisher: “The erotic tradition in India is thousands of years old. In The Parrots of Desire, the modern reader, to whom the anthology is dedicated, will find a wealth of Indian erotic writing—beyond the famously unbridled passages of the Kama Sutra and Koka Shastra.”

What I’ve been producing

I’ve been away for a while: here’s a little bit of what I’ve been up to. Last week, I gave a talk at Stanford University, entitled “The Global Landscape of In-Service Teacher Professional Development Programs,” which you can watch below.

I’ve put up a few new blog posts on other blogs, in case you missed them:


And a couple of my blog posts have made it into other language:


a breezy, entertaining journey through Indonesia – a review of Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc.

indonesia etcIndonesia is the fourth most populated nation in the world, and it’s the fifteenth largest in land area. More than 700 languages are spoken there. It has the largest Muslim population the world, ahead of India and Pakistan. And yet, until now, I know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth Pisani’s recent book — Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation — helped to close that gap. Pisani has written an entertaining mix of travelogue, history, and current affairs. Years ago, Pisani worked in Indonesia as a journalist and then later returned as an epidemiologist. Most recently, she spent a year traveling between Jakarta to remote villages across Indonesia’s jungles and coasts. In this book, she brings it all together. It reminds me of the book I might write if I were traveling around Indonesia and sending weekly emails home to friends. The history and the current affairs are mixed in with funny anecdotes and observations, with the result being a not-too-structured approach. But in addition to all the enjoyable, colorful anecdotes, I definitely learned about the history, for example, about early colonization by the Dutch and major differences between the first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto.

Pisani writes in a deeply familiar and affectionate tone, but I never felt that she condescended. To give you a sense, here is a line on Sukarno, who was “a demagogue whose political recipe was one part populism and three parts theatre, seasoned with mischief and served with a large glass of charisma” and “always better at vision than delivery.” Later, she talks about Indonesia poor showing in international student assessments: “The dismal results are a result of dismal teaching, and that is in turn the result of patronage. A teaching job is the easiest way to squeeze into the coveted beige uniform of the civil servant; local politicians give jobs in schools to their political supporters all the time. That means the schools are rammed with people whose goal is to be a bureaucrat, not an educator. And they behave just other bureaucrats in Indonesia: they see working hours as a movable feast and take time off more or less at will.” And later, students describe the challenge of being taught in English: “The teachers, they cannot speak English too.”

In some accounts, the researcher seeks to be an invisible observer. Pisani doesn’t hide her role as participant, always discussing her interactions with the people around her and often reflecting on people’s perceptions of her: “The possibilities for a short-haired white woman with a face battered by months of boat travel, dressed in long-sleeved cottons, sensible shoes and a black photographer’s waistcoat, a woman who spoke with a Jakarta accent and was always scribbling in a notebook were: in Sumba, a researcher on a malaria study; in Tanimbar and Kei, an anthropologist. In Flores, a nun (!) When I got over to post-tsunami, pre-ballot Aceh, I was either an aid worker or an election monitor. In Kalimantan, I must be from an environmental NGO. In the smaller regions of Indonesia, an English teacher. Here in Weda they assumed I was an engineer.”

For those of us who know little about this giant of a nation, Pisani provides a deeply accessible introduction. I listened to and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook, narrated by Jan Cramer.

I looked at 8 other reviews (below), and only the New York Times comes away with a negative take on the book.
  • Misha Glenny, The Guardian: “Although Pisani cannot really explain all of Indonesia’s et ceteras, she does project a more optimistic and warmer picture of a fascinating country than most outside commentators. For anyone about to visit the place, her book is an essential companion.”
  • Joshua Kurlantzick, The New York Times: “For the most part, [Pisani] remains content to drift back into anecdotes rather than pull them together…. Pisani falls back on easy clichés about Jakarta, reform, and the population itself…. Another opportunity to know the unknown giant is lost.”
  • Ashlee Betteridge, DevPolicy blog: “Part adventurous travelogue, part investigation into nationbuilding, Indonesia Etc. is easy and entertaining to read. For those who have spent some time in the country, you will likely find yourself nodding along with the author’s observations and experiences. For those who know little of our neighbour, it’s a worthy and engaging overview.”
  • The Economist: “There are very few good books in English to help the general reader to understand it. Ms Pisani’s is probably the best. Into a beautifully written, richly entertaining account of a year spent travelling around the archipelago, she weaves a deep knowledge of the country acquired first as a reporter there, and then as an epidemiologist.”
  • Ben Bland, Financial Times: “Occasionally, she overreaches in her pursuit of the colourful phrase (she describes a town on the island of Flores as smelling of “stale sex” after the meat from a whale hunt is hung out to dry) and her insistence on “just saying yes” to new experiences can give her the air of a worthier-than-thou backpacker. But her regular comic mishaps, punchy insights and journalist’s eye for the telling detail more than compensate.”
  • Pallavi Aiyar, L.A. Review of Books: “A rollicking good adventure that knits together a complex of stories and insights, in a feat that rivals the knitting together of the sprawling nation it describes…. To read Indonesia, Etc. is to grow rather fond of both author and country.”
  • Jim Della-Giacoma, New Mandala: “Pisani has produced a book on Indonesia that is as fresh for the novice as for those who have a lifetime of experience in the country.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “A brave, lively writer opens up a wondrous, changing nation.”

Walking in the world with a visible hurt — Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

“The story of my body is not a story of triumph.” So begins the second chapter of Roxane Gay’s haunting, mesmerizing memoir. Gay has been, as she describes it, “super morbidly obese,” reaching 577 pounds. (“I am still very fat, but I weigh about 150 pounds less than that.”) This is the story of the horrible sexual violence that began Gay’s quest to hide in her size. This is the story of a thousand daily indignities faced by overweight people in a “fat-phobic world.”

This is a story of contradictions, of being a “victim” and a “survivor” and many other things, all at once. This is a story of feeling like efforts to change are “futile.” This is a story of sharing a trauma experience and fearing the reaction, almost any reaction: “I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me. I don’t want my personality to be consumed in that way. … If I must share my story, I want to do so on my terms, without the attention that inevitably follows. I do not want pity or appreciation or advice.” This is a story of reality television and visits to the doctor’s office and embarrassing interactions with flight attendants and families that both love and judge us.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gay. Her prose is beautiful. Her story is powerful. I couldn’t stop listening.

Here are a few other reviews…

Kate Kellaway, The Guardian: “Fat is more than a feminist issue – as this extraordinary memoir by novelist and essayist Roxane Gay reveals.”

Carina Chocano, New York Times: At its simplest, it’s a memoir about being fat — Gay’s preferred term — in a hostile, fat-phobic world. At its most symphonic, it’s an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality.”

Lucy Scholes, The Independent: “The tender beauty of this memoir – testament to her bravery and resilience – has much to teach us about kindness and compassion.”

Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books: “Is Hunger an angry polemic? Is it an apologia? Is it a confession? It is social commentary? TV criticism? A collection of magazine pieces? Self-help musings? A tell-all by a literary celebrity? A memoir of sexual abuse? Hunger is none of those things and a little bit of all of those things, but mostly it is true.”

Clifford Thompson, The Los Angeles Times: “The great strength of Hunger is in Gay’s unflinching look at herself and her life. … The great weakness of Hunger is that what might have made a knockout 40-page essay is instead a 307-page book.”

Doreen St. Félix, The New Yorker: “There are a few moments when Gay gives us a glimpse of the deeper account that “Hunger” might have been—one in which she pursues, rather than merely dispatches with, the contradictions that have so painfully defined her life.”