Books,  Movies

My Favorite Watches and Reads of 2023

It’s January 1, so we’re all contractually obligated to post our favorites of the past year. (Don’t blame me–I just work here.) But if I’ve learned nothing else this year, I know I need to keep better track of what I watch and read in the future. That said, here are a few of my 2023 takes.

Series and Films

Reservation Dogs (Hulu and FX)
Sure, Reservation Dogs started in 2021, but it ended this year, and I can confidently say it will remain one of my favorite series. On paper, it sounds like a good watch, but as a series, it lives and breathes heartbreak, humor, and joy. The entire cast is brilliant, but the young actors who play the four main teen characters are incredible. Still, you can’t beat the inclusion of indigenous acting legends like Graham Greene, Zahn McClarnon, Wes Studi, and Gary Farmer. I’ll also live the rest of my life wishing I had a William Knifeman to give me life advice at inopportune moments. If you know, you know.

Bodies (Netflix)
This is one of the best science fiction series I’ve seen since Severance (where’s Severance, by the way, Apple+?). Bodies is an enthralling whodunnit, whydunnit, howdunnit, whendunnit—you name it. Be warned: If you like fast pacing and quick reveals, this might not be for you. It isn’t afraid to juggle timelines and allow the story to play out slowly, but it all pays off in the end. Though Bodies is more optimistic than most of Philip K. Dick’s works, it does remind me of him in one important way: It has more intriguing oh-by-the-way subplots per episode than some other series have in their entire run. Will there be another season? I’d like to think so, but if not, that’s okay. This one ended well.

Oppenheimer (Amazon)
I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan ever since I saw Memento, and I’ve read just about every book written about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, so I was excited for this one. Despite frantic reviews bemoaning the epic length of the movie (three entire hours–the nerve of some people!), this one feels like Nolan’s magnum opus. The sheer number of A-listers popping up throughout can be a little dizzying–though in the end they all serve the story well–but Cillian Murphy inhabits the role of Oppenheimer.

The Fall of the House of Usher (Netflix)
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Mike Flanagan fan, so I went into this one with high expectations. I’d assumed the series was lost in Flanagan’s way-parting with Netflix, but it unexpectedly released after a year’s delay.

One of Flanagan’s best tricks is he encourages you to care about characters and then puts them through the existential wringer. That’s not the case with The Fall of the House of Usher. The Usher family is a rogue’s gallery of despicable characters, each one worse than the last, and Flanagan and Company find inventive, E. A. Poe-inspired ways of delivering their comeuppances.

Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher is about much more than letting us gleefully watch icky people get their just desserts, though. If you’re a Poe fan, part of the fun of this one is seeing how the series ties in various poems and stories. By my reckoning, there are only three non-despicable characters in this series (I’ll leave it to you to figure out who they are), and only one of them gets what they deserve. One of the best character actors out there, Bruce Greenwood, finally gets to lead a cast (after his much-publicized, last minute replacement of Frank Langella as Roderick Usher), and Carla Gugino is utterly sublime as Verna.

Colin from Accounts (Amazon)
What a nice surprise this Aussie comedy was. Colin, by the way, is an injured doggo, and he’s the catalyst for a burgeoning relationship between the two main characters, Gordon and Ash. One of the best things about Colin from Accounts is that, no matter how screwed up the mains are, the characters around them are even screwier.

The humor is delightfully awkward and often comes from unexpected places. You’ll want to see Gordon’s and Ash’s new relationship succeed—in whatever shaky form it ultimately takes—but most of the fun is just watching the characters pinball off each other and cope with the insanities of life.

Linoleum (Hulu)
This one was another utter surprise. The trailers for Linoleum made it seem like a quirky sci-fi comedy, which hit me as a thing I’d enjoy. That meant I was in no way expecting what the film turned out to be, and I can’t say too much about that without spoiling things. Jim Gaffigan has proven he’s a capable comic actor, and he’s even played a few notable dramatic roles, but holding his own opposite Rhea Seehorn? That’s gonna look good on his CV.

Mrs. Davis (Peacock)
Here’s the premise: At the behest of an artificial intelligence called Mrs. Davis, a nun named Simone searches for the Holy Grail in order to make Mrs. Davis turn herself off. Factor in a crypt full of British Knight sneakers, a jaunt to a Renaissance Faire, a few exploding heads, and some Las Vegas magicians, and that’s just the first few episodes. Talk about insanity.

I really enjoyed Mrs. Davis, but I absolutely get why some people will hate it. It breaks all the rules of storytelling, constantly, without even flinching; in fact, it pretends there are no rules. It plays around with some religious ideas in ways that will make some uncomfortable. But if you like the earnest, straight-faced bonkerness of some of Damon Lindelof’s other projects like The Leftovers and Watchmen, you might enjoy this one. If you don’t, though, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Empty Man-Hulu
The Empty Man came out in 2020, but it’s been notoriously difficult to find streaming anywhere. Apparently, it released right around the time catalog shifts happened at the studio, so it got little to no promotion and faded into obscurity. For now, though, it’s available on Hulu, so if you’re interested, watch it soon.

For what it’s worth, I’m notoriously hard to impress (and scare) when it comes to horror, written or filmed, and I couldn’t look away. The Empty Man is the best and rarest kind of horror/thriller: It plays with and subverts horror tropes, trusts the viewer to keep up with the story, and keeps you guessing right up until the very last scene. Who is the Empty Man? You’ll have to watch it and find out.

Renfield (Amazon)
Nicolas Cage going full-on Nic Cage as Count Dracula? Sure, sign me up. And that part of Renfield turns out to be pretty much what you expect with no disappointment. But it’s only the beginning. The main conceit, that Drac’s sidekick Renfield has joined a codependents’ support group, is a perfect launching pad for this story, but it goes far beyond that. Cage aside, the most solid performances come from Nicholas Hoult as Renfield and Awkwafina as the cop who takes an interest in the immortal boss man. Oh, and there’s also Ben Schwartz (Parks & Rec‘s Jean Ralphio Saperstein) as the son of a crime matriarch who really wants to impress his mom.

Leave the World Behind (Netflix)
No one does creeping dread quite like Sam Esmail, the guy who mostly built the USA series Mr. Robot. Leave the World Behind is a remarkably restrained and cryptic vision of a near future apocalypse, told from the perspectives of people who can only speculate about what’s happening. Unsurprisingly, the visuals here are stunning, and the cast members pull off the apocalypse with equal parts unease, disbelief, and eventual panic. Bonus: If you’re a fan of Mr. Robot, you’ll appreciate all the easter eggs. Evil Corp, will you never learn?


Sea of Tranquility-Emily St. John Mandel
Like most of Emily St. John Mandel’s other works, Sea of Tranquility connects in various ways to the larger Mandel-verse (Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel, Last Night in Montreal). That idea was part of the appeal for me, along with the fact that I just connect with this author’s storytelling, but this one stands on its own as a meditative, near future take on a society living through a pandemic that isn’t COVID-19.

The Light Pirate-Lily Brooks-Dalton
I really enjoyed Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight (adapted as the film The Midnight Sky) so I sort of expected this one to be in the same vein. It was and it wasn’t, and that was absolutely fine. The bottom line: If you’ve ever wondered what a post-climate-change-apocalyptic Florida might be like, this is the book for you.

On Earth as it is on Television-Emily Jane
Funny, off the wall science fiction that features cat-loving aliens in disguise? Yes, please. The title drew me to this one, but once the story kicked in, I was hooked. Don’t be fooled by the early chapters; this one has a lot of heart and imagination.

The Gone World-Tom Sweterlitsch
I always enjoy well-done alternate history science fiction, but that’s only the bare surface of this mind-bending novel. Time travel stories can be tricky to pull off for the same reasons they’re appealing to readers, but this one has some unique things to offer to the genre even apart from the well-known tropes. Another thing I appreciated about this one was the author’s extensive knowledge of the navy, which he tied in nicely to the novel’s idea of a space (and time)-based military force.

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