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ChrisB's Best of 2021

2021 was a long year in which too many things happened too quickly. Occasionally, it would become overwhelming and I would have to lose myself in another world.

The silver lining in all this was that I was able to spend more time than I usually do on books, TV, plays, and movies. It was great to get back into the theaters, both live and cinema. There were quite a few things I enjoyed this year, some unexpected and some old favorites. But, there were some that stood out as the best of the year. The following are the ten things I will return to as 2021 morphs into 2022.

10: My Octopus Teacher (Netflix Film)

Technically, this film was released in 2020. I didn’t learn about it, however, until my sister begged me to watch it in February.

I went into this film with a fair amount of skepticism. Seriously. What would I get out of a film about a man floating around with an octopus? Turns out, quite a lot. The lessons imparted as you watch this man interact with a wild animal are great reminders that the world is a big place and we need to remember where we are and with whom.

9: National Geographic Travel Books

I am a travel junkie. I always have one trip planned and another one in the planning stages. For obvious reasons, the past two years have rather stalled any ideas I have of jumping on a plane.

I discovered this book series by chance and it has helped to keep me sane. Beautiful, coffee table sized books with exquisite photographs and tempting descriptions that allow me to go somewhere else — at least in my imagination. My bucket list has expanded considerably.

8: The Boys (Book)

Written by Ron and Cliff Howard, this book is a wonderful account of their childhood and growing up as child actors in the 50s and 60s. It is not a tell all, nor is it mean and snarky. It is, instead, a love letter to their parents and to the other adults who helped them grow up in such an unusual environment.

As they look back, they realize the foibles that some of these adults had and both Howards are very honest about them. Underlying this story, however, is a wonderful tale of a family that stuck together through it all and still is sticking together.

I have recommended this book to everyone I know. You just feel better as you are reading it.

7. The Chronicles of Narnia (Audio Books)

The Most Reluctant Convert is a film about CS Lewis that I was very interested in seeing. While I was hugely disappointed in the film and do not recommend it, the film brought me back to a series of books I last read when I was ten.

I have been listening to the books as each is read by an English actor you have heard of. The joy of having these fabulous stories read to me is unparalleled. Of course, they are very different stories now that I am adult, but as I listen to each of them in turn, I am reminded of gentler and simpler times.

While we're on the subject, a huge shout out to Audible. I can now "read" while I am driving, cleaning, cooking, working out, or just hanging out. Life is good.

6. American Experience Documentaries (TV)

I am Ken Burn’s greatest fan, but over the past several years I have managed to watch pretty much all of his documentaries that interest me — some of them twice. One day I was scrolling Amazon looking for some new documentaries when I stumbled across the PBS American Experience series.

What joy! I spent a two week quarantine watching one of these after another. They are brilliantly done and have brought many stories to me that I knew nothing about. I am currently working my way through some of the older ones — they are just as good.

5. Belfast (Film)

The best film I saw all year. Kenneth Branagh has written and directed a love story to his early years that is incredibly moving and hilariously funny all at the same time.

The actors he chose were wonderfully cast, especially Jude Hill who plays the young Buddy. Caitriona Balfe plays the mother and does it perfectly. She so inhabits the character that it took me nearly half the film to realize where I knew her from.

What makes this film so good is that it is told from the point of view of the child. Yet, as an adult watching and knowing a bit of Irish history, you get a true sense of what is really going on. As the adults make decisions that the children do not understand, you are simultaneously happy the decisions are being made, but heartbroken for the kids. Outstanding all the way through.

4. Cookbooks

I love to cook and two years at home has enabled me to hone my skills a bit. I have become addicted to cookbooks, both old and new. I have taken to reading them like novels, literally cover to cover.

I have bought cookbooks about cuisines that I have never attempted before; books by chefs that I admire but was always a bit too intimidated to try, and even baking which is not something I ever spent a lot of time on in the past.

The best of the best are Gastro Obscura, Black Food, and The New York Times Cooking No Recipe Recipes.

3. Cooking Shows (TV)

Speaking of cooking, I have spent more than my fair share of time in front of Discovery + which plays dozens of cooking shows on an endless loop. I have binged whole seasons at a time, taking notes along the way.

In addition, PBS is reshowing the old French Chef shows, some of which are older than I (and that’s saying something). I watch these with sheer admiration for Julia Child who was able to teach so many of us to approach scary dishes with confidence and ease.

Finally, The Great British Baking Show. I loved it this year, but because of the contestants. The semifinal was a travesty and the fact that the two judges and the two whatever you want to call those annoying boys still have jobs is unbelievable. All four of them need to be replaced. I thought each of them brought down the tone this year.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway)

I celebrated Broadway’s reopening by getting up to New York as quickly as I could and seeing as much as I could. While everything I saw was wonderful, this play mesmerized me and stuck with me long after I had seen it.

Aaron Sorkin, my writing god, has taken the bones of this wonderful story and shifted the point of view from Scout to Atticus. Normally, I get crazy when writers mess with a classic, but this telling of the tale really worked. In the hands of Celia Keenan-Bolger (whom I thought was a child until I read her bio) and Jeff Daniels, the language just sang.

I have been to the theatre countless times in my life and I can count on one hand the number of times an audience (especially an experienced one on Broadway) has risen to its feet cheering at the end. This was one of those times.

1. All Creatures Great and Small (TV)

I sat down to watch this one rainy night when I couldn’t figure out what else to watch. I was not that interested because (1) the book is one of my favorites of all time and I knew the writers had made changes and (2) the old BBC series was so good.

I binged through all seven episodes in two nights and then promptly watched it again. It is perfect. It takes the tone of the book and translates it onto the screen. The scenery is stunning; the acting is outstanding; the comedy is infectious without being cloying. I loved it and can’t wait for the second season coming in January.

So, there you have my top ten for this past year. Writing it brought back a lot of happy memories and anticipation for what is coming down the pike. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season and all the best for 2022.

ChrisB is hoping to get out into the world a bit more next year. Or, maybe not...

6 comments:

  1. Chris, I'm also going through The Chronicles of Narnia right now. I finished reading The Horse and His Boy a couple of weeks ago, and I have just started The Magician's Nephew. This is not a re-read, though, it's my first time reading the Narnia series. I have enjoyed it overall. "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is probably my least favorite so far (the lack of an overall arc certainly hurt its pacing) and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "The Silver Chair" (I usually don't like when a series changes its original main characters). The Horse and His Boy was a good entry, though I was a little taken aback by the book's racist depiction of the villains.

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  2. It's a long time since I've read them but I also remember finding the Voyage of the Dawn Treader dull...as fantasy voyages go I rather preferred Hannes Bok's "The Sorcerer's Ship". I think the Magician's Nephew was one of my favorites, along with the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And agree that the Horse and his Boy was a good story, but...well, it's a product of its time.

    If you're interested in exploring other classic children's fantasy, I heartily recommend Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series.

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  3. There is great debate now about the order in which one should read the books. The purists believed that they should be read in the order written; others believe they should follow the timeline in the books. C.S. Lewis is on record as saying it doesn't matter.

    I am listening to them following the timeline. It starts with The Magician's Nephew which I enjoyed more than I remember doing so as a child. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is second. It is a wonderful story, but I didn't realize as a child that it is, in fact, the story of Christ. I am currently listening to The Horse and His Boy which is good, but not up to LWW standards.

    Thank you for commenting on the Narnia books. I do think they are something really special.

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  4. Agreed on Narnia. Dawn Treader has always been my favorite, but it's been a while since I've read them.

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  5. Chris, I think I'm going to have to read The Boys. I'd never heard of it before. Hollywood childhoods are usually so awful, but it seems worse because we never hear about the good ones.

    Belfast is on my list, for obvious Outlander-related reasons.

    As much as I enjoy GBBO, I agree that some of the hosts need a good replacing, with Matt at the top of the list. He is occasionally outright offensive.

    Is this where I must admit that I've never read C.S. Lewis?

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  6. I love CS Lewis, Billie, but I think that it may not click with you. It also may be necessary to read his works as a kid, first, so that nostalgia covers some of the flaws.

    ChrisB, I did the audiobooks of Narnia last year (although I skipped the final one) and really appreciated the narrators, too.

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