The best of the worst year ever
SocialistWorker.org contributors offer up their favorites of 2017, because this year definitely needed distracting from. Come back to SW for part two tomorrow.
THERE IS no contest for the best movie of 2017. Jordan Peele's directorial debut Get Out is both a brilliant horror story and a cerebral meditation on liberal racism.
Somehow managing to be both subtle and over-the-top, by turns tense, gory and funny, Get Out continues a venerable tradition of horror as social commentary. The clever script is full of double meanings, and the film expertly rides the line between its fantastical central conceit and scenes that feel a little too real for comfort.
While no other film I watched in 2017 was as perfectly executed as Get Out, some honorable mentions are in order.
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is about as close to pure cinema as you can get. Spare, grimly beautiful and almost dialogue-free, the film turns the Good War into an inglorious, white-knuckle survival story that showcases the unique strengths of film as a visual storytelling medium.
The award for Most Fun in an Action Movie goes to the imperfect but thoroughly enjoyable Atomic Blonde. The plot is a mess--just ignore it and enjoy watching Charlize Theron stomp her way through 1989 Berlin as bisexual Bond-style super-spy Lorraine Broughton, accompanied by a killer soundtrack.
A nod for Franchise Installment That's Actually a Good Movie goes to Logan. This bloody, near-future tragedy-western proves that superheroes don't need to be saving the world to be compelling--sometimes helping a few refugee kids cross a border is enough.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Best Movie You Probably Haven't Seen: Tomorrow Ever After. While I may be a bit biased (since I worked on the film), Ela Thier's sci-fi comedy, available for pre-order on iTunes, is the perfect antidote to a garbage-fire year. Funny and moving, it reminds us to hope and fight for a better world.
MY NOMINEES come in each of three categories. For readers, I'd choose Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. It's an historical excavation of the career of right-wing economist James M. Buchanan.
Though hardly a household name, Buchanan and his corporate-sponsored university think tanks provided ideological justification and strategic advice to policies from "right to work" to Social Security privatization. In the hands of patrons like the Koch brothers, Buchanan's ideas have been weaponized for the right-wing war against the social safety net.
In the TV category, I'd suggest Netflix's short series Cuatro estaciones en la Habana (Four Seasons in Havana), a gripping, if flawed, police procedural that provides one of the few honest glimpses into Cuban society you're likely to see on U.S. television.
Based on a quartet of novels by the great writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes, it follows its main character, detective Mario Conde, through investigations of what appear to be ordinary crimes. But as Conde digs further, he uncovers much about class, racial and gender dynamics of contemporary Cuba.
Finally, for big-screen moviegoers, look for Pixar's Coco. It's the story of 12-year-old Miguel who, during Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations, travels to the land of the dead to ask his ancestors to bless his desire to be a musician--against his temporal family's wishes.
Coco is at times hilarious, always entertaining, and also very moving. With an international all-Latino cast and released in English and Spanish versions, it's also a celebration of Mexican music, history and culture. Perhaps in a small way, this cross-border phenomenon is a rebuke to those who'd rather build walls than bridges between the U.S. and Mexico.
2017 HAS been a dizzying year for anyone who supports women's equality. It started off on a low note with the rapist-in-chief's inauguration, immediately followed by the high point of massive Women's marches.
Now it is culminating with the avalanche of #MeToo, equal parts horrifying in what it reveals about our society and cathartic in that women are finally starting to be heard. Given all this, here are my holiday picks for the feminist on your list this 2017:
Proving they're not all terrible, one of the best books I read this year was by a man: Dr. Willie Parker's Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice is a brilliant and moving defense of reproductive justice written by one of the South's last remaining abortion providers.
2017 continued the trend of smart feminist TV, most notably Hulu's chilling The Handmaid's Tale. For those who could use something on the lighter end without losing its critical bite, I recommend Netflix's GLOW, which explores the sexism of the 1980s entertainment industry (you know, unlike today...) and how an all-female wrestling show became an unlikely vehicle for empowerment and sisterhood.
Finally, music legend Sharon Jones passed away in 2016, but not before gifting us a final album, Soul of a Woman, which was released this year. Though recorded between chemo sessions, it sounds a hopeful note we can all use as we enter the new year: "Let's not wait any longer, yeah / Gonna' struggle on so hard / Altogether we get stronger / It's a matter of time."
ONE OF the most important contemporary playwrights, Dominique Morisseau, delivered another masterpiece with Pipeline, a timely and powerful play whose title evokes the school-to-prison-pipeline.
Nya, the protagonist, is a veteran public school teacher who teaches the radical poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks while her son struggles in the racist and stultifying environment of a wealthy private school. You'll find no insulting stereotypes of public school teachers here--only a lot of heart, passion and pain hurtling against the limits of the structural inequalities evoked by the title of the play.
Pipeline gives expression to the struggles for social justice both in and outside of the classroom, exposing the lie of meritocracy that undergirds a system of education that is separate and unequal to its core.
The 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama, Sweat by Lynn Nottage, is one of the most important dramatizations of the decades-long attack on labor on steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania, where a lockout upends workplace solidarity, giving way to racism, xenophobia and violence.
Set between 2000 and 2008, the play provides a stark vision of the decline of labor, and the corresponding rise of working-class desperation and poverty. Nottage accomplishes no small task in bringing a play about locked-out steelworkers to Broadway--a play all the more poignant in the aftermath of Trump's election--but, she also deserved credit for making clear that the crisis facing the working class in the Trump era has been decades in the making.
This year's revival of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis at the Signature Theatre in New York City couldn't be more relevant in 2017. Set at Rikers Island, the play chronicles Angel Cruz's nightmarish journey through a justice system that is anything but just. For anyone not convinced that Rikers should be closed for good, this play is a must-see.
FOR PEOPLE fighting for social justice, 2017 wasn't a banner year. But one thing it had going for it was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
In the flood of books that were published to examine the revolution, a few stood out. Todd Chretien's compendium of firsthand accounts Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution draws from some of the most famous accounts of the revolution such as Leon Trotsky and John Reed, but also less-known activists, journalists and not always sympathetic observers.
China Miéville's October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is a very different presentation of the same period, delivered with what his readers will recognize as his signature visceral and eloquent style. Like many of Miéville's novels, October involves big ideas, profound human drama, occasional scenes of grotesque violence and trains. The audiobook, read by John Banks, is perfect for long holiday travel.
My final recommendation for a serious read about 1917 is the newly republished Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories by S.A. Smith. This gem of a book is perhaps the best of the small collection of serious studies of workplace struggle in 1917, all of which have been out of print for years. Smith's book follows the chaotic and wildly ambitious workers' movement as it moves from democratic reforms sought in February to revolutionary socialist convictions of October.
But holidays aren't just about immersing yourself in history, they're about binging on the year's fluffiest shows, after overeating. Somehow both chipper and filled with metaphysical angst, The Good Place follows a group of people who have made it to Heaven, but one of them doesn't quite belong.
Written with Arrested Development-level mania and recurring jokes about moral philosophy professors, frozen yogurt, and Florida, it is hard to understand how The Good Place stays on air. Enjoy it while you can.
LOOMING OVER this year is the monstrosity of the Trump presidency and the human dust of fascists and white nationalists that are dredged up by his occupying the highest office in the land.
Trump and fascism are topics of much debate and action. This year got addition to the required readings on fascism with the release of Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win by the German socialist Clara Zetkin.
In roughly 100 pages, editors Mike Taber and John Riddell present writings, speeches and resolutions by Zetkin, along with explanatory notes and an introduction that is probably the most clear and concise description of fascism that exists.
Zetkin wrote and theorized about fascism through its rise from the standpoint of strategy of how to fight it. This book is necessary reading for all those seeking learn from that experience and understand what fascism is, and why and how it needs to be defeated by a broad united front of working people.
Another highpoint this year is the journalism of Anand Gopal. His investigation featured in the New York Times on U.S. drone strikes in Iraq, as well as his interviews at Democracy Now! and SocialistWorker.org, have set the bar for reporting on the human consequences of U.S. war abroad and the yearning for freedom of those often voiceless.
Lastly, this year brought us The Stone Sky, the final book in fantasy author N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. Escaping from the reality of this world is rendered easy by Jemisin's exquisite building of the unique world of "The Stillness," which is actively seismic and routinely plunges into apocalyptic catastrophes.
The writing is beautiful, with rich in analogies to the world we habit of impending environmental devastation, racist brutality, trauma, broken families, authoritarian governments and people banding together to resist and survive.