As I look back on 2017 and the books/movies that made it so special, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes of all time by Frederick Buechner:
This is why fiction, films, and other art forms are so important. They speak to us about the holy and the sacred in a way that we will actually listen. They speak to us of things so precious that to even try to talk about them in casual conversation would somehow diminish them. They give us a sense of the transcendent, the eternal.
These were the books and movies that “baptized” my imagination in 2017.
My 10 Favorite Reads of 2017
1. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
It’s hard for me to explain how much this book means to me.
A year ago I started a tradition of reading a book from Berry’s Port William series every summer. The series tells the stories of a fictitious small town in rural Kentucky from the perspective of different characters. Last year I read Hannah Coulter, and it easily made its way onto my top 10 books of all time.
These books are my soul mates. They speak to something deep within me. They are the types of books that are so good and beautiful and true you never want them to end. Ironically, on the surface they are utterly mundane. They tell the stories of ordinary people living in a small, forgotten town. And yet, I have come to love them, as many have.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always harbored a secret longing to live and raise a family on a farm. Maybe it’s because it reaches back to a time gone by, where folks knew everyone by name and ate what they grew in their gardens. I don’t know. But these books mean the world to me. And with them, Berry has maybe even supplanted Steinbeck as my favorite American author of all time.
Jayber Crow is the life story of the town barber, as told by himself. Here’s an excerpt:
“If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line – starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.”
2. Silence by Shusaku Endo
Few stories have impacted me the way this one did. Endo’s book about a pair of Catholic missionaries enduring Japanese persecution in the 1600s is a haunting, beautiful, and utterly thought-provoking story on the nature of faith, doubt, and grace. Don’t expect to walk away with easy answers. I highly recommend the book and the film.
3. Making Sense of God by Tim Keller
Why should anyone believe in Christianity? “In this book, pastor Tim Keller invites students of secular philosophy and those skeptical of faith and religion to consider a Christian God that still makes sense.”
In simple, clear language, Keller explains why Christianity provides unsurpassed resources for humanity’s basic needs: a meaning that suffering can’t take away, a satisfaction not based on circumstances, an identity that doesn’t crush you, a justice that doesn’t create new oppressors, and a hope that can face anything. Highly recommend it to both the skeptic and the person of faith.
4. Watchmen by Alan Moore
I’ve always wanted to read a graphic novel, but I hadn’t until I read this one. Watchmen especially intrigued me, since it made it on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best novels of the past century. And for good reason: it’s the darkest and most psychologically complex “superhero” story I’ve ever read. Definitely NOT kosher for young ‘uns, but if you’re interested in the medium, it’s a good place to start.
5. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This was by far the most fun book I read in 2017. I cruised through it in about a week. Someone described RPO as “The Matrix meets Willy Wonka,” and they couldn’t be more right. Fun fact: Anyone who starts a job at Facebook-owned virtual-reality company Oculus is given a copy of this book.
RPO is a quirky love letter to the 80s and especially to video game/nerd culture. Gen Xers will really dig it, but the story is approachable enough for anyone to enjoy. And get ready: Steven Spielberg is directing the movie, slated to premiere in the spring of 2018.
6. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
I love reading classic literature. A lot of older books can be tough to get through bc of the antiquated language and dense exposition. But this one surprised me by how easy it read and how fast it moved. Which partly explains why, when Monte Cristo was published in 1844 in serial form, it literally became the most popular story in all of Europe and “a fixture in Western literature.”
Side note: the book is far more complex than the movie, and the ending is much different (which probably describes a lot of books that get adapted to movies).
7. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Ever since I read Outliers, I’ve been a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan. And then he released a podcast called Revisionist History, and I upgraded myself to official fanboy status. (If you haven’t listened to it yet, you must.)
In this book (Gladwell’s first), he defines a tipping point as “that magical moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” In this widely acclaimed bestseller, Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon. I still like Outliers a little more, but if you’re a Gladwell fan you’ll definitely dig this book.
8. John Adams by David McCullough
I’m amazed at the outsized influence that certain men and women have had on our country. John Adams was one such individual. A respected lawyer who rose to become the second president of the newly born United States, Adams impact on this country is indelible. I don’t read a ton of history books, but I really enjoy McCullough’s works. (1776 is a great one too.)
9. A Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
A timeless Christian classic, Foster’s book was a wonderful refresher on the spiritual disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book:
“The purpose of the Disciplines is freedom. Our aim is the freedom, not the Discipline. The moment we make the Discipline our central focus, we turn it into law and lose the corresponding freedom…Let us forever center on Christ and view the Spiritual Disciplines as a way of drawing us closer to his heart.”
10. Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy
A few years ago I discovered the Wildwood Chronicles, and this month I was stoked to finish the third and final book of the series. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s the best modern children’s book series since Harry Potter. Written by the lead singer of The Decemberists and often called “the hipster Chronicles of Narnia,” these books are fresh, imaginative, quirky, and just plain fun to read. Plus Carson Ellis’ folksy illustrations are perfect. Although the first book in the series (Wildwood) is definitely my favorite, this one was a solid finale.
11. Wiseblood by Flannery O’Connor
Ok, I know I said it was my top 10, but I couldn’t leave these last two off.
O’Connor’s first novel tells the story of Hazel Motes, a 22-yr-old caught in a struggle against the faith he grew up with. To be perfectly honest, I wish I had read this one with others (or in a class) so I could process it more. It’s deep. But what I love most is that it’s the story of a man trying to rid himself of Jesus and being unable to do so. Favorite line from the book:
“Later he saw Jesus moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild and ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”
12. Confessions by St. Augustine
I’m not going to lie: This one was a bit of a slog for me. Partly because of the language and philosophical ramblings, partly because I became infatuated with several high-quality TV shows (looking at you, WestWorld). Plenty of incredible nuggets of wisdom, but most of it felt a little like eating my vegetables.
Still, in my opinion, few people have ever loved God the way this man did. And even fewer have written about their struggles with sexual sin with such honesty, clarity, and power. I’m still very much a believer in reading old books, but just remember these aren’t breezy beach reads.
Here are a few highlights:
“You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
“I was astonished that although I now loved you . . . I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world . . . as though I had sensed the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it.”
“Give yourself to me, my God; I show you my love, but if it is too little, give me strength to love you more.”
Creativity Inc. by Ed Catumill
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Finish by Jon Acuff
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
Sandman Chronicles Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
On Writing by Stephen King
When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy by John Piper
Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
Talk Like Ted by Carmine Gallo
Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
The Course of Love by Alain De Botton
The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino
My Favorite Movies of 2017
Note: I still haven’t seen a ton of great movies, including Phantom Thread, Coco, The Shape of Water, The Big Sick, Wonder Woman, Get Out, The Florida Project, The Post, Molly’s Game, and many others. But c’mon—you can’t see ’em all.
1. Phantom Thread – directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Devilishly funny, superbly acted, and beautifully filmed, Phantom Thread was probably my favorite movie of 2017. Daniel Day-Lewis gives an incredible performance in what appears to be the final film of his career. A subtle but powerful story about the intersection between the dedication to a craft and the demands of love.
2. Dunkirk – directed by Christopher Nolan
As a huge Nolan fan, I was super pumped about this movie. In my opinion, he’s one of the best filmmakers making movies right now.
Dunkirk did not disappoint. In Nolan’s words, it’s more of a survivor movie than a traditional war movie, and I couldn’t agree more. The film, which depicts the British army’s escape from the Nazis in the early years of WWII, offers a harrowing picture of the realities of war (even retreat) and the heroism of ordinary citizens. Plus, a tension-building score from Hans Zimmer helped turn this movie into a nail-biting experience.
P.S. If you’re afraid of drowning, do NOT go see this film.
3. Lady Bird – written and directed by Greta Gerwig
4. Silence – directed by Martin Scorsese
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – written and directed by Rian Johnson
6. Blade Runner 2049 – directed by Denis Villeneuve
7. Baby Driver – directed by Edgar Wright
Earlier this year I described Baby Driver as a family-friendly version of Drive, and I still stand by that summary. And while I still think Drive is stylistically more memorable, Baby Driver is no less entertaining. With carefully choreographed chase scenes set to classic rock n’ roll songs, how could it not be?
8. Thor: Ragnarok – directed by Taika Waititi
Guardians of the Galaxy notwithstanding, Taika’s take on Thor delivers probably the funniest (and most definitely the quirkiest) Marvel movie of all time.
9. The Lost City of Z – directed by James Gray
Charlie Hunnam stars as Col. Percy Fawcett, the legendary Amazonian explorer from the early 1900s. Solid cast, beautiful scenery, terrifying adventures—all in all, a well done period piece.
10. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – directed by Jake Kasdan
The Rock, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan deliver tons of laughs in this blockbuster movie that’s just plain fun to watch. It’s a devilishly clever conceit and a worthwhile reboot of the classic Jumanji story.
P.S. Years from now we may look back at this movie and say it was The Rock at his peak. Just sayin’.
11. Arrival – directed by Denis Villeneuve
Again, technically this film released in 2016, but I saw it for the first time in 2017. With virtually no expectations heading into it, I was pleasantly surprised by how well crafted this film was. A fresh take on the classic sci-fi alien story, Arrival delivers a phenomenal, Nolan-esque twist along with some powerfully emotional moments.
What were your favorite movies and books of 2017? Leave a reply in the comments or shoot me an email!