Wireframe Season 3 Coming Next Week

Wireframe Season 3 Cover Art

After many, many hours spent recording in my basement, we are just about ready with a new, third season of “Wireframe,” the podcast I host about how design shapes technology to fit into our lives. The first episode launches next Monday, 13 July. Until then, you can listen to the trailer below and you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PocketCasts, Castro or anywhere you get your favorite podcasts.

This season we’re looking at how design is changing in a world that is itself undergoing massive change. We have episodes about designers coping with the pandemic and social unrest; about the UX decisions that make it hard for families to connect in a world of social distancing; about the design of crowdfunding and charity platforms in a time when giving is more vital than ever; about whether user experience makes a difference in the streaming platforms that we’re all glued to; about how design might—or might not—help increase mindfulness; and about the design of elections, which is probably another fun surprise that 2020 has in store for us.

It’s a lot of really terrific stuff. As usual, we’ve got great guests, it’s all deeply researched and thoughtfully reported, and it makes for fascinating listening for anyone who practices, consumes and/or thinks about design. I’m incredibly proud of this new batch of utterly unique design stories and I think you’ll enjoy them too. Subscribe today, and if you haven’t listened before, you can catch up on the previous two seasons at adobe.ly/wireframe.

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A Scholarship for a More Diverse Design Industry

2020 Adobe Design Circle Scholarship Winners

During much of the five years or so I’ve worked at Adobe, alongside my “day job” leading the design team behind Adobe XD, I’ve also been pursuing an unusual “side hustle.” It was a bit of a far-fetched idea that was almost completely outside of my expertise, and one that very likely would not have been possible at any other company except Adobe: the creation of a scholarship fund specifically to help aspiring designers from diverse and underrepresented groups pursue design educations.

After several years of planning, persuasion and paperwork, a few of us dedicated to this idea managed to put together the Design Circle Scholarship, announced late last year in this blog post by my colleague and collaborator Kari Norder. We were incredibly moved to receive over a thousand applications from new, vibrant talent all over the world. We were also lucky enough to get a generous contribution of time from the members of our Design Circle forum of industry leaders to carefully and thoughtfully review each application and portfolio. Today, Adobe announced the ten lucky, deserving, promising, amazing winners. You can see their pictures above and read more about them in this blog post at XD Ideas.

Of course, a cohort of ten scholarship winners is a modest start and it’s not going to change the industry overnight. But it’s a meaningful one for these students: they’ll each receive up to US$25,000 for four years of undergraduate study in design. The fund is intended to allow young designers to access the education they deserve, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, economic or cultural background.

For me, the animating idea is that if we can open the doors wider to those seeking to enter the design field, if we can make design education more affordable and accessible to more and different kinds of people, then we can make a material impact on who ultimately gets to practice design. That is the difference between a design industry that wants to be more diverse and inclusive and a design industry that is more diverse and inclusive. We have a lot of work to do still, but these ten burgeoning talents are proof that we can change this industry if we match actions to our intentions.

Read more at xd.adobe.com.

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Movies Watched, May 2020

Still from “The Assistant” Directed by Kitty Green

Sometimes when I watch a movie I feel the urge to write about it immediately, but events rarely allow me to act on that. In the case of director Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” which I watched early last month, that time gap is a particular shame. It’s a very good movie, a superb one, even. And yet, writing about it now, in late June, feels like a real disservice to a film that might already have missed its moment in time.

“The Assistant” is a fictional take on life in the orbit of a Harvey Weinstein-like character, seen through the eyes of his executive assistant, played by Julia Garner. It follows a very long, ostensibly routine and casually horrific day in the life of Garner’s character, allowing us to experience the myriad indignities, humiliations and crushing disappointments of life in the employ of a powerful psychopath.

This is likely the very best narrative film to come out of the #MeToo era, but its release in the spring of 2020 feels unfortunate. Even if it had been released just half a year earlier, say at about the same time that Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill” came out, it might have really found an audience. But when I watched it in early May, still in the midst of quarantine living, when it had gone straight to video-on-demand and without a theatrical release, it felt like few others were talking about it, much less watching it. And now, with the civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd, time really seems to have gotten away from the filmmakers.

Which is a tremendous shame. Not only does “The Assistant” offer an incisive commentary on the power structures that enable abusive men, but it does so with an extremely deft level of artfulness. There’s a unique quality to the whole film that’s weirdly vague and almost blurry. Characters don’t get names—Garner’s character is only named in the credits, and her employer is only ever referred to by his pronouns—and actions aren’t explicit. At a pivotal moment in the film, the protagonist can’t even describe the principal conflict she’s experiencing in any material detail.

At the same time everything in this movie still somehow manages to be incredibly specific and even unambiguous in its emotional power. The film is never less than direct in its commentary, and is even unflinching in addressing the complexities of the abuse. Nothing is named, but no one in the film—or the audience—is under any misapprehensions about what’s happening and who’s involved. Superficially, it bears the hallmarks of a small, independent feature film—it was filmed in just a few, modest locations, without any major set pieces. But it’s constrained and succinct not necessarily because that’s all that its budget allowed, but rather because that narrow focus allows the story to be told with exactly the incisiveness and searing accuracy that the filmmakers intended.

As for the rest of what I watched in May: I managed a bit of a comeback, fitting in twenty-two movies watched, up significantly from April’s total. Here is the full list:

  1. Sonic the Hedgehog” (2020) ★
    Mercilessly pointless.
  2. The Assistant” (2019) ★★★★
    Superb.
  3. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) ★★★
    Rewatched. Better than I remembered.
  4. The Lion King” (1994) ★★★
    First time seeing this.
  5. The Avengers” (2012) ★★★
    The only Marvel movie with a real script.
  6. Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours To Kill” (2020) ★★★½
    Sharp as ever.
  7. The Incredibles” (2004) ★★★★
    Rewatched for the umpteenth time and at first reluctantly, but by the end I remembered why this is so great..
  8. Moonraker” (1979) ★½
    Rewatched. Punishingly plodding.
  9. Ash Is Purest White” (2018) ★★★
    Quietly epic travelogue of change in modern China
  10. Bringing Up Baby” (1938) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. My kids did not really appreciate this, but I did.
  11. Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. More and more, this seems like the best film of the last decade.
  12. Incredibles 2” (2018) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but very good nevertheless.
  13. Tigertail” (2020) ★★
    A short film stretched to feature length and without good reason.
  14. Charlie’s Angels” (2019) ★½
    A disservice to women.
  15. Groundhog Day” (1993) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Perfect.
  16. Onward” (2020) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Don’t sleep on this one. It’s great.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” (2011) ★★★½
    Worthwhile if not entirely successful remake of the original 1962 masterpiece.
  18. The Gold Rush” (1925) ★★★★
    Charlie Chaplin goes prospecting in Alaska, digs up remarkable pathos.
  19. Kuffs” (1992) ★
    An embarrassment to the 1990s.
  20. Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016) ★★½
    Compellingly mythic until its Hollywood ending.
  21. Apollo 13” (1995) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Irresistible confidence porn.
  22. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” (2019) ★★½
    Documentary about audio production for film is revealing but rarely inspiring.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in April, in March, in February, in January, and a full list of everything I watched in 2019, in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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What Police Stories Teach Us

TV Police

What we choose to watch in film and on television says so much about us because these stories offer up, in plain sight, an encoding of our values in narrative form. If you want to understand the hopes, dreams, anxieties and fears of a people, just look to their entertainment.

The past several weeks since the killing of George Floyd have coincided with a cultural realization—a frustratingly belated one, for many—that the stories we watch about police and the criminal justice system are crucial and even overt pillars in our society’s structural racism. And we’ve all been okay with it, even enthusiastic about it, for as long as these stories have been told. Two recent examinations of police portrayals on television bear this out.

Fiction vs. Fact

The first is a report released in January by the non-profit research group Color of Change and The USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, which offers fascinating and unprecedented insight into the way scripted television shows manipulate our perceptions of policing and crime. Titled “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre,” the report bills itself as “A comprehensive study of how television’s most popular genre excludes writers of color, miseducates people about the criminal justice system and makes racial injustice acceptable.” Researchers watched hundreds of episodes from twenty-six different scripted crime shows from the 2017-2018 television series, while also collecting demographic data for the shows’ creators, show runners and writers, as well as data on the shooting locations and police and military consultants used by the producers.

Normalizing Injustice found that the crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.

The report is available to download in full but there’s an abridged version too, which makes for a brisk overview of many troubling trends. These include the finding that a majority of the studied series depicted ostensibly virtuous police performing wrongful or unlawful acts, thereby framing extrajudicial actions as “relatable, forgivable, acceptable and ultimately good.” This behavior goes largely unchallenged in the shows’ scripts, but on the occasions when it is called into question, show writers rely predominantly on characters of color or women to voice the objections, thereby fueling the idea that it’s not up to white males to abide by the letter of the law.

More egregious is the finding that, across virtually all of the shows, these wrongful actions take place entirely outside of the context of racial bias. They seem to posit a world without racial profiling, excessive use of force, prosecutorial overzealousness or other common abuses of the law. Meanwhile, the depiction of who is victimized by crime is largely skewed towards white men and women, with show plots least likely to focus on black women as victims. It’s as if the shows go so far out of their way to present an ideal of race-blind law enforcement that they’re oblivious to the unmistakably racist signals that they’re sending about who should be policed and who should be protected.

There is a lot of data in this “Normalizing Injustice” report and if you watch any of these shows, it’s illuminating to pore over the statistics of which series do better or worse in various measures. It’s a reminder of how powerful fiction can be to our understanding of who we are and the world around us.

Fact-ish vs. Fiction

Perhaps even more powerful than pure fiction though is fiction dressed up as documentary content. If you’ve ever watched “Cops,” or the even more bread-and-circuses-style “Live PD” you’ll be familiar with the voyeuristic thrill of “riding along” with real police officers from the comfort of your living room. These shows are the best and worst of television in that they expertly and brazenly exploit the unique advantages of the medium: the ability to reflect back to us a heavily distorted, deeply transfixing vision of our own anxieties and make it available for continuous, passive consumption, all without meaningful consideration of morality or consequences. They’re horrific trash but it takes real fortitude to look away.

Actually, as a society we’ve somehow found the fortitude to do just that in the past few weeks as, shockingly, “Cops” was canceled after thirty-two seasons on 12 Jun and, shortly thereafter, “Live PD” was also shut down despite being the financial and programming cornerstone of its host network. Congrats everyone!

Before we pat ourselves on the back too much though, it’s worth looking back on these broadcasting travesties to understand just how they worked and what damage they’ve done to our society and our understanding of what policing should be. As it happens, a truly superb podcast that launched and wrapped earlier this spring called “Running from Cops” does just that.

There are six or eight episodes, depending on whether you count the bonus shows, and they’re all wildly revealing about the frankly immoral methods that these reality shows’ producers used in order to win good ratings. Host Dan Taberski and his team watched almost eight-hundred and fifty episodes of the show (spanning three decades, amazingly) and quantified a host of patterns including the kinds of crimes captured in each episode, the demographics of the police officers and the alleged perpetrators, the extent to which the process of each crime is documented and much more. The team also did a deep dive into “Live PD” and tracked the efforts of one municipality to ban that show from filming its police force—and the blowback that city leaders received. It’s an impressive piece of investigative journalism, and every episode of the podcast is fully absorbing to listen to.

Still, if you’re just going to listen to one them, the episode that packs the most wallop, that will open your eyes the widest and incite the most indignant outrage is episode six, embedded below. In it, the producers somehow get their hands on the raw footage of one episode of “Cops,” something which is shockingly difficult to do. As they share it with the listener, they cast in stark terms the gap between what the show’s cameras actually captured in “documentary” mode and what was edited, finessed, manipulated and ultimately aired as one of the hundreds of episodes of “Cops” that have run on TV for the past three decades. In short, what made it to air was thoroughly dishonest. I always thought “Cops” was crappy but now it seems truly revolting, just like many of the stories we’ve been telling about policing for far too long.

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Unarmed

Six Black Men Standing in Front of “Unarmed” Prints, by Raafi Rivero
“Unarmed” Jersey Designs by Raafi Rivero

Unarmed” is an art project in the form of a series of sports jersey designs honoring victims of police killings. It was created by my friend Raafi Rivero, a filmmaker and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Each jersey is designed in the colors of a victim’s local sports team. The jersey number represents the victim’s age. Stars, if present, represent how many times the victim was shot. I designed the first ‘Unarmed’ jersey in 2013, not long after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and first started posting designs to this website in 2014.

The project made its IRL debut a week ago on Flatbush Avenue where Rivero and his collaborators pasted up large-scale prints on store fronts boarded up during the pandemic. You can see local news coverage of the project at abc7ny.com.

“Unarmed” Prints by Raafi Rivero at Kith on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn
“Unarmed” Prints at Crunch on Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn

I went to see them for myself earlier today. They had attracted some random graffiti already, but the jerseys are still very moving in person. Even viewed as graphics in a web browser though the they’re terribly effective at communicating the overwhelming sadness of their stories. Their bright, playful colors evoke the vibrancy of pro sports, as intended, but when you focus in on the numbers and stars, they evoke with great power the deep, harrowing loss that each victim’s families, friends and community experienced.

Photos of “Unarmed” Jerseys on Flatbush Avenue
Close-up Photo of “Unarmed: George Floyd” Jersey on Flatbush Avenue

Rivero is clear that he has no interest in profiting from these designs or these senseless deaths. Still, I asked him if he planned to fabricate and sell real jerseys for charity. He said he had no firm plans to do so, but he did have one made in honor of Eric Garner as wardrobe in his independently produced film “72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story.” (That film is excellent, by the way.)

“Unarmed” Jersey in “72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story” by Raafi Rivero

Here is a closer look at two of the designs: one for George Floyd and one for Breonna Taylor.

“Unarmed: George Floyd” by Raafi Rivero
“Unarmed: Breonna Taylor” by Raafi Rivero

See more designs from the project at unarmed.co.

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On Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter CSS Tee-shirt

1.

This tee-shirt, which nods to the tech, design and art communities, was designed by James T. Green, a friend and producer on our last season of “Wireframe.” When you buy it, all proceeds go to organizations working to fight structural racism. Get it at jamestgreen.com.

2.

I have only this tiny corner of the Internet that I can call my own, and generally no one expects me to weigh in on the issues of the day beyond the narrow scope of design, tech and movies. But for the past few weeks I’ve felt a need and a responsibility to write something about the horrific murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of protest that’s followed.

Watching video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis sickened me to my core. But it didn’t really surprise me. And neither did the many, many other similar videos of police brutality that preceded it, going all the way back to the beating of Rodney King in 1991, which happened to take place while I was going to school in Los Angeles. Nor was I really surprised by the many, many videos of police officers brazenly using excessive force on protesters in the wake of Floyd’s death.

America is deeply racist. I’ve known this since I was a kid. We all know this, every one of us, even if we don’t all admit it.

And even if we do believe this, the trick of it all is that we’re not always aware of or willing to acknowledge the depths of this racism, even when we’re looking right at it. There is an indistinct but unmistakably expansive gray area in which even those of us who feel that we are deeply supportive of anti-racist policies, laws and individual conduct can still reside, buffered from the injustice that others cannot avoid. This nether zone not only shields us from perceiving the full extent of racism but it also dampens any urgency we may feel to do anything substantive about it.

The fact of the matter is that for many of us, it’s convenient to ignore the racist aspects of our society. It’s imperative, even. Because unless we ignore it we’ll have to do something about it. We’d need to either accept it, which means accepting our own hypocrisy. Or we’d need to actually take action, which means we’d have to challenge or even relinquish many of the privileges that are granted to us by virtue of the color of our skin or our willingness to look the other way.

It’s a deeply wicked bargain, one way or the other. And I’ve made this bargain myself, if I’m honest. As an Asian-American, I’ve been a victim of racism, but to nowhere near the extent that African Americans are routinely victimized. And I’ve also been complicit in racism’s perpetuation by dint of the fact that I’ve done virtually nothing about it. I’ve been complicit in racism in that I’ve done very little to effect change in a system that benefits me but disadvantages and brutalizes others.

3.

One thing I’ve come to accept since 2016 is that fear, hatred and racism are among the most powerful forces on earth. This has really always been true throughout human history, but in American society we tend to focus only on a handful of their most strident expressions. And even then, we really only consider with any depth our finest moments, those historical events when we’ve been able to marshal truly potent responses: the Civil War, the Second World War, the Civil Rights Movement.

But I’ve also come to understand that the real menace of fear, hatred and racism lies not just in these flash points of history, when the contrast between freedom and tyranny are most stark. The real menace is in how infinitely adaptable and resilient these forces are.

Even after they’ve been put down, disbanded or made to heel, they find a way. They discard their censured hallmarks, whether it’s chains, swastikas or segregation laws. And then they change—evolve—into new, more subtle ways of exerting their influence: mass incarceration, “broken windows” and “stop and frisk” policing, methodical dismantling of social and economic safety nets. These methods come into focus slowly, sporadically, in fits and starts from disparate corners, and with little notice or scant examination. They co-opt progressive ideals and insert themselves into virtuous agendas, and they assert themselves in popular culture and common language. Their inflection point, the moment when they’ve succeeded, is the moment when society at large accepts them as policies, as laws, as common sense, as pragmatism—while assuming that these methods apply to “other people.”

This moment in time, George Floyd’s moment, Breonna Taylor’s moment, Ahmaud Arbery’s moment, is ripe with potential, and we must act on it, must transform it from mass protests to structural change. But our challenge is also that we must also renew our vigilance and our ability to understand how fear, hatred and racism will adapt and change yet again. Because they will.

4.

It feels distasteful to me to salvage any kind of a silver lining from the horror of George Floyd’s death, but I am grateful for the way that public support for Black Lives Matter and for systemic change in policing has surged over just a handful of weeks. That’s reason for hope.

I’m also grateful for the clarifying light that these events have thrown on own my understanding, and humbled by the realization of how much I need to do to live up to the principles that I endeavor to pass along to my children. Particularly the idea that we cannot right the world simply by not doing wrong—we must do right, too, and particularly we must do right by those who have been perpetually wronged. Especially when their lives are being unjustly and viciously sacrificed by a brutal system.

I’m grateful for the understanding of how much work I really need to do. How much I need to learn, how much I need to ask, how much I need to listen, how much I need to speak up, how much I need to read, how much I need to expect of myself and of my family and my friends, how much I need to give, how much I need to change anything I can possibly change.

But it really shouldn’t have taken the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more for all of us, for me, to get this clarity. I’ve been looking away for far too long, and now that it finally has my attention, I can never look away again.

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Interview with Scott Berkun, Author of “How Design Makes the World”

Cover for “How Design Makes the World”

If you care about design, I would posit that the most pressing evolutionary challenge it faces is not design systems or design-to-code or even accessible design, as worthwhile as perfecting those pursuits might be. Rather, the single most consequential barrier to design’s next level of success is simply explaining itself to society at large.

What is design? And how does it work? Answer those questions in clear, relatable language and the world suddenly becomes a very different place in which to practice our craft.

Writer and design thinker Scott Berkun’s new book “How Design Makes the World” does a shockingly good job of doing just that. In twenty crisply written chapters across just over two-hundred pages, Berkun breaks down the mechanics of design and demonstrates its ubiquity and importance to nearly every aspect of life. It’s a cogent, incredibly illuminating antidote to the fog and mystery that has shrouded the practice of design for practically its entire history.

When I was lucky enough to read it in galleys prior to its publication, I felt a curious mixture of joy and professional jealousy. On the one hand, “How Design Makes the World” is an instant classic that every designer will want to read and own for themselves —as well as, probably, to gift copies to the clients and stakeholders they work with. And on the other hand, having been intensely interested myself for a long time in this idea of making design more understandable, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I’d written this book.” Berkun has done a wonderful service in writing this, not just to the world of design, but to the world at large. He was kind enough to agree to discuss the book with me in an interview that we conducted over email.

Khoi Vinh: First, tell me about this title. It doesn’t lack for ambition. What is the message you’re trying to send, and how did you settle on it?

Scott Berkun: To the depression of many designers, the good work we do goes largely unnoticed. This should change! The world has so many problems today that would be easier to solve if people benefited from the knowledge designers have. But designers aren’t great at inviting people in and warmly teaching them to see. The title was the clearest way to establish the stakes—design affects everything—but make it inviting and welcoming.

So is the title—and the book—intended more for an audience of designers? Or others?

It’s intended for both in a clever way. It’s designed around powerful stories, so no jargon or background is needed. Executives, programmers and just about anyone is welcomed in to learn. For designers it gives a fresh set of stories to share and better tactics for teaching others, while giving them new hope and inspiration about why what they do is so important.

What made you realize that you needed to write this book?

I studied design in college but my career was mostly as a general project leader, a decision maker who had to bring everyone together. I’ve spent most of my life in the middle, translating between executives, engineers, marketers and designers, and designers usually have the low ground in organizations. Every designer has to teach their coworkers themselves, and start over with new teams and projects. It’s tiring. We have good books on our shelves, but they weren’t designed to solve this. I was well suited for this task and no one else had done it.

I’ve felt that exhaustion of having to explain the fundamentals of design, over and over, myself. Why do you think that even with design’s profile being higher than ever, we still struggle to define exactly what it is to the uninitiated?

One part is the high profile of design isn’t uniform. A few companies are clearly design-driven, and they get talked about often at design conferences, but most teams at most companies are not led with design as a strategy. It’s a tougher landscape. A second part is many designers don’t like or don’t want to be ambassadors. They just want to “design” and see pioneering as an unrewarding chore, which is okay—but then who is going to make it better now and for the next generation? Third, there aren’t many tools that help. Most design books, courses and movies are made for designers, not for everyone else. Fourth, there’s a lot of fear among some designers that if they teach too much, they’ll be out of a job. Many designers want to be better respected and understood but feel it’s beneath them or dangerous to make design less mysterious and invest in changing things.

That last part especially resonates with me. I’ve come to believe that, consciously or subconsciously, many designers are actually invested in people not understanding the craft. How deep do you think this runs?

It’s as deep as it can get. Many designers have been picked on and disrespected, sometimes even in design school! Some were art kids who didn’t fit in. They know that creativity is personally important, but they also know that most people, including possibly their parents, do not understand it or respect it. They’ve seen design trivialized generally by culture. Psychologically that weighs on how any person sees their profession. The fear is that if their boss or coworker learns a tiny bit, they’ll think “I’m a designer now” and they’ll get fired. There’s safety in quietly doing a job and not revealing too much, so “the secret magic” remains theirs. Of course it’s usually the opposite: teach someone the first taste of a skill and they get new eyes—suddenly they see how much they don’t know. But that requires confidence in how your profession is perceived. That’s definitely a common thread in design culture: a conflict between ambition and fear. They want good design to be popular and respected, including their own work, but fear doing the things required to make that happen.

I wonder if you think stakeholders or clients, especially, are also complicit in this? I’ve always had the impression that a certain class of client—often very high in the pecking order—want to hire designers who can dazzle them, or their board of directors, with design mystery or theatrics.

I’m fascinated by how most people think of creative work as high excitement, as their experience with it is mostly from TV and movies. Every pitch meeting on shows like “Mad Men” is just three minutes long, with an orchestrated soundtrack and Emmy-worthy dialogue performed by actors with off the charts charisma. It’s no wonder stakeholders and clients tend to want magic. They have no other conception of what it’s supposed to feel like to have discussions about ideas. So I agree they are complicit, but often from ignorance.

On one side, getting clients is sales work and dazzling people can help sell. And early in a project an inspiring (but unrealistic) prototype can get a team excited. Hard to argue against that. But when it’s deceptive or defeats the clients own goals, it breaks the golden rule. It’s up to the professional, the designer in our case, to show there’s a better way to think about what good is. This is similar perhaps to how a doctor would advise a patient that they don’t need an MRI for a paper cut. Since design will never be at the center of culture (but we can get much closer!), how good we are at explaining it and being ambassadors is critical. But it takes skill to do this without adding friction and if you’re struggling to pay bills and your clients demand magic shows, it’s hard to resist for long. Yet if we all do this, the status quo remains.

Okay so it sounds like it’s safe to say that there are some serious myths or misconceptions that you’re out to dismantle. Can you describe how your book tries to do that?

There are two big ones I take on directly in the book. One: that design is hard to explain. It’s not! The trap is trying to teach it with theory and posturing (“I want you to learn… to be impressed by what I know!”), a trap many experts fall into. But we know people’s brains learn best from stories. How did UI design make the Notre Dame Cathedral fire worse? That’s a story. Why did a city rotate half of its streets forty-five degrees so driving is confusing and dangerous? That’s a story too. The book is a series of well-crafted stories, each unpacked in entertaining ways using concepts from design to explain why these good or bad things have happened to all of us. It does the heavy lifting designers need to do with their co-workers and communities (and often for the designers themselves, who can use a refreshed view on what they do and why).

Two: that design is just the trivial surface of things. Most people think of design as a layer on top, the final paint color or style (which is often harder and more powerful than people think). But design goes all the way down. Why is the border between India and Pakistan where it is, and often in conflict? Someone designed it. Why is the nearest bus stop one block or fifty blocks from where you live? Someone designed that too. Why does a McDonald’s cheeseburger have three buns? And where’d that “special sauce” come from? Again, it was designed! The book’s stories come from a wide variety of places (by design!) to connects how the challenges of say mobile app design shares a lineage with hundreds of other kinds of design work, and seeing it that way changes how you we the world and what we can do in it.

The breadth of the stories in the book is impressive, both in variety and also in demonstrating how design is really just everywhere.

Glad you feel that way!

Are these stories that you’ve collected over the years, or did you start with specific principles you wanted to examine and then came to find the stories through research?

I’m obsessed with these kinds of stories and have been studying them since college. I’m just fascinated by how everything works (or doesn’t!). But once I have a rough outline of what a book is supposed to do for the reader, I start looking at the news and anything I read more carefully. I become a design investigator. I’ll dig up obscure books that often have fresh takes and examples (popular books often sing the same notes). I don’t respect category boundaries: many great design stories come from engineering or business or history writing. I do lots of research and then in early drafts the game is figuring out which stories can fit where, if it all. And then in later drafts it’s how it all fits together. It’s a design process, really. And some great stories I hoped to use just don’t fit, much like a designer discovers some of their best ideas need to get cut to make space for the other ideas to shine.

Which of the stories that did make it into the book do you think are the most surprising or most instructive?

It’s staggering to think that much of the Notre Dame Cathedral burned to the ground because of a basic usability problem any junior design student could have solved. That shock wakes readers up, which is why it’s early in the book. And the irony that something built well enough more than six hundred years ago to still be here was decimated by a design flaw created here and now in our proud era of high technology. That contrast makes clear design is indeed everywhere, both the good and the bad. Had a couple of more people known design basics so many terrible things that happened would have been wonderful things instead. I’d really like to help change that.

That one is a real eye opener, for sure, and so heartbreaking. What strikes me about that story is that as it was reported, and it was reported extensively, design barely got a mention. In fact, for most of these stories, design is really a secondary narrative, hidden in the background. It’s almost as if as a culture, or maybe as a species, humans can’t see design, even when it’s hiding in plain sight—or even when it produces tragic outcomes like the fire at Notre Dame. Would you agree?

I feel that way but I’m not sure of the cause. Some of the challenge is that news itself is designed! And as an industry they’ve been so decimated for the last 20 years it’s hard to even calculate how their reduced ability to investigate and explain things has impacted us. They do involve design experts when it’s something like the butterfly ballot, or the Boeing 737 MAX, but that’s only if the journalist thinks to ask one and has a basic notion of how design isn’t only aesthetics or interior design but is integral to everything. There’s just not enough design literacy yet in the people who write the news.

One self-inflicted trap is that good designers strive for their work to become invisible. Even now I’m not thinking about the design of the keyboard I’m typing on, the screen I’m looking at or the email software I’m using (okay, well now I am, but you get my point) and I wrote a book on why we should notice everything!

I wonder if when we shifted into consumer culture, where fewer people make things, it’s easier to imagine that phones and cars just fall from the sky in finished form. We’re exposed to far less of the process of how everything, from food, to technology, to laws, are made. I’m hopeful though: we are naturally curious creatures. All it takes is the right spark, or story or question and people’s sense of wonder rises.

How much are you actually trying to stoke that sense of wonder, to get more people interested in design, with this book?

As much as possible! But I wrote the book with professional designers in mind too—many of us have become jaded, tired of trying to explain it with the same old stories. I wanted to give us a fresh way to think about what we do and the profound possibilities of a society that was more design literate.

So can you imagine a future where design is much better understood, much more present in our everyday thinking as a society? And, aside from the key role that this book might play, what is necessary for us to get there?

I can! In a way I’ve seen it. In 1994 I couldn’t get a job doing interaction design (what we now call UX design). A career doing it didn’t exist. I’d never have imagined then how well accepted and understood the role of design would become in the tech world. Not even close. But we know there’s a long way to go. We just need to make it an inspiring mission and give more designers the skills and tools to show the way and celebrate the people who’ve done it and are doing it now. And for that reason and more thanks for what you do and for taking the time to interview me here.

How Design Makes the World” is out now. You can buy it in every format at designmtw.com, or in Kindle and paperback at Amazon.

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My 2019 Movie Diary, Finally

My 2019 Movie Diary (Finally)

It’s the weekend so I’m sneaking in an incredibly tardy housekeeping post here: a full wrap-up of my movie watching from 2019. Like my monthly roundups, I’ve been doing this for the past several years as a way of assessing what I’ve seen—usually not five months after the year has wrapped, but better late than never.

The way it works is: every time I watch a movie, I log it in my Letterboxd film diary. Then, at the beginning of each month (more or less), I post a recap of what I watched the previous month. After the year is over, I put all of the roundups together in a single post, along with a top ten list.

Currently, in May of 2020, I’m in the middle of my fifth year of doing this, which is nuts. In my first year, 2016, I watched a total of 189 movies. In 2017, I watched 191 movies. In 2018 I watched 201. And last year, I watched 219. (You can see Letterboxd’s automatically generated overview of my year here.)

Top Ten

One of the benefits of posting this so late in the following year is that I had the time to actually watch more of the previous year’s films than I normally do. As a result this list of my favorites looks slightly different now than it would have looked back in January, say. Reassessing the year now I realize that only the first five or so feel absolutely essential to me. The rest are worthwhile for sure, but I’m less passionate about them than I was about the lower spots on previous years’ lists. This actually seems like a fairly accurate reflection of the fact that most of 2019, at least leading up to the traditional, late-year awards season, was a terrible time for movies.

See my full ranking here.

  1. Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” (2019) ★★★★
    A more expansive, complete idea of what a movie can be than anything else released in 2019.
  2. Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★
    I almost don’t even care about the political morality tale at its heart because every beat feels like pure entertainment.
  3. Uncut Gems” (2019) ★★★★
    Breathlessly alive like few other movies in recent memory.
  4. 1917” (2019) ★★★★
    Largely a technical accomplishment but I really did feel something when I watched it.
  5. The Wedding Guest” (2019) ★★★★
    Your mileage may vary on this one but it’s the sort of brainy, anti-thriller that I find irresistible, plus it’s a showcase for its two incredible vibrant South Asian leads.
  6. High Flying Bird” (2019) ★★★★
    Puts huge demands on the viewer to keep up.
  7. The Souvenir” (2019) ★★★★
    Fully believable descent into the the helplessness of loving someone bent on self-destruction.
  8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019) ★★★★
    An amazing performance from Tom Hanks and an incredibly judicious narrative exploration of what it takes to be good.
  9. Parasite” (2019) ★★★½
    I really was blown away by this movie but I just couldn’t work up any passion for the final act and how it undermined everything that preceded it.
  10. Marriage Story” (2019) ★★★½
    Too well-directed and emotionally honest to be denied, even if it’s irritatingly fixated on privileged living.

January 2019

  1. Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) ★½
    When are we all going to admit that we’ve dragged this “Star Wars” thing out way too long now?
  2. If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) ★★★★½
    A beautiful and brutal achievement.
  3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (2001) ★★½
    It’s hard to believe how dated this looks already.
  4. Free Solo” (2018) ★★★
    A monument to stupidity.
  5. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) ★★
    Chris Columbus was the wrong director to kick off this franchise.
  6. Roma” (2018) ★★★★½
    Intimacy on a huge scale.
  7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) ★★★
    Wait, maybe this is going to be fun after all?
  8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005) ★½
    I guess not.
  9. The LEGO Ninjago Movie” (2017) ★★★
    Confirmed: I’ll watch anything that Phil Lord and Chris Miller are involved in.
  10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007) ★★
    I have no idea what even happened in this one.
  11. Shirkers” (2018) ★★½
    I try not to watch documentaries. This is why.
  12. Die Hard” (1988) ★★★★
    A stone cold classic.
  13. The LEGO Movie” (2014) ★★★
    Still good, but not really all that magical on rewatch.
  14. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009) ★★½
    Something important happened in this movie, I’m sure.
  15. How to Train Your Dragon 2” (2014) ★★★
    Apparently our current decade’s films are obsessed with the idea of mother figures being banished to purgatory.
  16. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (2010) ★★½
    What this franchise needed but never got was a creative team more interested in making good movies than in adapting the books.

February 2019

  1. The Oath” (2018) ★★★★
    Terrific and hilarious, even if it goes off the rails a bit.
  2. Peter Rabbit” (2018) ★★½
    Exceeded my very low expectations—by a little.
  3. Mission: Impossible–Fallout” (2018) ★★★★½
    Rewatchable AF.
  4. Christine” (2016) ★★★★
    Never loses its nerve. Superb.
  5. Man from Reno” (2015) ★★★★
    Excellent, but it’s hard to believe this movie exists. Who would finance an American movie with so few white people?!
  6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (2011) ★★½
    I made it all the way through to the end.
  7. Upgrade” (2018) ★½
    More of an update to the idea of a schlocky exploitation flick.
  8. Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) ★★★
    Inspired.
  9. Call Me by Your Name” (2017) ★★
    Preposterous and boring.
  10. For Your Eyes Only” (1981) ★
    Man this was painful to sit through.
  11. Lady Snowblood” (1973) ★★★½
    Still strikingly beautiful, but felt even more substantial than the first time I watched it.
  12. A Simple Favor” (2018) ★★
    A bit of a shambles, but it all could’ve worked with a better director than Paul Feig.
  13. Spellbound” (1945) ★★★
    What “The Net” was to the Internet, this movie was to psychoanalysis.
  14. Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997) ★★
    I feel bad for Pierce Brosnan; he tried so hard, but the producers never gave him anything to work with.
  15. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” (2019) ★★½
    Totally fine!
  16. Hail, Caesar!” (2016) ★★★½
    You know the term “inside baseball”? This is “inside Hollywood,” but, like, old. I mean, I enjoyed every minute of it. Rewatched.
  17. Okko’s Inn” (2018) ★★
    Little more than an excuse for gorgeous hand-drawn animation.
  18. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” (2019) ★★★½
    It got me in the end, I must admit.
  19. Notorious” (1946) ★★★★★
    One of those rare films where everything went exactly right.

March 2019

  1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975) ★★★★
    Utter genius.
  2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” (2009) ★★★
    Seriously, sign me up for anything Lord and Miller work on.
  3. Leave No Trace” (2018) ★★★★½
    Incredible. Makes other indie movies look like parodies of themselves.
  4. Life of Brian” (1979) ★★★
    Genius sometimes suffers from its own ambition.
  5. The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” (2017) ★
    The title says it all.
  6. Captain Marvel” (2019) ★★
    Sloppy and uninspiring in every way.
  7. Home” (2015) ★★½
    Rewatched. Terrible title for an adorable tale.
  8. Dilili in Paris” (2018) ★½
    Not my style.
  9. Burn After Reading” (2008) ★★★★
    Superb genre exercise in a genre—bureaucratic black comedy—that no one really thought existed.
  10. Strangers on a Train” (1951) ★★★★
    Basically just Hitchcock indulging his less perverse perversions.
  11. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” (2019) ★★
    Documentaries are so frustrating.
  12. Triple Frontier” (2019) ★★★
    Slightly better than your average manly movie.
  13. The Revenant” (2015) ★★★
    I kind of hated it except it’s so good.
  14. A View to a Kill” (1985) ★
    The pits.
  15. The Sisters Brothers” (2018) ★★½
    Never manages to feel bigger than its meager budget.
  16. The Muppets” (2011) ★★½
    Rewatched. It’s not without its charms, but it’s not really The Muppets, either.
  17. The Savages” (2007) ★★★½
    Pretty decent for a story most people wouldn’t want to watch.
  18. The Handmaiden” (2016) ★★★★★
    Like watching a master origamist folding a beautiful, complex sculpture.

April 2019

  1. The Square” (2017) ★★★½
    A fascinating mess.
  2. The Muppet Movie” (1979) ★★★★
    A real gem, but…
  3. The Great Muppet Caper” (1981) ★★★★½
    …For my money, this is the best Muppet movie.
  4. So Dark the Night” (1946) ★½
    Beautifully photographed but empty-headed.
  5. Muppets Most Wanted” (2014) ★★
    Actually has the right kind of energy, but runs too long on too few original ideas.
  6. Youth of the Beast” (1963) ★★★½
    Violent, angst-driven, stylized yakuza fairy tale.
  7. High Flying Bird” (2019) ★★★★
    Feels stridently out of step with Hollywood in the best way.
  8. Solaris” (1972) ★★★
    Fully engrossing, very, very serious sci-fi classic that’s also unintentionally absurd, if truth be told.
  9. Last Hurrah for Chivalry” (1979) ★★½
    An early work from director John Woo that’s as over-the-top and homoerotic as you’d expect.
  10. Suede: The Insatiable Ones” (2018) ★★★
    More than decent rockumentary.
  11. Interstellar” (2014) ★★★★
    Really flawed, but also really thrilling.
  12. Shazam!” (2019) ★★½
    Captain Meh-vel.
  13. Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) ★★½
    Probably the best super-hero movie of the Marvel age of cinema.
  14. Solaris” (2002) ★★★½
    Re-watched this after seeing the original, and I was surprised by how well it compares.
  15. The Wife” (2017) ★★
    Terrible. Truly terrible.
  16. Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) ★★½
    Re-watched it, didn’t like it any better the first time around.
  17. Avengers: Endgame” (2019) ★★½
    A triumph of lowered expectations on a mass scale. That means I thought it was crap. Read my review.

May 2019

  1. John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” (2018) ★★★½
    Genius comic brain in a Young Spalding Gray body.
  2. My Name Is Julia Ross” (1945) ★★½
    Proto-gaslighting.
  3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) ★★★★
    Rewatched, eagerly.
  4. The Lineup” (1958) ★★★★
    Vicious little noir B-movie
  5. Unsane” (2018) ★★★½
    Soderbergh working it out.
  6. Drive a Crooked Road” (1954) ★★★★
    Formulaic even for noir, but executed with extraordinarily care.
  7. The Matrix” (1999) ★★★½
    I used to think I’d never get tired of rewatching this, but that’s no longer true, turns out.
  8. The World’s End” (2013) ★★½
    Rewatched. Edgar Wright just can’t get out of his own way.
  9. Spy Kids” (2001) ★½
    Oof.
  10. The Grinch” (2018) ★★½
    Rewatched. Quite sweet and pretty well done.
  11. Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. A sustained series of miracles captured on camera.
  12. John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum” (2019) ★★
    Too much.
  13. Girlfriends” (1978) ★★★½
    A lovely time capsule of singlehood in pre-Giuliani New York.
  14. Kaleidoscope” (1966) ★★
    I watched this on TV as a kid! It seemed better then.
  15. Being There” (1979) ★★★★
    Sadly prescient.
  16. Ronin” (1998) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Holds up very well.
  17. Starman” (1984) ★★
    What if E.T. were handsome? And boring.
  18. All the President’s Men” (1976) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. I could listen to just the sound effects endlessly.
  19. Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance” (1974) ★★
    Kind of pointless.
  20. Three Outlaw Samurai” (1964) ★★★½
    If you like samurai films, you’ll like this.
  21. Pokémon Detective Pikachu” (2019) ★★
    The name says it all.
  22. Ant-Man” (2015) ★★★
    Rewatched. The best movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  23. Stuart Little” (1999) ★
    Bizarre.
  24. Entertainment” (2015) ★★★
    Horrific.
  25. The Lives of Others” (2006) ★★★
    Rewatched. Labored but effective.

June 2019

  1. Always Be My Maybe” (2019) ★★★½
    Keanu’s cameo got the most attention, and it’s not even the best part!
  2. The Sting” (1973) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. An almost perfect little fairy tale of the confidence game.
  3. The Kentucky Fried Movie” (1977) ★★
    Teeming with ideas, not all of them great.
  4. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007) ★★★
    Rewatched. It nails the rock biopic genre, but doesn’t do much more than that.
  5. Bumblebee” (2018) ★★½
    A good Transformers movie is still only as good as a Transformers movie.
  6. Network” (1976) ★★★
    Rewatched. Prescient but really only resonant for an age without YouTube.
  7. Booksmart” (2019) ★★
    I’ve already said enough.
  8. The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019) ★★★★
    One of the most beautiful things ever to come out of that city.
  9. Benji” (2018) ★½
    These people think kids will watch anything.
  10. Heat” (1995) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Action cinema as romantic poetry.
  11. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance” (1972) ★★★
    Genre fluff.
  12. Miami Vice” (2006) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. After I finished it I immediately wanted to watch it again.

July 2019

  1. Under the Silver Lake” (2018) ★★½
    A lot of promise for too little payoff.
  2. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (2018) ★★
    Gus Van Sant seems bored.
  3. Spider-Man: Far from Home” (2019) ★½
    Spectacularly uninteresting.
  4. Miami Vice” (2006) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. I know people think this looks like a cheesy adaptation of a cheesy TV show, but this movie is genius.
  5. Phoenix” (2014) ★★★½
    Pretty ridiculous if a bit implausible World War II fairy tale, with an amazing ending.
  6. Amazon Women on the Moon” (1987) ★½
    Baby boomers break bad.
  7. The Big Doll House” (1971) ★★
    Exploitation perfected, but I don’t need to see it again.
  8. Public Enemies” (2009) ★★★
    A noble experiment, but it doesn’t hold up on rewatch.
  9. Kill!” (1968) ★★
    passable samurai fable.
  10. The Kid Who Would Be King” (2019) ★½
    Hard to believe this guy made “Attack the Block.”
  11. Jules and Jim” (1962) ★★★
    Great and all I guess, but good advice for Truffaut would’ve been “Show, don’t tell.”
  12. The Gay Divorcee” (1934) ★★★★
    Fred and Ginger dancing to “Night and Day” with the moonlit beach in the background is so beautiful I nearly cried.
  13. Ratatouille” (2007) ★★★½
    Rewatched. If only Brad Bird didn’t hate critics so much, this would’ve been perfect.
  14. Miami Vice” (2006) ★★★★½
    Rewatched again, third time in a month!
  15. The Equalizer 2” (2018) ★★
    Kind of amazing this movie ever got made. Because it really didn’t need to be.
  16. A Vigilante” (2018) ★½
    Conspicuously tasteful, woke filmmaking at its absolute worst.
  17. Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) ★★★½
    Classy AF.
  18. Top Hat” (1935) ★★★
    I totally get why people fell for Rogers and Astaire.
  19. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005) ★★★★
    Rewatched. “May contain nuts”!
  20. Collateral” (2004) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Didn’t expect this to hold up, but it really does.
  21. Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” (2019) ★★★★
    Let me know if you’re free to go see this.

August 2019

  1. Iron Man” (2008) ★★
    Rewatched. Clear from the beginning: the real auteur in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the studio.
  2. Deadwood: The Movie” (2019) ★★★½
    Everyone wanted a reunion, so they got a reunion.
  3. Inglourious Basterds” (2009) ★★★★
    Tarantino at his least sophisticated, but still remarkable.
  4. Django Unchained” (2012) ★★★½
    Rewatched. A brilliant ride.
  5. Burning” (2018) ★★★★
    Exemplar of the post-Modern mystery.
  6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019) ★★★★
    Rewatched. This is what moviegoing should be all the time.
  7. The Hateful Eight” (2015) ★★★½
    Rewatched. How to stage a play for the cinema.
  8. sex, lies, and videotape” (1989) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Like a blueprint for independent cinema, and yet still so much less interesting than what Soderbergh would go on to do.
  9. The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) ★
    Intolerably boring.
  10. Wolf Children” (2012) ★★★★
    Anime that’s not overly impressed with its own wonder.
  11. Pulp Fiction” (1994) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Still a goddamn masterpiece.
  12. Funeral in Berlin” (1966) ★★★★
    A delightfully stylish working-class spy thriller.
  13. The Spy Who Dumped Me” (2018) ★
    Completely incompetent.
  14. Airplane!” (1980) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Still laughing.
  15. Mary and the Witch’s Flower” (2017) ★★½
    Fine.
  16. Jackie Brown” (1997) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. No one got a better showcase than Pam Grier did, and she made the most of it.
  17. The Lady Vanishes” (1938) ★★
    What a great title. What a boring movie.
  18. Reservoir Dogs” (1992) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Remains undimmed.
  19. Death Proof” (2007) ★★★½

September 2019

  1. Police Story” (1985) ★★½
    It’s hard to resist Jackie Chan, but this one is way too sloppy for my taste.
  2. Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018) ★★★½
    Could be a pretty decent trilogy in the making.
  3. High Life” (2018) ★½
    The production values of a 70s sci-fi TV show, the brains of an insufferable art student video.
  4. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005) ★★★½
    Off the wall bonkers from Park Chan-wook.
  5. Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. The thrills remain but the characters somehow work even better now.
  6. Stalag 17” (1953) ★★★½
    A prisoner of war movie as a cozy blanket.
  7. Widows” (2018) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A masterpiece hiding in plain sight.
  8. The Awful Truth” (1937) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Just confirming that this movie deserves its spot on my top five all time best list.
  9. Battle of Britain” (1969) ★★
    Sounds like homework, and pretty much is.
  10. The Circus” (1928) ★★★★
    Chaplin at his most effervescent.
  11. Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. This is the movie that convinced me Tarantino is a genius.
  12. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971) ★★
    Why people are sentimental about this movie, I have no idea..
  13. Between Two Ferns: The Movie” (2019) ★★
    You can’t make a conventional movie out of an unconventional show.
  14. Grand Illusion” (1937) ★★★★
    A prison break tale with unexpected humanity.
  15. American Psycho” (2000) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A black hole of humanity.
  16. Un Flic” (1972) ★★★
    Painstakingly made but tests the limit of macho posturing.

October 2019

  1. The Five Venoms” (1978) ★★
    Everybody really was Kung fu fighting.
  2. Robin Hood” (2018) ★½
    A bold reimagining of the classic folk tale as a terrible action movie made for idiots.
  3. Transit” (2018) ★★★
    Fantastic execution of a plot that doesn’t always bear scrutiny.
  4. Inside Out” (2015) ★★★★
    Rewatched. I got emotional.
  5. Wonder Woman” (2017) ★★★½
    Rewatched. A so-so movie elevated by two very charming leads.
  6. Joker” (2019) ★★★½
    A funny thing happened on the way to the box office.
  7. L’Eclisse” (1962) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Emptiness was never so beautiful.
  8. Ad Astra” (2019) ★★★
    For a movie about the vastness of space, it’s surprisingly narrow.
  9. Columbus” (2017) ★★★★
    A wonderful meditation on the spiritual power of Modernist architecture. Recommended.
  10. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” (2019) ★★★½
    Inessential except as an excuse to enjoy Vince Gilligan’s ingenious storytelling chops.
  11. Anna” (2019) ★
    Hard to believe, but this movie about a supermodel assassin is not very good.
  12. The Laundromat” (2019) ★★★★
    I’ll take this over “The Big Short” any day.
  13. Toy Story 2” (1999) ★★★
    Rewatched. They should’ve stopped here.
  14. I Knew Her Well” (1965) ★★★★
    Neo-realist gem that both celebrates and skewers post-War Italy.
  15. Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985) ★½
    Rewatched. They made this in the Eighties and it stank then too.
  16. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988) ★★½
    Rewatched. This one is special to me but it’s less zany than I remembered.

November 2019

  1. The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear” (1991) ★★★
    Rewatched. Not too bad actually.
  2. Shadow” (2018) ★★½
    Exquisitely made martial arts epic that’s devoid of feeling as to the point of grotesqueness.
  3. The Bourne Identity” (2002) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Never gets old.
  4. Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult” (1994) ★★★
    Rewatched. Surprisingly maybe the best one?
  5. The Irishman” (2019) ★★★
    Very distracting.
  6. The Hate U Give” (2018) ★★★
    Comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.
  7. Parasite” (2019) ★★★½
    So, so close to being perfect.
  8. Dolemite Is My Name” (2019) ★★★½
    Eddie Murphy pure charm elevates a by-the-numbers biopic.
  9. The Addams Family” (2019) ★
    Frighteningly boring.
  10. Mother” (2009) ★★★★
    So emotionally true it’s harrowing.
  11. The Killing” (1956) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. My favorite Kubrick work; a definitive text for every heist movie that followed.
  12. Ford v Ferrari” (2018) ★★★
    Perfectly fine but it’s easy to imagine what it could’ve been in the hands of a more distinctive directorial talent than James Mangold.
  13. Do the Right Thing” (1989) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Electrifyingly urgent, even thirty years later.
  14. Suspiria” (2018) ★½
    Shallow ideas dressed up with high class pretensions.
  15. Chris Claremont’s X-Men” (2018) ★★
    A look back to when comics grew up, before the rest of the world noticed.
  16. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969) ★★
    Rich people problems from the Sixties.

December 2019

  1. Okja” (2017) ★★½
    Very respectable until the English-speaking actors start acting.
  2. The Wolf’s Call” (2019) ★★★½
    A French “Hunt for Red October” and a solid dad movie.
  3. Rounders” (1998) ★★★★
    Rewatched. I didn’t realize how good this script was.
  4. Thirst” (2009) ★★
    There hasn’t been a truly decent vampire movie in decades.
  5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016) ★★★
    Rewatched. The only worthwhile installment since, well, “The Empire Strikes Back.”
  6. Harakiri” (1962) ★★★★★
    Starkly rendered, beautifully told samurai fable.
  7. He Ran All the Way” (1951) ★★½
    One of those noirs in which the characters are all dumb as a rock.
  8. Tokyo Story” (1953) ★★★★
    Searingly human tale of grown children and aging parents.
  9. Samurai Rebellion” (1967) ★★★★
    Anatomy of a moral tragedy.
  10. Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★
    One hundred percent pure entertainment.
  11. Marriage Story” (2019) ★★★½
    Impeccably directed but distractingly preoccupied with lives of privilege.
  12. Uncut Gems” (2019) ★★★★
    More successfully distortive than most fantasy movies, and also happens to finally solve the question of what to do with the Adam Sandler persona.
  13. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019) ★
    Intergalactic garbage.
  14. Klaus” (2019) ★★★
    Insofar as holiday specials go, not half bad.
  15. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx” (1972) ★★
    Episodic, not in a particularly beneficial way.
  16. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993) ★★½
    Decent ideas, substandard animation.
  17. The Wedding Guest” (2018) ★★★★
    An off kilter thriller set in South Asia. Not for everyone, but I adored it.
  18. A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) ★★★★½
    Rewatched with my kid for the first time. She was enchanted.
  19. Frozen II” (2019) ★★
    All of Disney’s number crunching and strategy decks pretty much worked this time.
  20. The Souvenir” (2019) ★★★★
    Absolutely nails its milieu.
  21. The Art of Self-Defense” (2019) ★★★
    In the proud tradition of indie absurdity.
  22. Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) ★★★
    A bit self-serious, but I enjoyed it.
  23. Abominable” (2019) ★½
    Aside from its transparent pitch for the Chinese market, this is a movie utterly lacking any specific qualities.
  24. School of Rock” (2004) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. A masterpiece.

If you want to keep up with what I watch this year, just follow me on letterboxd.com.

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Movies Watched, April 2020

Movie still from Corneliu Poromboiu’s “The Whistlers”

If you’re spending your pandemic working your way through the seemingly endless lists of movies and television recommendations for quarantine life, then I salute you. That has not been my experience. Instead, I’m barely keeping up—if I’m honest, I’m not keeping up—with all of my duties as an employee, parent, ersatz home schooler and, as our house falls apart, barely competent handyman.

Still, somehow I managed to watch thirteen movies last month, which is surprisingly not far off from my usual low of around sixteen or so. (I just went back and checked, and for some unaccountable reason, I watched only a dozen last June.) As I’ve said in the past, the way I’m fitting in all these viewings is by first, largely abstaining from television (which I largely gave up several years ago and without regrets), and second, by watching most of these movies in short snippets as brief as ten or fifteen minutes. It’s sort of like the best advice about getting enough exercise: you just gotta make the time.

Don’t tell my boss, but I’ve also taken to watching this stuff while I’m working. Midway through April it occurred to me that I could (occasionally) prop up my iPad next to and at about the same eye level as my monitor and rewatch a film with the sound turned all the way down—and no one would be the wiser. Foreign films, or at least films with subtitles, work best so I can get a sense of what’s happening, since I’m really only dipping back into the movie every five or ten minutes or so and only then for a few moments. It’s definitely not what you would call focused viewing (and I’m not counting movies I watch this way in lists like the one below) but I find it adds a little boost to my day, sort of the way looking at a painting can give you a shot of creative energy. Even catching short glimpses of a movie—even a movie I didn’t find particularly notable the first time around—is worthwhile, especially if I get to find a new appreciation for the way a given scene was shot, lit or edited. These are the little pleasures that make self quarantining more bearable.

Overall, though, April was not the most interesting month of movie viewing for me. Probably the most notable, new-ish films I saw were: Robert Eggers’s arthouse psycho-horror-drama “The Lighthouse,” which people raved about and I thought was fine (though not a great choice to lift one’s spirits during quarantining); and Corneliu Poromboiu’s overly conceptual policier “The Whistlers,” which was memorable mostly for lead actor Catrinel Marlon’s searing gaze. I also saw Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s slasher B-movie “Ready or Not,” which was amusing and unpretentious if not particularly brainy. None of these are essential viewing though.

Here is the full list of what I watched in April.

  1. Emma” (1996) ★★★
    I could watch another dozen remakes of this story.
  2. Tangled” (2010) ★★½
    Disney seems to think it can outsmart stereotypes by playing into them.
  3. The Lighthouse” (2019) ★★★½
    Sumptuously crafted but a disappointingly predictable rendering of lunacy.
  4. Based on a True Story” (2017) ★★
    Roman Polanski brings together two intensely watchable actresses, concocts a tantalizing conflict for them, and forgets to do anything with it all.
  5. Sons of the Desert” (1933) ★★★½
    The sheer delight of Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick genius, stretched to its narrative limits.
  6. Vendetta of a Samurai” (1952) ★★★★
    An unsparing indictment of the falsity of combat glory, wrapped inside a samurai flick.
  7. Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Had a ball again.
  8. Dogtooth” (2009) ★★★½
    Yorgos Lanthimos anticipates quarantine living.
  9. Parade” (1974) ★★★½
    Jacques Tati as ringmaster of a circus and the director of a movie about that circus…difficult to describe but delightful.
  10. Holes” (2003) ★★
    Watching this adaptation, I really felt like I was cheating myself by not reading the book.
  11. Ready or Not” (2019) ★★★
    A dumb slasher thriller but also a perfectly fine example of what movies are meant for.
  12. Mon Oncle” (1958) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Satirizing the tipping point of the 20th Century.
  13. The Whistlers” (2019) ★★½
    So conceptual it forgot to be original.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in March, in February, in January, in December, in November, in October, in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January and a full list of everything I watched in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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