The Work I'm Proudest Of In 2023
15 of my favorite pieces I wrote this year.
With us approaching the end of 2023, I thought it’d be great to do a rundown of my favorite pieces of writing from the year. As you might remember, I made writing more think pieces as one of my writing goals for this year. Did I succeed? Yes and no. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.
While a Twitter thread will accompany this rundown, here, I’ll be able to go into deeper detail into why these pieces mean so much to me. Some are here because I think they’re indicative of my progress as a writer, others are culminations of long gestating ideas, and more are about films I simply loved writing about.
Here are my favorite 15 pieces!
My year began with a boom writing a piece for the LA Times about the Academy’s snub of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s incredible epic The Woman King. Two months prior to the film’s shutout, I had pitched a piece to a couple outlets about a potential underperformance of Prince-Bythewood’s film. I wanted to use the prospective headwinds experienced by the epic to interrogate the persistent misogynoir the awards apparatus has shown toward Black women. But there wasn’t much interest in that kind of piece before the snub.
Fast forward to Sundance, when the Academy Award nominations were announced, and even I couldn’t have predicted The Woman King totally missing in every category. After I tweeted about the film’s snub, Matt Brennan of the LA Times reached out to me about writing a possible piece. Not only did I immediately accept his offer, I wrote the piece that day, in between Sundance screenings. It just flowed out, so to speak. I wrote exactly what I wanted to write within an hour, and there actually weren’t many edits (save for a keen reorganization of one paragraph by Matt). It was essentially published in the form I submitted it in. I’m not sure that will ever happen again!
Sometimes you pitch a piece; sometimes a piece is pitched to you. Last year, for IndieWire, I interviewed the great Bill Duke for the outlet’s 90s Week. Since that went so well, they reached out to me for their 80s week; they suggested I interview Charles Burnett about My Brother’s Wedding.
Initially, I didn’t know what my angle would be. I just knew that I loved the film, and had heard about the ways it was mangled by Mr. Burnett’s producers before being re-released a couple decades later. It took quite a bit to get Mr. Burnett on the phone. In fact, I spoke to him on the last possible day I could and still get the interview finished on time. He called me just as I was stepping out the door to go see Bruce Springsteen live at Wrigley. I spoke with Mr. Burnett for over an hour, and pulled this piece together within a couple of days. It came out better than I could have hoped, offering me a new appreciation for the film.
It’s fascinating how a film comes to your attention. When ear for eye first premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2021, I was so locked in the trauma of 2020, I barely had any bandwidth left. So debbie tucker green’s film flew way under my radar. I still hadn’t heard about the theatrical version of the stage play when it premiered on Criterion Channel. I didn’t learn about the film until Ashley Clark spoke about it. Luckily, the good folks at IndieWire, specifically Kate Erbland, allowed me to write about ear for eye.
Usually when I try too hard to land a piece, I make the mistake of leaning on purple prose, asking the words to do more work than they should. It’s a habit I’ve slipped into with more than a couple reviews that shall remain nameless. Here, however, I think prose exhibited the kind of forcefulness I was trying to conjure. I’m still bummed that ear for eye remains a supremely slept on film. Go watch it now.
It’s kinda wild how robust January was for me. Not only did I write the aforementioned LA Times piece, I also, a few days earlier, watched and reviewed what ended up being my favorite film of 2023: Raven Jackson’s sumptuous coming-of-age tale All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.
Because I got to see Jackson’s film prior to Sundance, I was afforded a rare opportunity: I got to craft my review. I worked on this review for a number of days, slowly adding and subtracting words, sentences, and observations, and smoothing out the rhythm. At first, I tried to match Jackson’s poeticism in my prose. But that felt like too tall of a task. Then I tried just to be short and sweet. But then I switched gears again; I wrote from the heart; I tapped into my memories of my dad and tried to match those emotions with Jackson’s film. I think it worked. This film remains so close to my heart. I can’t wait to see what Jackson will do next.
I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Barry Jenkins a few times: The first came about on behalf of RogerEbert (I spoke with him about The Underground Railroad), second happened in accordance with Telluride Film Festival, where Mr. Jenkins was guest director in 2021. This time around I was fortunate to speak with him about his debut feature Medicine For Melancholy being added to the Criterion Collection.
Mr. Jenkins is a dream interview; mostly because you never feel like you’re working to get an answer from him. You feel like no matter what he’ll guide even your worst question to a great response. To a point, the hardest part is merely pressing record. This conversation is my favorite of the three we’ve had. Mostly because I really like when a filmmaker reminisces about an earlier film in their life, one they captured at a different moment of not just their artistry, but also when they might have had a separate sense of their self. This interview really accomplished that desire.
This is another piece where I was approached by an editor; in this case, by OkayPlayer’s Elijah Watson. Now, normally, I don’t like writing up listicles. Mostly because, when done right, they take so much time. Even if I’ve seen a film a million times, if it’s for a piece, I’ll rewatch it again. Now imagine me doing that for twenty-four films. The draw of ranking Spike Lee’s works, however, was too great to turn down. Especially once I was told my rankings wouldn’t be restrained. That means I could really take risks and give love to his lesser-seen movies, such as Girl 6.
If you’re a consistent reader of my newsletter, you know that I produce a monthly action film streaming column for The New York Times. I think action films are so underrated; they’re rarely noticed for their deeper thematic resonance. When I watched Sisu at TIFF in 2022, I couldn’t shake it. Jalmari Helander crafts a deep, rich film, one that rises above being a gorefest. It combines a myriad of action tropes, pitched to a nationalistic story of the oppressed working to throw off the chains belonging to their oppressor. It was an additional treat to review this film for RogerEbert, which allowed me to go long on a film I’d normally have to sum up in blurb for my column.
In 2023, I was fortunate enough to attend Cannes for the first time through Unifrance’s Emerging Critics program. At the festival, I saw Jonathan Glazer’s singular Holocaust film The Zone of Interest. Once again, I treasure having the time to craft a review. I began writing this one as soon as I was on my flight returning back to Chicago. I didn’t, however, have the piece placed anywhere. Initially, I thought I’d pitch it as a think piece about the theme of sanitization in the film. I spent months slowly adding observations, because believe me, this film remained on my mind nearly everyday following the festival. But when Brian Tallerico asked me to write a review for RogerEbert, I shifted my efforts, late, to reuse portion of the piece the review. I also tried to connect Glazer’s film to the present unrest happening in Gaza. It was a high tightrope that required quite a bit of parsing to remain balanced with.
When I first watched Saltburn, I didn’t really consider writing about Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to Promising Young Woman. Saltburn is a handsome film, but not incredibly deep. It wasn’t until I thought about Fennell’s film not as a movie solely about striving, but as a passing narrative that I began to tease out the subject (credit due to Manuela Lazic, who first wrote about the film as a striver narrative). Usually, I don’t pitch a piece until I feel like I can pull it off. I need my handle of the subject to be 100%. Even if it’s 99.9% I won’t take it on. If only because the work required to make up that .1% is usually far too much to immediately overcome.
Though I felt confident that I could land this, it did take some happy accidents to push the subject. For one, a visit to Nitehawk, while I was visiting to New York, allowed me to watch René Clément’s Purple Noon. It also helped that I got to see Michael Boyce Gillespie, author of Film Blackness, while in the city too. Once I saw Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, the piece finally came together. It’s a reminder that sometimes a piece takes a few breaks to really come to fruition.
Every year I try to add a new outlet to the rotation of places I write for; mostly because I like working with different editors. With every editor’s style, you get a new sense of yourself. I especially like to choose my editors based on their strengths and what I perceive as my weaknesses.
Lately, I’ve been working to give my writing a leanness, to make it less wordy and more essential in its rhetoric. While at Cannes, I met Screen Daily’s Executive Editor Finn Halligan and a young writer she was working with. Through that writer I got a clear sense of the way Finn shapes writers and ideas, and I knew I absolutely needed to work with her.
I’ve only written a few reviews for Screen Daily, but my instincts were correct. I can see the change in my writing, approach, and observations. The last review I wrote for the outlet is the first peak in the changes I’ve implemented to my style; Pawo Choyning Dorji’s The Monk and the Gun—recently shortlisted for the Best International Film Oscar—was one of my favorite films out of TIFF. It was a treat to write about its allusions to Robert Altman and Anthony Mann.
As many you probably know, I love, love, love baseball. It was my dad’s favorite sport and it’s my most cherished past time. In fact, every year before the start of spring treaining I watch Ken Burns’ Baseball. My favorite episode in Burns’ series is “Shadow Ball,” a lookback at the stars of the Negro Leagues. In addition to baseball, I’m also a major admirer of Sam Pollard. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing him for the Guardian about his film Black Art: In the Absence of Light and conducted a Q&A with him at Virginia Film Festival for his film Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power. So him making a documentary about the Negro Leagues became the perfect marriage of two distinct interests.
For interviews, The New York Times sometimes does a five questions format. It’s a challenge. Every query must count, and it takes a bit more shaping to hit the prescribed word count. But I think Mr. Pollard and I covered quite a bit of terrain about his love of the sport and how this film fits into his desire to unearth the lesser-known figures of Black history.
I think one of the worst byproducts of social media comes from allowing writers to track exactly how many clicks their writing is getting on any specific platform. If you’re fortunate enough to write for a major outlet, for the most part, the clicks you get off Twitter are merely a dopamine rush. The clicks that do not happen are inconsequential.
For example, I wrote this article, an anniversary piece about Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta as a reverse migration narrative for The New York Times. The amount of people who clicked on it from my Twitter numbered less than three dozen. Now, logically, I know A LOT more people read it: If only because it was on the Times website and physically in the paper. My Twitter is miniscule compared to that. So why should I care if no one I can see clicked?
It’s why I’ve consistently said I write for myself, to explore myself, my curiosities and my biases. If I get to the end of a piece, and I feel like I was 100% honest with myself and the subject at hand, then I’m immediately proud of that work, whether people clicked on it or not. I’m especially proud of this. I initially pitched the piece as an interrogation of Southern-set films by Black women, but eventually got into exploring a topic I’ve been researching the entirety of this year: The reverse migration presently happening in many Northern, Black urban centers. This piece is also a culmination of what I’ve been working toward; a leanness of style and substance; an ability to speak about film in the context of art and politics; an ability to think personally while experiencing the topic intellectually. No one I know read it, except me. And I’m the only audience that matters.
I wrote quite a few think pieces for this Substack. As you can already tell, I love sports movies. I also adore The Last Dance. I don’t think any documentary this decade, next to O.J.: Made in America is as influential as that miniseries. How many documentaries now hand their subjects a tablet? Ben Affleck’s AIR, one of the many corporate origin stories from 2023, tells a slightly different story about the creation of the Air Jordan than The Last Dance. I found those differences fascinating, and explored them in this piece.
I’m not sure if The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was a direct influence for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, but the similarities, thematically and emotionally, between the two are striking.
I have written about Harrison Ford several times in the past for RogerEbert; He’s not only one of Hollywood’s great stars, but also one who is far more multifaceted than many assume. Working Girl might be, in my opinion, his best performance; he balances his leading man duties, with a scummy charm that finds greater runway when he uses his character actor talents. In Working Girl get both Ford as one of the great comedic actors (decades before Shrinking) and one of the steamiest, most adept dramatic actors alive.
Now that we’re entering a new year, my primary writing goal for 2024 is to continue writing essays and think pieces. I believe I’m happiest when I’m building an argument and getting to the core of my morals, politics, and desires through the art I’m watching. I already have one feature dropping at the beginning of 2024 about The Color Purple, which will kick off that journey. And I think my role as an editor for RogerEbert will equally help, as I look outside of my writing by reading other critics closely. Thank you for reading this Substack this year, and I hope you’ll continue with me through 2024.