The best books we read in 2020 (plus films, music, etc.)
By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 08, 2021
Happy New Year! It’s time for the annual article in which members of the Catholic Culture staff look back on their reading in the past year and recommend the best, some published in 2020 and some not. Actually, this list is not confined to reading only. You’ll get book recommendations from Jeff Mirus, Phil Lawler and Mike Aquilina; book and film recommendations from James T. Majewski; and book, essay, podcast, music and (way too many) film recommendations from Thomas V. Mirus. Enjoy!
The best books I read in 2020 were all new titles among the books I reviewed on CatholicCulture.org during the course of the year—with the exception of the last one, for which this survey will constitute my review. Apparently 2020 was a year in which I was most impressed by authors who increased my spiritual understanding and fueled my spiritual growth, though each in a different way and on a different level.
By far the most challenging book was Thomas B. Fowler’s Science, Faith and Scientists (full review), a major and fairly dense work. Fowler is something of a multidisciplinary genius, and his effortless mastery of the history of science; the nature of scientific questions and the means by which they must be answered; the philosophical distinctions which must be kept in mind when asserting what we do or do not know; and the various forms taken by our quest to understand “nature”—all these are so skillfully organized and tightly-woven that the persistent reader will gain a great deal from the effort to grasp the main points.
In the end, one understands a wide range of pitfalls that have afflicted scientists and the very concept of science down through the centuries, as well as the likelihood, in any given case, that a scientist’s Catholic faith will advance rather than retard his ability to grasp the truths set before him in the material world.
The most useful book “in the (Catholic) trenches” was a new edition of a short work by the great twentieth-century German theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, which he wrote very deliberately in the 1980s as A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen (full review). By the end of his long theological career in the last quarter of the twentieth century, von Balthasar was painfully aware that a great deal of the theological leaders in the Church and the academy had abandoned any real commitment to revealed truth, and were busy remaking Catholicism in their own modern secular cultural image.
For this reason, von Balthasar decided to write this small book precisely so that those who are unsettled by these developments, might “find for their inner vision of Christian truth at least an outline of a few written signs that they can show to their tempters”. Moreover, he wanted to make sure nobody would make the mistake of assuming “that the scientific theologian knows ‘more’ about the truths of faith than an upright Christian who seeks to live those truths day by day.”
The richest book sacramentally was without question Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s collection of homilies delivered to real participants on real sacramental occasions: Signs of New Life (full review). Consisting of an introductory and concluding homily which highlights the richness of the Church as a whole, this small and very accessible selection includes two homilies for each of the seven sacraments. With his customary sensitivity, wisdom and grace, Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) enables these congregations—and by extension his readers—to enter more deeply into the great mysteries of a lived sacramental life.
The strongest antidote to our contemporary technocratic man-in-the-machine “spiritualism” is a very accessible work written jointly by Scott Hahn and Emily Stimpson Chapman, entitled Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body (full review and podcast interview). We are living through a period in which, once again, the contemporary tendency is to discount the meaning of our bodies, considering them as mere pleasure tools which we can alter at will and discard when they become too much trouble.
In the Christian scheme, however, the body is important enough for Christ to have assumed a human nature, and it is through the body that we come to know ourselves and our dependence on God. Moreover, we hope for glorified bodies, integral to our identity, in heaven. Consequently, a proper respect and reverence for the body is paramount. In this light, the book also includes a valuable reflection on the question of cremation.
The sheer fun award for spiritually enriching books goes to Mike Aquilina’s delightful exploration of History’s Queen (full review). Subtitled “Exploring Mary’s Pivotal Role from Age to Age”, this entertaining account of Mary’s constant reappearance at the center of Catholic thought and action from the theological developments of the Patristic age through the civilization-shaking wars of the twentieth century.
Making countless connections through time, Aquilina demonstrates how Mary is not only active but embraced in the hearts and minds of her children in every major Catholic struggle and achievement throughout history. You can also enjoy Mike regularly in his Way of the Fathers podcast, and there is a great opportunity to hear Mike discuss Mary and his many other interests in episode 89 of The Catholic Culture Podcast, Mary and the Blues.
Finally, the most surprising spiritual reading for me was another one of those brilliant, tightly-written, small books which are so rare today, but which can change our lives: The Word Is Very Near You by Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, OCD. Fr. Stinissen was a Carmelite for 76 years before his death in 2013. He was sent to co-found a small contemplative community in Sweden in 1967, and has written a number of books. This one was first published in Swedish in 1997, and published in English in 2020 by Ignatius Press.
To put this review in personal terms, what I found so remarkable was that anyone could set forth in a supremely well-organized but highly personal manner, replete with superb examples, all that I had learned haphazardly in the course of a lifetime about rooting myself in Scripture—except more and better. With chapters on the essence of the Bible, the relationship of the Old and New Testaments, spiritual interpretation, how mystics interpret the Bible, praying with the Psalms, and reading the Bible regularly, Fr. Stinissen covers everything that we should go on to rediscover for ourselves by following his suggestions. But the truly astonishing thing is that he does so without writing anything like a “text book” or, worse, a dumbed down and banal “self help” book.
To the contrary, this book is Christ-driven, for it is Christ who is the primary subject of the scriptures, and Christ who, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, speak to us when we read, reflect and pray over the sacred text. The examples the author uses to show the richness of immersing ourselves in Scripture are varied enough to illuminate the matter for any reader, and his stated purpose—“to give some simple advice on how we can draw nearer to God’s Word and let it penetrate us in order that it will bear fruit in our lives”—is perfectly suited to a sacred duty which we can all find deeply refreshing once each one of us grasps that God’s Word is meant not only for the Church but personally, for me.
From that point on, through practice, we learn to recognize all the levels on which Scripture can be read and understood, and all the challenges and consolations we find there based on our own real needs, and of course the needs of the Church herself. Be assured that The Word Is Very Near You is firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition and the wisdom of the saints. This small-sized 140-page book is not like any “how to” manual you have ever seen. It is simply an unparalleled spiritual guide to the use of Scripture, and a significant spiritual experience in its own right. [Ignatius Press, paper, $12.71]
Jeff Mirus is the founder and head of Catholic Culture.
America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert Reilly, makes a compelling case that the Founding was not—as is now argued by some influential Catholic scholars—a flawed outgrowth of the Enlightenment. In fact, he shows, the Founders were guided by political principles that can be traced back to Christian roots.
Ralph Martin’s latest, A Church in Crisis, covers territory that will be familiar to Catholic Culture readers. Martin is a perceptive and reliable observer. Better, his proposed remedies are sensible—even inspiring.
Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fisher, is a fascinating story well told. Until reading this book I had not realized how close the American Revolution was to failure, how dramatically the tides of war shifted in just a few weeks, and how much the American troops endured. (BTW, the popular notion that the Hessians in Trenton were drunk is bunk.)
The Price of Panic, by Richards, Briggs, and Axe, supplies all the arguments you should need to persuade friends that the panic about Covid and the lockdown of society are more harmful than the disease itself.
For pure relaxation, I occasionally soak in one of Anthony Trollope’s novels. This winter it was The Small House at Allington. Trollope is not for the hurried reader. He never rushes, never misses an opportunity to expand on his observations, and—for someone in the mood to read for the pleasure of the prose—never disappoints.
And then, for a symposium I was leading last spring at Thomas More College, I reread Plato’s Republic. Aside from Sacred Scripture, no book does more—for me, at least—to inspire serious contemplation.
Phil Lawler is the founder of Catholic World News and writes commentary on current events for Catholic Culture.
In spite of all the inconveniences and frustrations and glooms and dooms of 2020, I’ll always remember this as the year at least some of my dreams came true. There are two books I’ve wanted to see in print since I read their contents in bits and pieces more than a quarter-century ago. The publication of both made this annus horribilis an annus mirabilis for me.
The first is Love Like a Conflagration, a collection of poems by Jane Greer. Like many readers of poetry, I discovered Greer’s work in the 1980s when she was editing Plains Poetry Journal. She drew media attention with her entertaining editorial manifesto, which called for a re-appropriation of traditional poetic forms and techniques. Today that’s not so shocking, but this was years before Dana Gioia’s broadside appeared as the cover story in The Atlantic—long before anyone started talking about a “New Formalism.” Greer’s own poems were models of what such a movement should produce. I clipped them when I found them and kept them in a file folder.
Then she vanished—just like that. Her own journal shut down. Her poems stopped appearing elsewhere. She had by then become my favorite living poet, so I grieved the loss and read and reread her early work, which never got old for me.
In 2009, on a whim, I tracked her down, and she told me she hadn’t written a line in years. She had put it aside when she became a mom, and that was that. I suggested she bring together a collection of her own poems, but she seemed uninterested.
Then somehow, nine years later later, her muse returned. Soon I began to see Jane Greer poems appearing in journals: Literary Matters, Modern Age, National Review, First Things. She began to put together a collection. (Full disclosure: I acquired the property for Lambing Press, which is run by my esteemed son.)
The book has earned praise from an impressive and diverse array of critics: Samuel Hazo, James Matthew Wilson, Anthony Esolen, Ryan Wilson, Annie Finch, Chad Pecknold, A.M. Juster, Jennifer Reeser, and Ryan Wilson.
But writing about poetry is like dancing about architecture. So I’ll stop. You should just read it.
Thin to a filament of fire and fall,
web of hot wire, down my dark veins,
o bundle me in my blackroot hollow.
What heat you lose, such heart I gain.
Such heart I gain, pale amber swallow,
kindles the bone where you coil and hiss.
Whose supple lover on a silk pillow
seizes the blood in a blaze like this?
Love Like a Conflagration appeared in April (National Poetry Month) alongside another excellent collection, Struck Dumb with Singing by LeighAnna Schesser, a young poet. Both authors are Catholic; their faith is evident in their work, and their work is a worthy expression of perceptions informed by a profound faith.
The second dream-book of 2020 is far different from the first. It’s a work of philosophy.
In 1988 I was twenty-four years old, and it was my pleasure to assist Michael D. Torre as he edited a collection of essays about Jacques Maritain. I mentioned to him at the time that I’d been looking for a good introduction to metaphysics, but was disappointed by what I’d found. He agreed with me. He was also dissatisfied with what was available in English. For his own classes at the University of San Francisco, he said, he had written his own text, and he was happy to share a copy—fresh from a dot-matrix printer and bound by a black plastic spiral. It was titled BEING AND GOD (all caps).
And it was exactly what I had been looking for. I begged him to send it off to publishers, an idea he thought was crazy.
Many years passed. I had children; and one of those children, in her teen years, took a keen interest in Edith Stein. She asked me if I could recommend a good introduction to metaphysics. So I contacted Dr. Torre, and asked if he had updated his book. Indeed he had, and within minutes he emailed me a PDF, which I passed along to my daughter. She loved it.
Once again I begged Dr. Torre to consider publishing the book. He was a little more open to the idea than he had been thirty years before, but said he’d want to do one more rewrite.
To my great surprise, he did. And the book appeared in 2020 as What Is: Introductory Reflections on Thomistic Metaphysics (Scepter Press).
It couldn’t have come at a better time. This year just about everybody needed to be reacquainted with the contours of reality. I can’t think of a better book for that purpose.
Michael Torre’s students describe him as a master teacher. Well, this text is the refinement of the master’s efforts, over the course of thirty years, to make Aquinas vividly clear to undergraduates who are still years away from the full formation of their frontal lobes.
Unlike just about every other book ever written on metaphysics, this one is lively. Its pages square with every description I’ve ever heard of Dr. Torre’s classroom style. My sources tell me that he is peripatetic and demonstrative. He’s willing to engage students exactly where he finds them—and then lead them where they need to go. He is an enthusiast for reason and argument, and in the book it shows. My estimate is that 15% of the sentences end in exclamation points.
The argument of the book, of course, leads to God. But it is addressed, in a friendly and respectful way, to readers who may or may not be open to God’s existence.
If you or people you know are looking for an introduction to metaphysics—or a refresher—this is your guide. You’ll emerge from its pages with a firmer grasp of substance, essence, accidents, person, form. In a word: reality.
Mike Aquilina is the author of dozens of books on the early Church and hosts Catholic Culture’s Way of the Fathers podcast.
Preparation for Consecration to Jesus Christ through Mary According to St. Louis De Montfort, by Fr. Hugh Gillespie, SMM. I’ve made use of several preparations for Marian consecration over the years, but for the most part have found myself returning to the standard Preparation for Total Consecration booklet published by Montfort Publications. This year I was introduced to Fr. Hugh Gillespie’s book (also published by Montfort Publications), and which will easily be my go-to preparation from now on.
Like the smaller Preparation booklet, this book incorporates excerpts from Imitation of Christ as well as St. Louis De Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary. In addition, Fr. Gillespie includes text from several other of Montfort’s writings, and contributes some of his own reflections, questions, and directions. The preparation is rigorous, and Fr. Gillespie writes with the succinctness and punch characteristic of true spiritual wisdom (not unlike St. Louis himself). Faithful to Montfort’s method, this is a great way to rediscover—or discover for the first time—St. Louis-Marie De Montfort’s vision for True Devotion to Mary.
Letter to the Friends of the Cross, St. Louis de Montfort. I discovered this small booklet from excerpts included in the aforementioned book. Though it be but little, it is fierce. Highly recommended for anyone who wishes to become a friend of Christ’s Cross.
The Word on Fire Bible, Vol. 1: The Gospels. I was among those who managed to grab a copy of The Word on Fire Bible Vol. 1 before it sold out. Happily, it is now back in stock. The book is beautifully designed and eminently readable, with gorgeous artwork throughout. The frequent excerpts from Church Fathers and the Saints (as well as modern figures like Chesterton, Fulton Sheen, and Benedict XVI) help to illuminate passages, and Bishop Barron’s own reflections are characteristically rich and accessible. For my wife and I, this edition of the Gospels has been an attractive spur to beginning and maintaining a regular practice of reading scripture together.
Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, by St. Thomas Aquinas. Like many, I was already well acquainted with St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, as well as several of his other theological/philosophical works. This year, however, I discovered that Aquinas’ works of scripture commentary are even more voluminous. His commentary is as insightful as one would expect, and I’m glad to have begun with his Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, as a companion to the Pauline readings the Church prescribes throughout the year.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first two books of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were included on my Best of 2019 list; having finished the third and final book early in 2020, I would be remiss not to include it here. As any good American, I’ve long held a vague distrust of kings, which has proved a handicap in understanding Christ the King. With the figures of Theoden and Aragorn, Tolkien (who notably would not have had the same anti-monarchical hang-ups as I) offers a “way in” toward a better understanding of the nobility, reverence, awe, and mystery that together comprise the sense of regality—and the loyalty and love that such kingship inspires. All that I found stirring in the return of Middle Earth’s king, I find Real and Present in the reign of Christ the King.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I reread this favorite novel in 2020, just before my son’s birth and at the height of the coronavirus pandemonium. Call me a glutton for punishment, but this story about a father and son in a post-apocalyptic hellscape actually served to encourage me as I awaited the birth of my own son amid uncertain circumstances.
Love Like A Conflagration, by Jane Greer. This much-lauded collection (as evidenced, I imagine, by its likely appearance on several other Best of 2020 lists) is a blessing with a bite. Jane Greer’s poetry is marked by a spiritual seriousness, which is to say with hope that avoids sentimentality and grit that eschews despair—a good thing, too, for a collection whose cover image is a detail of Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish painting of Hell!
Five Great Odes, by Paul Claudel. “In style if not in sensibility of metaphysical commitment, the Odes may be compared with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Extremely divergent in style but not as divergent in sensibility or metaphysics, the Odes may be compared to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets… [but] Of all twentieth-century literary artists I believe it was J.R.R. Tolkien who would, after Claudel, most embody a sacramental poetics in his work.”
This quote from Jonathan Geltner’s introduction to his translation of Claudel’s Five Great Odes is suggestive of both the poetry’s exceptional quality as well as of the translation’s exceptional sensitivity. One need not know much about either poetry or translation to know that the translation of poetry presents a particular problem. This translation of Claudel’s masterful Odes is a masterwork in itself.
“Tames in Clerical Life” by Fr. Paul Mankowski. After the passing of Fr. Paul Mankwoski in September, I was introduced to a piece by him entitled “What Went Wrong?” This, together with his essay “Tames in Clerical Life”, supplied me with fresh means by which to understand the current crisis in the Church, particularly among her leadership and clergy. If you were as disappointed as I by the so-called McCarrick report, this may be required reading. (Listen to What Went Wrong? in audiobook form on Catholic Culture Audiobooks)
“John Paul II and ‘Mutual Submission’“ by GC Dilsaver. This essay (included as an appendix to Dilsaver’s excellent book, The Three Marks of Manhood: How to Be Priest, Prophet and King of Your Family) respectfully yet decisively critiques John Paul II’s exegesis of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and the oft misunderstood notion of “mutual submission” there described. Reading this clear and concise essay settled any question for me regarding Paul’s meaning, John Paul II’s teaching, or the view of the Church.
The Sound of Music. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, this 1965 film could be wrongly conceived of as saccharine and superficial. I confess that, before 2020, I was guilty of such a misapprehension. Thankfully, I succumbed this year to my wife’s relentless protestations to the contrary and finally watched this cinematic classic. Set in Austria against the backdrop of mounting Nazi lunacy, its themes on the dangers of ideology and the importance of family and country remain as relevant as ever. The film also contains a rare bird, now utterly extinct in Hollywood: a father figure depicted in a positive—and even heroic—light.
The Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, directed by Terrence Malick. Though I saw this film in December 2019, it followed me into 2020 as the very last movie I saw in an actual movie theater. This sprawling feature traces the creation of the cosmos from its genesis to the dawn of man, with meditative and philosophical voiceovers narrated by Cate Blanchett, as if a History Channel documentary became self-aware and began to pray. The film is Malick in crystallized form, and a must-see for anyone fascinated by his work in recent years. (For more on Malick, see my discussion with Thomas of Malick’s latest film A Hidden Life on The Catholic Culture Podcast ep. 58).
Bach: Redemption, by Anna Prohaska, Wolfgang Katschner, Lautten Compagney. This album was spontaneously organized, recorded, and released under lockdown conditions and in response to world events at the very beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. Beautifully selected and interpreted, this collection of Bach cantatas is classical at its most accessible. Some pieces are downright catchy, with even a “folksy” feel. If, like me, you’re someone who doesn’t go in much for opera but who still loves classical music and appreciates the emotional and dramatic possibilities of the human voice, then this collection is for you.
The Duskwhales singles “Dressed in Lilac” and “On Top of a Mountain”. Fraternal relation notwithstanding (keyboardist Brian Majewski is my brother), I am a big fan of indie-rock trio The Duskwhales (see Thomas’ interview with The Duskwhales and retrospective of their work on The Catholic Culture Podcast ep. 51). Though their last full-length release was in the latter half of 2019, this year they still managed to record and release two excellent singles: “Dressed in Lilac” in September, and “On Top of a Mountain” in November. Feel-good vibes for lockdown blues. You can hear these singles on their Bandcamp.
James T. Majewski, an actor, hosts Catholic Culture Audiobooks and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast.
Thomas V. Mirus
Most of my reading this year was in preparation for interviewing my guests on The Catholic Culture Podcast.
My favorite new publication of 2020 is Jonathan Geltner’s translation of the great Catholic poet Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes, from Angelico Press. Claudel offers a cosmic vision in which man, in his contemplative and poetic capacity, stands as mediator between God and all creation. I interviewed Geltner about this work and we will be featuring one of the Odes on an upcoming episode of Catholic Culture Audiobooks.
My other favorite new publication is Jane Greer’s poetry collection Love Like a Conflagration. If you buy only one book I mention here, make it this one: it is very accessible to those unused to reading poetry (I am a new poetry reader myself). You can hear Greer read her poems in my interview with her.
Cluny Media recently published a new edition of Lyra Martyrum: The Poetry of the English Martyrs, 1503-1681. This includes writings by St. Thomas More, St. Robert Southwell, and other men of letters who gave their lives for Christ. My interview with editor Benedict Whalen is interspersed with readings of several of the poems by actor James Majewski. Oh, and if you’d like to learn more about Cluny, a publisher everyone should be familiar with, you can hear my conversation with their editor-in-chief as well.
Moving along from poetry, we have a modern classic in G.C. Dilsaver’s 2010 The Three Marks of Manhood: How to be Priest, Prophet and King of Your Family (currently on discount at $5 from TAN Books). In this work on “Christian patriarchy”, Dilsaver presents an authentically Christlike vision of manhood, developed in the crucible of self-abnegation and humiliation—something notably lacking in other contemporary proponents of “traditional Catholic masculinity”. I was so impressed with this edifying book that I devoted two episodes of my podcast to it.
I took some time to read a number of the classic social encylicals this year. The works of Leo XIII and Pius XI are deeply rewarding and pleasantly challenging:
- Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum needs no introduction as the foundational social encyclical. Listen to it in two parts on Catholic Culture Audiobooks.
- Leo’s Immortale Dei is one of a number of encylicals from 100-150 years ago that lays out a vision of Church-state relations many post-Vatican II conservative Catholics will find challenging. You can listen to it in audiobook form and also check out one of the best Catholic Culture Podcast episodes I’ve ever done, in which Thomas Pink elucidates the traditional teaching and how it relates to Vatican II.
- Pius XI’s Casti Connubii is the must-read encyclical on marriage. You will discover aspects of Church teaching on marriage that have been neglected in more recent magisterial writings. Expect an audiobook of this soon.
- Pius’s Divini Illius Magistri, on Christian education, is also worth reading, especially on the rights of parents.
Two other useful books from 2020 are worth mentioning:
Robert Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding is a sweeping and deeply researched rejoinder to those on the right who wish to portray America’s founding solely as a product of Enlightenment liberalism. Though it neglects to engage certain challenges from the magisterium, it is highly informative on the ancient and medieval roots of important American principles, and much else besides, as it is really a survey of the whole Western tradition of political thought up to the American Revolution. My interview with Reilly focuses on the medieval contribution.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay give a very helpful genealogy of today’s radical leftist activism in Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. As the authors are liberal atheists, I decided to discuss the book not with them but with Catholic political philosopher Darel Paul. Listen to learn how we are currently living out the theories of postmodernist philosophers like Michel Foucault.
The best essay I read in the past year was Andreas Lombard’s “The Vanity of Guilt”, on modern Germany’s neurotic and suicidal relationship with the Holocaust. The spiritual diagnosis seems spot-on and typical of how most Western nations today deal with their real (or sometimes alleged) historical crimes.
Three reappraisals of important 20th-century Catholic figures: Pawel Rojek on Karol Wojtyla’s early writings on Catholic social teaching and his contributions to the theology of nationhood, and James Matthew Wilson’s defenses of Jacques Maritain and Flannery O’Connor. (The essay on Maritain pairs well with Wilson’s outstanding interview on The Meaning of Catholic podcast.)
Jessica Hooten Wilson criticizes the shallow morality of today’s pop culture in “Flannery O’Connor Versus the Marvel Universe”.
Martin Mosebach’s essay on the liturgical crisis, “Pope Benedict’s Red Thread”, made me want to weep.
Noelle Mering offers profound insights on how wokeness cannot tolerate innocence in The Woke Mob Plays God”.
There have been many great essays criticizing lockdowns, but three particularly worthy of attention (which I discussed with their authors) are Douglas Farrow’s theological appraisals “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” and “The Health-First Heresy” and Lutheran political philosopher Andrew Busch’s “The Limits of Expertise”.
Back in 2006 Alice von Hildebrand wrote a most useful article on some of the obstacles to recognizing and enjoying artistic beauty.
And fresh off the press is an outstanding essay by Dan Hitchens on St. Thomas “Becket and His Critics”.
I should also mention some works I discovered or rediscovered via James Majewski’s readings on Catholic Culture Audiobooks. Among my favorites he read this year were Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement address; St. John Henry Newman’s “Duties of Catholics Towards the Protestant View”, “The Danger of Accomplishments”, and “Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion”; and Fr. Paul Mankowski’s essay “What Went Wrong” as well as the other one mentioned above by James.
This year Catholic Culture continued our previously established podcasts and launched a new one, Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast, not to mention we got things going on our YouTube channel. Here I want to highlight some good work done by others in the Catholic podcast arena.
Square Notes: The Sacred Music Podcast has great programming on the practice, spirituality, theology and history of Catholic sacred music.
A team at Catholic University made a highly-produced journalistic miniseries on the past and present of the abuse crisis—Crisis: Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church.
Actor Peter Atkinson, a friend of mine, recently launched The Dailies, a bite-sized daily podcast serving up a bit of art and culture along with a reading (he started with a daily reading of Dickens’s Christmas Carol during Advent).
The rock band Luxury has been around since the mid-90s, and in that time three of its members have been ordained as Orthodox priests. A selection of their melancholic rock songs with highly poetic and countercultural lyrics can be heard in my interview with lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Fr. David Lee Bozeman.
I continued my exploration of The Band’s music with their 1969 self-titled album, packed with folk-rock classics like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “When You Awake”, and “Up on Cripple Creek”. Skip the bawdy “Jemima Surrender”.
Countless composers have written settings of the hymn Stabat mater, the Marian via crucis. Pergolesi’s, which I discussed in an episode during Lent, is justifiably the most famous. I recommend purchasing the Mingardo/Alessandrini recording.
The Czech Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka is sometimes called “the Catholic Bach”. Though he mostly wrote sacred music, a great place to start is his angular, engrossing trio sonatas for two oboes and bassoon. Listen and purchase Zefiro’s recording.
For pianists and other keyboardists looking to expand their repertoire or sight-reading material into the Renaissance, I recommend picking up the first volume of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a delightful collection of Elizabethan keyboard music by composers like William Byrd, John Bull, and Thomas Tallis.
I didn’t introduce many new jazz albums into my rotation this year, preferring to delve deeper into music already heard. Chief among these was Miles Davis’s 1957 quintet album Round About Midnight. Kicking off with the moody title ballad composed by Thelonious Monk, it is probably the most atmospheric recording he made with his “first great quintet” of the 1950s.
This year James Majewski and I launched Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast, in which we’re exploring the works on the Vatican film list. Because of this I spent a lot of time boning up on classic movies. Many of these I was able to view thanks to a new streaming service, The Criterion Channel. Like any streaming site, it contains its share of offensive trash (though unlike Netflix which produces its own new trash, Criterion is essentially a museum of historically important films), but it’s also an invaluable resource for streaming classics unavailable elsewhere, including almost half of the films on the Vatican list.
This will be a rather long list, so if you want a shorter selection of favorites, I’d say Wild Strawberries, The Age of Innocence, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, Sweet Smell of Success, and Sullivan’s Travels. But you can read on to learn more.
My favorite film I watched this year, and one of my favorites from the Vatican film list, is Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a warmhearted film from a director otherwise known for bleakness. An old man is forced to confront memories of his misspent, repressed and resentful youth and as a result, finds new openness to love. It has features in common with Babette’s Feast, A Christmas Carol, and even Brideshead Revisited. James Matthew Wilson discussed it with us on Criteria.
Here are a few great period films, all of which are fairly ambitious and epic in scope:
I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan, but was blown away by his 2019 Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. First and foremost, it’s a countercultural story about friendship between men in which hippies are the villains. Other than that, it’s a remarkably pleasant-to-watch film that reserves Tarantino’s usual shocking violence to just one crucial scene. (Lots of profanity, though.)
I’ve been slowly familiarizing myself with Mel Gibson’s career. One of his earliest roles was in the classic Australian WWI film Gallipoli. Exuberant and tragic, it’s a must-watch for fans of war (or anti-war) movies. (Contains some nudity.)
Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence, based on Edith Wharton’s novel about love in old New York high society circles, is (I think) one of the best films I’ve seen. I don’t have much to say about it on first viewing, other than that it’s utterly mesmerizing.
Another tale of old American wealth, The Magnificent Ambersons, was Orson Welles’s next epic movie after Citizen Kane. It was butchered by the studio in editing, but even after that it remains a great film. A superb ensemble cast with Agnes Moorehead giving the most memorable performance as a neurotic spinster aunt.
Roberto Rossellini’s three-part docudrama The Age of the Medici is one of the stranger films I’ve seen, but most charming. After a long and outstanding career as a maker of feature films (two of which are on the Vatican film list), Rossellini, disturbed by the younger generation’s ignorance and apathy towards history, gave up fiction to move to documentary. This series covers everything from philosophy and religion to usury to guilds to the great artists and architects of Florence, weaving it all together into a comprehensive tapestry of one of the greatest periods of human achievement in history. Its odd charm lies in the fact that despite the elaborate sets and costumes, Rossellini made hardly any attempt at drama. Instead, his actors mostly deliver information while pacing around, yet it ends up being somehow delightful.
Much of my year in cinema was spent discovering the joys of Hollywood’s refreshingly edifying and patriotic Golden Age. I familiarized myself with actors like Gary Cooper, James Stewart and Jean Arthur, and directors like Frank Capra, John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Hawks’s Sergeant York, my introduction to Gary Cooper, is a lot of things Hollywood movies used to be but aren’t often nowadays: deeply patriotic and epic in scale. Cooper’s character (based on a real American war hero) goes on a journey from a troublemaking, alcoholic young farmer to a born-again Christian pacifist to reluctantly taking up arms for his country in World War I. Though it’s hard to see this pointless, disastrous war in a patriotic light, the film nonetheless handles York’s Biblical scruples about violence and his turn to a willing soldier quite nicely.
In The Hanging Tree, a much older Cooper plays a much darker character. A doctor in a small prospecting settlement, he saves the life of a runaway thief only to force him into indefinite servitude under threat of revealing his identity. When the two men begin to care for a blind Swiss woman whose family was murdered by road agents, things begin to change.
I don’t limit my viewing by genre, but if I had a favorite one, it’d probably be noir. This genre is typically associated with detective/crime stories—The Maltese Falcon being one of my favorites in that category—but two which won my heart this year deal with different subject matter. Sweet Smell of Success is about an unscrupulous and hungry press agent who does dirty work for a vicious and powerful gossip columnist; Sunset Boulevard is about a young, struggling screenwriter falling into the clutches of a retired silent film actress who wants to possess him so she can feel young again.
Unconventionally filmed with sudden jumps back and forth in time, Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 neo-noir The Limey, in which a British ex-con goes to L.A. to find out how his daughter died, offers one of the most morally and emotionally satisfying endings to any revenge story I’ve seen. (Quite a bit of profanity in that one too.)
Two excellent “western noirs” deal with racial bigotry in the West following two great American wars. Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway was one of the first Westerns told from a Native American point of view: Robert Taylor plays a Native Civil War hero who returns home to work the land in peace, but must face off with rapacious white homesteaders. John Sturges’s unusual and tensely fascinating Bad Day at Black Rock features a WWII veteran played by Spencer Tracy, who comes to a tiny, obscure Southwestern town looking for a Japanese-American man.
I must also mention Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, in which an outstanding Frank Sinatra portrays drug addiction with painful psychological accuracy.
Early in the year I was delighted to discover one of the finest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Jean Arthur (1900-1991). Something about her distinctive voice and her unglamorous yet charming affect is just unutterably cool. I watched her in the Frank Capra classics Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take It with You, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (my favorite of the three), as well as Howard Hawk’s aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings, but for me she shines even more in several screwball comedies: George Stevens’s The More the Merrier and The Talk of the Town, and John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking. The funniest may be The More the Merrier, set during a severe mid-war housing shortage in Washington, D.C., Arthur’s character rents half of her apartment to an older man (Charles Coburn), who proceeds to sublet half of his own room to a man Arthur’s age (Joel McCrea), playing matchmaker to much hilarity.
Another great screwball comedy is Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire. Gary Cooper plays one of a group of bachelor professors researching an encyclopedia. His purview is language, and after encountering a nightclub performer (Barbara Stanwyck) with connections to the mob he becomes determined to learn all he can about urban American slang. Love and chaos ensue, naturally.
But as all-time classic comedies go, surely the best I watched this year were:
Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (which I watched on Anthony Esolen’s recommendation), in which a screenwriter of cheap comedies (Joel McCrea) attempts to add some depth and relevance to his work by living amongst America’s down-and-out railroad bums. Sturges satirizes self-serious artists trying too hard for social commentary while simultaneously making a little social commentary himself.
A Catholic, Leo McCarey, directed The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne (herself a devout Catholic). One of the finest screwballs ever made, it’s about a couple that files for divorce because they suspect each other of infidelity—but even after parting, they can’t seem to keep out of each other’s business.
McCarey also directed Duck Soup. I confess this was my first experience with the Marx Brothers, who are so funny it’s almost sadistic. Watch it.
Jumping from the 1930s and 40s to 1985: Albert Brooks wrote, directed and starred in the satirical road movie Lost in America, in which a bougie couple decides to “drop out of society” and drive around the country in an RV. Brooks has the great gift of being able to make you sympathize and feel with his characters at every turn without ever forgetting that they are complete idiots.
In its own category altogether is Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven is a bizarre, hilarious and fascinating documentary about the pet cemetery business. Depending on how you view it, it may also be a depressing commentary on American spirituality.
Thomas V. Mirus is director of Catholic Culture’s podcast network, host of The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-host of Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast.
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