A Year in Review: 2021


Here’s the absurd, bizarre way the universe works: when I began outlining this essay in my head a month ago, I was thinking about Joan Didion, not knowing that by the end of the year we would lose her. Because part of why I love writing is figuring out HOW stories work, what kinds people tell and how the different narrative choices get made and what the point of them is. And as 2021 turns to 2022, Didion’s maxim “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” has become, I think, deeply important, because more than ever, not only are we telling ourselves stories, but also, thanks to social media we are getting inundated with everyone’s stories that they tell themselves and the sometimes extreme subjectivity thereof, and all of that is on my mind as I finally, FINALLY, and excitedly talk about my past year.

(The “finally” is important. I’ll get to that.)


This year ended up not being a significant one in terms of reading things I’d never read before, especially new books. Chalk it up to a combination of two things: first, I entered the year unemployed for the second time in twelve months and had to push to find a new job, then get adjusted to one of the more bizarre schedules I’ve worked under. Second, through it all, I ended up devoting spare hours to five different WIPs, plus the third round of query letters for the novel I’ve written eleven drafts of since 2014! (Update: for the first time ever, an agent asked to see the entire novel. They turned it down, but it reminded me to keep going.) And with that workload, it is very easy to turn to comforting, lighter fare.

However, two events happened that made a massive difference in my future work. First, someone very close to me whose opinions on art I respect the living end out of read the novel I wrote during the long, cold fall and winter of 2020 and finished at the start of 2021, my attempt to write something in the style of Henry James that could make sense out of some corners of existence. Their opinion was blunt but necessary: I’d written something thematically confused, if not downright troubling, and the murkiness was buried under my piling up of characters, effects, and certain details that only made it a tougher read. I’d gotten so caught up in the “how” that I’d mishandled the “why.”

After deciding to take that story back to the drawing board, I ended up reading, at the behest of two other friends, two novels that sent my head reeling. I’d always been a giant fan of John Cheever’s short stories, but The Wapshot Chronicle, his tale of many generations of a Massachusetts family narrated through different, nonconsecutive fragments of time and action, was a revelation: not since The Stone Diaries had I found a work so giant yet told in such minimalist fashion.

Then Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key hit me like drinking half a bottle of Scotch in one sitting. I think I devoured the entire story in two days. Forget Hemingway: I had never read such stripped-down prose that built up to something so coherent and thematically resonant, and it rattled around my brain for months until this November, an idea popped into my mind for a story. That idea, and my memories of what had happened with my previous novel, crystallized into a thought: I wanted to try to write something like The Glass Key and touches of Wapshot: something as stripped to the essence as possible but leaving the reader with an unmistakable sense of meaning. It’s a technique that can only help my comics writing as well in the future, and it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m always one to sign up for challenges.


The habit I got into during 2020 of watching a little more television than usual, particularly with my mother, us synchronizing our screens and chatting over the phone during a show, only continued in 2021, and I found a lot to appreciate.

One throughline of my TV watching is rooted in my preference for the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 (And on that note, long live The Great British Baking Show!). I love how the people of the U.K. make television, and every show I enjoyed the most this year had some real British power in the cast and crew. The one exception – which still featured a brilliant cameo from a legendary British rocker – was Only Murders in the Building.

Steve Martin and John Hoffman’s serial sitcom, directed by the likes of Jamie Babbit, Cherien Dabis, and Gillian Robespierre, is many things. A riff on the classic, parlor game style, locked-room murder mystery. A showcase for an array of gifted actors to show off comic chops and timing. A satire of our cultural obsessions with podcasts, true crime, and the like. But at the bottom, it’s a story about storytelling. Our hapless protagonists Charles, Oliver, and Mabel dive into solving their neighbor’s murder, and building an elaborate narrative around it, as a way to sublimate their own feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and guilt…as a way to make something happen in their lives. But in the course of creating this narrative, they find more than a friendship amongst themselves, but a reawakening of purpose that leads to them seizing more control of what matters to them and the stories they want to make of their own lives. Despite, in retrospect, the first and last shots of the program being really terrible, it’s a triumph. (And Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez have off-the-charts chemistry together.)

There was more. I finally got into Ted Lasso and watched every episode in twenty weeks, timed with the start of Season Two, and yes, it’s as great as everyone says it is, overloaded with hilarity, the charm of Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, and Jeremy Swift in particular, and real life lessons. Moreover, for all the hot takes of the second season, I loved how it dove deeper into everyone’s lives and showed how complicated these characters are and how much they’re still growing and changing, falling out of sitcom trap. As someone who started therapy myself this year, the scenes between Sudeikis’s Ted and Sarah Niles’s Dr. Sharon Fieldstone were some of the most emotionally charged things I could have seen. If you asked me…which I think you might because you’re reading this…I think that even the most cynical critics appreciated the pure life-affirmingness of Season One and wanted that level of comfort back, but again, I appreciate that the show didn’t take an easy, repetitive way out. As Roy Kent would say, “Fuck that!” Although if you do want comfort television, you wouldn’t have done much better than Bridgerton, a show I am unabashedly excited to get more of in March. Bingeworthy, lavish, and powered by Kris Bowers’s magnificent score under a whole bunch of beautiful people having fun, calling Shonda Rhimes’s latest smash “comfort television” is true only up to a point. For me, it’s pop art…I love how the show follows the tropes of the romance novel while piling invention upon invention on them, from the casting to the string quartets playing Ariana Grande and such. And I fell in love with British game shows as well: Only Connect in particular as a magnificent weekly brain-teaser, presided over by Victoria Coren Mitchell.

But my other big television watch this year, which will slide right into the film section, involved


I remember being in San Diego in 2019, having dinner with friends during the Marvel panel, and getting updated on everything that was coming. Then 2020 happened, and with that, Kevin Feige decided to make 2021 a year of so many stories coming so fast. And I was curious and excited…I mentioned pop art earlier, and I will go to my grave thinking Endgame is one of the greatest works of pop art ever. It was a wildly entertaining movie that took a decade of individual decisions, accidents, luck, and managed to bring a grand narrative to a genuine finish. What the heck were they going to do next?

Stan Lee’s idea of “the illusion of change” is one that Feige and the people of Marvel Studios have tweaked a bit but hold onto. Because what I see happening with Marvel now is that they’re trying to up the ante post-Endgame with the multiverse, with mysterious new heroes and villains, with top-to-bottom shaking things up and experimentalism, but only to a point…every risk they take, and they are trying to expand into new directions, gets mitigated by the house style and Feige and his brain trust’s commitment to planning years ahead with everything.

I wasn’t interested in the more conventional Marvel tales that were throwbacks to the Infinity Saga but the rest? Most of them ran into the same problem as I see it: the creative team had a brilliant, risky idea or theme, executed it as much as they could, and then the constraints got in the way.

WandaVision started strong and genuinely surreal, like a Lynch film or Adult Swim Informercials, then dragged in the middle as a) the same joke got repeated over and over again and b) the trappings of the conventional story, with teams of scientists and agents, intruded upon the bizarreness of Westview (although at least they were in the form of Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings, and Randall Park). It managed to rally in the final episodes thanks to the wit and emotional warmth of Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and Kathryn Hahn and some powerhouse scenes, but it was a lost opportunity.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was one of the most fun times I had in a movie theater all year with an amazing cast and the most imaginative set pieces there were, but it had to fit the “origin story” framework that no superhero movie has actually used in ages due to its clichés.

But it was still, tragically a bit, more successful than Eternals. Fresh off her Oscar, Chloe Zhao directed the most beautiful MCU picture ever on an epic scale that blended analog tech with the visions of Jack Kirby and introduced a take on “the superhero as God” that’s way more interesting than Zack Snyder’s version. However, watching the film made it clear to me that Marvel didn’t trust a story of characters less known to the general public who, unlike the Guardians of the Galaxy, were less funny and more metaphysical. So the film became a two and a half hour exposition dump in which everything got explained multiple times to the point of sheer white knuckle annoyance.

The one success, in my mind, was Loki. This is where the pieces fell into place and I hope it’s taken as the model for what comes next. Director Kate Herron, cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, and a team of great production designers made a visual feat with a much smaller budget, assembled a great cast led by Tom Hiddleston, roguishly charming as ever, the funny and poignant Owen Wilson, and my new favorite, Sophia Di Martino, an actor of so many layers and thoughtfulness, and told a self-contained story of a central character growing, changing, and confronting something unimaginable to end up in a place they weren’t at in the start. I cried, I laughed, and I could listen to Jonathan Majors monologue all day.

I did not get to see No Way Home yet because Omicron changed things up too much. I am still excited, even though I strongly suspect it will not (and Loki didn’t either) match the towering heights of one of the great films of the decade and maybe the best superhero film ever, Into the Spider-Verse.

But speaking of great films…?!


Two of the thrills for me in 2021 that genuinely moved me to tears were going back to church and going back to a movie theater, especially after having watched the very strong 2020 Oscar class entirely on my computer or TV.

And even though Omicron has temporarily derailed those things, I have faith that its peculiarity will result in a faster return to normalcy. Especially when there is so much good out there!

As of this moment, high noon on January 1, 2002, my favorite film of ’21 is C’mon C’mon. I expected to love it. Should I have expected more going in? Yes, because Mike Mills is one of those filmmakers who excels at telling stories that end up kind of being about everything, and often involve parents and children (see Beginners and Twentieth Century Women). With this film, shot in glorious black and white by Robbie Ryan, Mills reaches a new apex. Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix (and my new theory is if you put Phoenix with children, he soars), is a radio documentarian interviewing children across the country about how they see the future. It’s a touching, emotionally draining act that, along with deaths in the family and a break-up, has left him a sad man, until fate sends his nephew Jesse (the wonderfully natural Woody Norman), to be his temporary traveling companion. As they journey, bicker, bond, and experience so many little moments, Johnny gets reawakened to how much of life there is and how much possibility remains even when things seem dark…all in a way that made me want to hug the universe. Both Phoenix and Norman are terrific, but the real MVP is Gaby Hoffmann as Jesse’s mother Viv, who does so much with less screentime and provides a compelling picture of the often thankless emotional labor it takes to make the world spin.

And considering what a strong year it was, that this film is currently atop my list is a compliment to it!

My dear friend Ursula gave me a membership to the Chicago International Film Festival for my birthday and together we saw incredible things from around the world. Three movies especially leapt out to me…Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a hilarious, heartfelt, structurally delightful story of the Millennial experience that to me speaks for a generation the way the Boomers took The Graduate (a much inferior film) to speak for theirs, anchored by Renate Reinsve’s incredible performance. With New Zealand standing in for Montana, Jane Campion made The Power of the Dog and every time you think Campion’s at the height of her powers, she goes higher. A sweeping feast of beauty, terror, and heart, Campion interrogates masculinity and individualism and does so with help from an all-timer of a performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, commanding the screen without even having to move. And in Austria, Sebastian Meise made Great Freedom, the saga of a man (Franz Rogowski, radiating life) who survives the Holocaust and then spends decades in and out of prison for his homosexuality. It sounds dour, and it is unsentimental (thankfully), but it becomes a tale of how love and individuality persevere over the social structures people set up to oppress us.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t add that one of the worst films I saw this year was an Australian picture Ursula wisely passed on: as she reminds me, it’s easier to translate the Rosetta Stone than most foreign comedies.)

Then there were the big wide releases. I love musicals with a passion and the first 2021 movie I saw back in theaters, with a huge crowd at the Music Box, was In the Heights, Jon M. Chu’s throwback to the gargantuan road show musicals of the fifties and sixties. While it has their problems, it also has their joys, and was a perfect return. (The last film I saw in theaters in 2021 was West Side Story, but that’s getting its own piece.) Still more! Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is the ultimate Anderson movie: not my favorite, but a work of delightful whimsy, detail, and formalism, with an all-star cast (Jeffrey Wright above all) enacting his vision of international interconnectedness and the oddities it produces. David Lowery’s The Green Knight was its own experience, a dreamlike movie that felt like religious ritual. (I wish I’d been on drugs.) Nia DaCosta’s Candyman was a stunning horror movie, a great Chicago movie, and one of the most intelligent pieces of metatextual narrative you could ask to see. Two of my favorite major studio directors, Sir Ridley Scott and Edgar Wright, made two excellent movies, The Last Duel and (the superior) Last Night in Soho, which both deal with the theme of how periods in history or types of narratives we look on with romanticism were both a) waaaay darker and b) incredibly shitty towards women. And Maggie Gyllenhaal created an emotionally obliterating, perfectly acted directorial debut in The Lost Daughter.

Finally, documentaries! I seem to keep coming back to documentaries about music and there were three real standouts this year. ?uestlove made his directorial debut with Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised), a collection of found footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, an event I never knew existed, that vibrates with happiness and artistic mastery. (I could watch Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson duet forever.) Todd Haynes made The Velvet Underground, an elliptical collage of a film that told the band’s story in perhaps the best way possible. And the powerhouse duo of Cecilie Debell and Maria Torgaro made Skal, a short and extraordinary, deeply moving, exuberant story of a Danish girl, already a poet picking up some renown, who interrogates her Christian beliefs after starting college and falling for a controversial young rapper. That it’s a true story set in the beauty of the Faroe Islands makes everything all the more heightened.

I loved these films. I wrote about them at length on Letterboxd, which is my current social media platform of choice. And some of you who’ve known me for years through the internet may ask, why weren’t you, for the most part, talking about these on twitter?



When I began seeing a therapist in February, one of the things we immediately started focusing on was how I needed to do things to improve my mental health, and I realized the time I spent on twitter was not helping me one bit…because politics and major social issues have become part of the never-ending social media discourse in a way which has now made that discourse unhealthy and unable to achieve positive results.

To explain why this matters to me, I want to start by saying that politics and major social issues SHOULD be part of our public discourse. My own political beliefs have been greatly inspired by things I first learned about through the Internet and then sharpened on the whatever whetstone is in my mind. Where this has brought me is twofold.

First, my politics are very much left-wing. (A friend who helped organize the original Occupy protests once gave me their seal of approval as a socialist and that was, from the source, a high compliment.) I believe we need to constantly work towards mitigating and reversing the effects of climate change, establishing universal health care, protecting the right of all people to bodily autonomy – especially, SUPER ESPECIALLY, the right to an abortion for anyone who could get pregnant – making whatever form of education people wish to have not only accessible but affordable or free, building up voting rights again, and, in doing so, reinvent a lot of the capitalist system.

Second, I consider myself an independent voter. I do not wish to belong to any political party (full disclosure: I’m currently a registered Democrat only so I can vote for left/progressive candidates in primaries) or organization because increasingly, to belong to something means you might end up in a position of toeing the group line or getting enmeshed in groupthink, and I’m not interested in those things one bit. Voting is incredibly important…I can’t stress that enough…but a lot of necessary action entails being able to stand apart from groups with a vested interest in the ballot. In my mind, you have to do both!

A lot of my developing ideas come from another dear friend, Addison, who runs a book club in which we discuss works that reflect society, its problems, and how to find solutions. (A main rule of the club: no straight cis white male authors!) Most recently, we read Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid, a book that is less a book than an instruction manual on how to build organized, collective action and lays out the principles for doing so, coupled with a lot of solid advice on making sure your group is sustainable and positively energized, and what pitfalls to avoid. It is an ideal leftism for me: one of selflessness, community, and visionary spirit.

But what I have found, and I speak from experience of being a proud volunteer for mutual aid organizations in Chicago, is that so many of the wonderful people who do this work are unrecognized. Not even co-opted. UNRECOGNIZED. Ideally, they would have the same platforms as many voices who have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. Thankfully, part of why they don’t is because they’re too engaged with doing the work that must be done. But I have grown increasingly concerned with this state of affairs because of what is being said online, how it is reaching its audience, and what may be the result.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The works of art I described above are about people who create stories to define their lives and themselves to the people around them, and who, sometimes, heroically realize the story they’re telling isn’t a narrative they need to commit to, that it isn’t set in stone. This requires something I have discovered is crucial: imagination. I place a high priority on imagination in everything. Not just my writing. It takes imagination to recognizes when you’ve fallen into destructive patterns and look for real solutions. It takes imagination to figure out how to change society, and if one idea isn’t working, to try the next!

Twitter is a place in which every thought gets boiled down to an essence that, in its brevity, necessarily tilts toward extremism, and in making these points, people have gotten entrenched in the stories they tell…and one aspect of human nature, the aspect which makes me call change “heroic,” is that it is very hard to change your mind once you’ve dug yourself into a deep enough position. If you have committed to your story, you need it to be the right story because you want to be correct.

Right now, the twittersphere is inhospitable because, with political awareness inescapable, people keep elevating stories over and over, forcing them upon us through retweets and quotes and commentaries, and not willing to say they are wrong.

This is all of twitter. And it’s only gotten worse as 2021 rolls on.

The right-wing in America is now absolutely bankrupt. The Republican Party doesn’t even have a platform anymore! Through constant touting of Donald Trump’s belief the last election was stolen, a lie that falls apart the moment you analyze it, and their indifference/tacit support to the riot of January 6, they reinforce they are interested in nothing but the will to power.

Liberals, extremely useful in diagnosing what Trump’s election could lead to, have in many ways become a conclave of whiners, who believe that Trump not being in jail right this moment is a dereliction of duty, and yet who also whine about how the media covers Democrats as opposed to Republicans to degrees that I cannot imagine are healthy, and whine about any criticism of Joe Biden and the Democrats even when such criticism is justified, and who basically run around like something increasingly approaching Chicken Littles since Biden’s election did not make all their #Resistance fantasies immediately come true.

Finally, many of the leftists who inspired my change in political thought are now people I have blocked on social media because over the course of Trump’s presidency, their inspiring visions of how we could build a future gave way to a hardline commitment to a new orthodoxy that reached disturbing levels, in which anyone not aligned with their views is considered the enemy. So much of the online left, I have found, lacks the imagination that sparks within me when I read for my book club. They are so committed to very specific solutions that the ideas of alternative ways toward health care, police reform, and the like…and I believe there are so many creative ways to reach these goals…are routinely dismissed and vilified.

The narrative of how to do things and what should happen is so set in stone that I have found a distressing element to left-of-center thinking: I believe that victories in movements should be celebrated and used as incentive and fuel for further fighting to get more of what we need. Genuinely good things I saw the left-of-center advocate for…sometimes for decades…happened in 2021, but these were mostly ignored or dismissed. It represents an ignorance of reality that for me means no movement can succeed.

The first step to change is to truly acknowledge where you are and what the situation around you is. Whenever I think about how to make the world better, I start with taking stock of the reality around me, and then ask “How can I help concretely change this reality to move in the direction I want it to go and make sure it stays moving in that direction?” Too many people are committed to starting with a premise that reality is different from what they think it is and going from there.

But this is not the worst part for me. When liberals basically want the Justice Department to lock everyone up, or leftists decide that instead of crafting legislation, Biden should simply executive order lots of things into being, I see a longing for an authoritarianism along the lines of Trump’s, just an authoritarianism they happen to agree with, an abandoning of democracy without recognizing the peril this would place us in. I’m not a “both-sideser,” but social media has shown me how people from the entire spectrum get caught up in pledging devotion to certain politicians and candidates instead of treating them as tools to pressure to enact the people’s will. I’m guilty of this myself, and recognizing it was important to me!

Finally, what all this adds up to is that people driven by over-commitment to their narratives and occasional hero-worship will elevate something extremely simple (due to the needed brevity and the simple’s power to make an impact) that might be pure opinion, might be completely wrong out of context, and it will be repeated in a gigantic cycle by others who want to share in their sense that the narrative they’ve chosen or created is correct and spread it far and wide.

Which is why, in the final stroke of this, so much of the left-of-center on twitter, with some outstanding exceptions, continually insist that America and its democracy will die at any moment, whether because the Justice Department will not become explicitly political, or because the government won’t enact socialism right now, because in the stories they have constructed for themselves (and often groups alongside them), the failure to do these things, and do them immediately, must mean that there is no other path but failure. This is an extremely (that word again) simple narrative for a complex world, but they repeat over and over until it hardlines into certainty with, again, dissent being met with anger and laughter. This pattern has turned people who espouse some of the most hopeful ideas I believe in into something close to nihilists, and that makes me, for different reasons, fear for the country’s future as much as an authoritarian power grab would.

So what is to be done?

I can only speak for myself, but I’m continuing to take a hiatus in 2022, a more committed one, in hopes that a few fevers might break. I am going to stay committed to regular work with mutual aid and a bit of electoral politics as well. And I draw inspiration from the great people in my life whom I know in an offline world and the art that nourishes me, which leads me to…


I’m working on a musical with yet another dear friend.

This sounds like a non sequitur, but it isn’t. Ever since I heard Andrew Lloyd Webber for the first time (I know, I know), I’ve loved how music tells stories, too, and plays a role in storytelling.

Four years ago, I was introduced to the podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, in which Tyler Mahan Coe – a progressive himself – began telling tales of country music in the 20th Century. I fell in love with the show right away. It was full of laughs, a deep-rooted humanity, and Coe’s very wry and individual narrative voice.

After season one ended, Coe spent three years working on season two, which premiered in 2021 and is still ongoing, and I’ve simply never heard anything like it.

Instead of short, individual stories as in season one, Coe used season two to construct a massive narrative about the life of the man he and many others consider the greatest country singer of all time, George Jones, and by extension, that of Jones’s onetime wife Tammy Wynette.

Ostensibly, this telling is focused on Jones and the multiple factors that made him a legend, but a funny thing happens: at the beginning of each very long episode, Coe spends at least fifteen minutes, sometimes close to half an hour, talking about something that has nothing to do with country music: the history of pinball, the development of refrigeration, how bullfighting became an international phenomenon, American Prohibition (complete with a recipe for how to make moonshine), why the Middle Ages created tournaments and the ideal of chivalry and how that led to the invention of the carousel, the innovations of Western wear, the rise and fall of both the Miss America Pageant and soap operas, the Protestant Reformation, and the life of Catherine de’ Medici.

As you read that, you’re probably going “what?”

But I assure you, there’s still several episodes left and Coe is tying all of it together, with moments where he’ll say something and then the themes and subjects return in earnest, and you realize just how much everything is connected.

It reminds me of one of my favorite films I discovered last year, Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time, in which the history of the world is bound up with the discovery of 533 reels of silent film in a small town in Canada, and it all makes perfect sense.

But back to Coe. What he does is no small achievement. He shows us the bonds that put us all together when we live authentic lives, open to the possibility of change. His storytelling doesn’t minimize politics and the structures of society—they’re ingrained in it—but what it tells us is by recognizing this, by facing where we are, we have the foundation to create some extraordinary change by thinking creatively, by finding solutions even when they throw roadblocks in our way. And the story is filtered through something emotional and joyous: music to make you feel, to break your heart, to create life within you all over again.

That is the kind of energy I fed off the best in 2021, and the kind I will bring to 2022 and beyond. And for that, this review is worth it.


As a Christian whose belief is rooted in the idea that the purely human realm is nonsensical and random and, for that, fun on many levels, I must acknowledge the continuing genius of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (“I didn’t rig shit!” “DO you think the baby believes that people can change?” “You gotta give!” “TABLES!”) and the scene in F9 when Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris drive a car in outer space and crash into a satellite, a scene that made me spit take into the next row.


If you’ve enjoyed this, gotten fired up, etc., I would ask you make a donation to the Midwest Access Coalition, one of the finest mutual aid organizations I know, which invests much in getting people access to safe, legal abortions in Illinois. https://midwestaccesscoalition.org/

One thought on “A Year in Review: 2021

  1. Pingback: WEST SIDE STORY: How to Retell a Masterpiece and Make Another Masterpiece | Andrew Rostan

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