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2019 – The Rest of the Best

10 Jan

final ruminations on 2019

When I looked back over my notes from the past year, I was shocked that some of my favorites were actually from 2019, not 2018; it seems so long ago when I read or watched some of these.

I guess it’s been a very long year.

Thankfully, the content has been tremendous. Last week I posted my favorite films. Here’s the rest of my “Best of 2019” in no particular order or genre:

1917

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I had not yet seen 1917 when I did my best of film post last week. I was a little reticent to see this movie, thinking the technical virtuosity (even more jaw-dropping than I anticipated) would overshadow the emotional side of the story. Not at all. I was deeply, deeply moved by 1917,  less a traditional war movie than a ticking clock thriller within the war genre. 1917 is a wildly audacious, risk-taking film… against all odds, everything works brilliantly. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins deserve many accolades but my overwhelming shoutout goes to George MacKay as a soldier tasked with a dangerous mission. If this actor wasn’t perfect, the entire movie would fall apart. MacKay carries the movie on his considerable shoulders. See this in the theatre if you can.

Fleabag – Season 2

 

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Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge

 

The note I give my screenwriting students more than any other is “You’re writing about polite people acting politely. Lovely… and completely boring.” Great storytelling, whether comedy or drama, comes from savage conflict and troubled characters. Look no further than Fleabag. I know some have a hard time getting past the opening of Season 1, the literal definition of “in your face.” I implore you to continue. Season 1 is terrific. Season 2 is one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen. With the brilliant addition of Andrew Scott as the second lead, playing a devastatingly attractive priest, and the surprising addition of God as the third lead, the second season of Fleabag is hilarious, devastating and complex.

Creator/writer/actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Scott are both incredible. Equally genius are Sian Clifford as Fleabag’s sister Claire and Olivia Coleman as a truly evil stepmother. It was also wonderful to see Kristen Scott-Thomas (sigh) being given such a meaty, wonderful guest starring role. How cool is it that with all the accolades and awards, Waller-Bridge decided to stop the series at the end of Season 2 rather than extend it on and on, as do so many other shows. The last episode is perfect. As is the rest of the series. I love me some Fleabag.

Dignity by Chris Arnade

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Dignity will break your heart. Then get you off your butt to go do something. A moving look at displaced and forgotten people of all races all across America, Dignity has been criticized by some for being too empathetic. Fuck you critics living in a bubble. This is a profound book about people with devastating stories who struggle to survive, often with a strength that should put these shameless critics to shame. If you check out only one piece from my list, make it Chris Arnade’s book.

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

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This wonderful novel chronicles the courtship of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. Author Louis Bayard kept Jane Austen in mind when writing this historical fiction; Austen’s influence is clear… you really begin to worry Mary Todd and Lincoln won’t end up at the alter. That Bayard can keep us in delirious romantic suspense, even though we know the outcome, is only one of the many reasons Courting Mr. Lincoln is one of my favorite novels in many a year.  

The book is told from two perspectives: Mary Todd’s as well as Lincoln’s best friend, Joshua Speed. Bayard restores Mary Todd’s reputation in this novel. She is a smart, witty, terrific romantic heroine, struggling to find her place and her love. Bayard’s depiction of Speed, whom many, with good historical reason, believe was in love with Lincoln, is just as compelling. The actual letters between these two men are extremely intimate. Bayard creates a David and Jonathan type relationship, borne out by the men’s letters.  His Lincoln stays true to the man, a funny, wise, enjoyable person ultimately very difficult to get to know, which makes Bayard’s decision to keep us from Lincoln’s own perspective a smart choice.  Courting Mr. Lincoln is warm, generous, insightful, funny, heartfelt, emotional and delightful.

Chernobyl

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What else is there to say about Chernobyl? It’s one of the most powerful pieces of television ever created. If you haven’t watched it, you must. Though you might not sleep. It’s brilliantly crafted and impeccably acted. Television — or, well, art — doesn’t come much better. A chilling masterpiece.

Catastrophe

 

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Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan

 

As much as I love Fleabag, I think I love Catastrophe even more. It’s not just that the two leads are stunning. Or that the supporting cast is equally amazing. It’s not just that the show is outrageously, painfully funny. It’s that Catastrophe throws two people together who barely know one another and shouldn’t ever be together, and shows them slowly, beautifully fall in love with one another over the course of four short seasons. If you watch this wonderful show, you might find yourself surprised by how emotional and powerful the final season becomes. I’ve seen the whole thing twice and will watch all of this modern love story yet again. I love Catastrophe.

Me by Elton John

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Relatively early in Elton John’s autobiography, Me, he describes his suicide attempt in his twenties. I was on the floor convulsing with hysterical laughter. You will be, too, if you make the smart decision to pick up one of the most entertaining reads in years. Seriously, this book is incredible. Elton John is shockingly, brutally honest, about himself more than anyone else. Self-effacing is an understatement when it comes to his approach in the book. His insight into himself, the people around him, and the world in general is sharp and illuminating. Because he worked with or met just about everyone, the glimpses we get into the rarified world of music and celebrity is eye-opening. But the book is never gossipy or mean. He simply tells it like it is with a bracing honesty that is as funny as any comedian at The Improv. If you’re looking for a entertaining read with depth, this is the book.

Market Cooking by David Tanis

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I love cookbooks. They comfort me. I often go to sleep with one in hand and read 30 or 40 a year. David Tanis’s Market Cooking is by far my favorite cookbook this past year. Tanis, who cooked for years at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, has written two of my favorite cookbooks already, A Platter of Figs and Heart of the Artichoke. His recipes are purposefully simple; I’ve never cooked a recipe of his I didn’t enjoy. Laid out in encyclopedia fashion, centered on ingredients you’ll find at the farmer’s market, Market Cooking is his best yet.

Barry

 

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Bill Hader and Henry Winkler

 

Barry is another show I was forced to watch at gun-point, only to then think, “What the hell was my problem?” This show is awesome. Very, very funny and occasionally very, very bloody, Barry starts as a satire of everything from acting and entertainment to assassins and mobsters, only to evolve into something much richer. I’m amazed how after just two short seasons the show has caused me to care deeply about the characters, many of whom are less than admirable. Chalk this up to remarkable performances by Henry Winkler, Anthony Carrigan (!!) and Sarah Goldberg, who has a monologue in season two that made leap up from the sofa in awe. And then there’s Bill Hader. I didn’t much care for Hader before Barry. “What the hell was my problem?” He’s amazing in Barry, and not just as an actor. His writing and directing can be astounding. Take the now famous “ronny/lily” episode that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on TV ever. Kudos to Hader, I’m now an Uber-fan. Barry is terrific.

Shadowlands by Anthony McCann

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Another book attacked by some for being too empathetic and even-handed (such are the ridiculous times in which we live) Anthony McCann’s Shadowlands is a deep dive into the 2016 Oregon occupation that transfixed the country. McCann is a poet; his writing is beautiful, insightful and searching. It’s a remarkable book, the kind of reporting I wish most journalists today would emulate. Highly recommended.

Something Wonderful by Todd Purdum

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Something Wonderful is actually from 2018. I somehow forgot to include one of my favorites when I did my end of year post a year ago. If you like musical theatre, or just like Rodgers and Hammerstein, you will love this beautifully researched and written book about their lives and careers, together and apart. Something wonderful, indeed.

And finally…

Game of Thrones

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The best show in the history of television came to a conclusion last Spring with a brilliant, controversial final season. I’m tempted to repeat my comment about critics from above. I’ll refrain. But for those who complained, what I will say is I don’t know what show you thought you were watching all these years. Anyone, for instance, who didn’t think Dany was going to turn bat-shit crazy by the end had their head stuck in the sand ostrich style. (If you named your baby after her, or tattooed her name on your arm, you got what you deserved.) I refused to watch GOT until after Season 3, when I then became one of the show’s biggest fans. I still am. I love the show, love the final season and can’t wait one day to start all over again. It’s that damn good.

 

Best of 2019 – Film

3 Jan

For eight or so months it seemed 2019 was going to be a mediocre year for movies. Sure there was the occasional surprise (Shazam! – Zachary Levi, my goodness), a couple of much better than average Stephen King adaptations (Pet Sematary, It 2 – both very effective) and even a grump like me had to admit Marvel somehow pulled off a very satisfying end to their multi-year experiment with Avengers: Endgame. But otherwise… meh. Around September, however, some switch went off! Fall and winter have been terrific. It’s been a while since I’ve been this jazzed about a string of such strong films. My best of the best:

JOKER

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I did a full post on my favorite movie of 2019 shortly after Joker’s release so I won’t belabor it here. Here’s a link to the piece if you’re interested:

Jokers, Parasites and Fear

This post on Joker also discussed another big favorite:

PARASITE

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Already an extremely accomplished director (see Snowpiercer, Mother, The Host, etc) Bong Joon-ho somehow stepped up his game with this savage black comedy about class and family. Brilliant.

MARRIAGE STORY


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There’s an aspect to Marriage Story, a modern day Kramer Vs Kramer/Scenes from a Marriage, that usually causes me to dislike a movie: a story about people who exists in a 1% Westside Bubble. (Marriage Story manages to be double Westside… Westside LA and Upper Westside NYC… yes I know the Manhattan section occurs mostly in a borough but it’s the same rarified arena.) Life is this bubble has little relation to life anywhere else in the rest of the world; movies taking place in the bubble tend to be pretentious and also, well, who cares about people with ridiculous problems? Hollywood loves to bash the 1% but the world of the 1% is the only life many in Hollywood know. Hollywood adores and celebrates this world. (I understand. I saw Downton Abbey The Movie… twice. That’s my kind of 1%!)

And yet…

Marriage Story blew me away. The movie is performed so perfectly (by literally every member of the cast), so confidently directed and written by Noah Baumbach, my jaw hung open much of the time. There are scenes in Marriage Story so excruciatingly honest and painful I had to look away, yet the movie is also riotously funny.  I laughed often and loudly. There’s enough truth in the movie that anyone who watches can relate. Baumbach somehow bursts through the bubble. I didn’t think any movie could topple Joker as my favorite of the year… Marriage Story very well may have done it.

You can watch this on Netflix right now!

FORD V FERRARRI

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I had no desire to see Ford v Ferrari. Racing. Yawn. Thankfully a buddy dragged me to see it and I fell in love. Yes, it involves racing but the movie is about so much more: a complex friendship as well as a marvelous character study of Ken Miles. There is also a lovely look at Miles’ marriage. Ford v Ferrari ranks with Marriage Story as the best acted movie of the year. The entire cast is incredible, not just the two marvelous leads.  (Special note to Tracy Letts and his scene in the car… what he did in that scene ain’t easy, folks. Wow. May I reveal how envious I am of a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning writer who is also a great actor? Talk about a dream career… Loser!) James Mangold once again proves himself a master at crafting movies with great depth that are still wildly entertaining (see also Logan and Walk The Line.) You won’t have a better time in the movie theatre all year.

LITTLE WOMEN

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In 2005, I saw the trailer for the new Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice and thought, “What? Why?? Done already and done perfectly. Not gonna bother.” Then I saw it… and saw it another five times in the theatre, and numerous times since, and I teach it in my class on Adaptation.

I felt the same way when I heard Greta Gerwig was doing yet another adaptation of Little Women. “Really? Do we need this?” Gerwig gets the last laugh. I cried my way through Little Women, one of the most deliriously romantic and beautiful movies I’ve seen since, well, Joe Wright’s Pride And Prejudice. I loved the time jumping, which made the story hit even harder for me this time. The innovation made the story feel fresh and new. Little Women also sports another impeccable cast. What great acting! (And Tracy Letts again! Loser!) 

Little Women is glorious.

THE TWO POPES

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Forgive me, but I have to say something very cheeseball. The Two Popes, alternately very funny and deeply moving, is “a movie for our time.” It’s the true story of two good men with wildly different views of the world and culture who somehow find a way to discuss and debate their differences without foaming at the mouth. Neither likes the other. But forced to spend time together by external circumstances, they begin listen to one another. Eventually each is changed by the other. Remarkable. Two of our finest actors, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, are better than you could imagine which, given the two actors, is saying a lot. Gorgeously shot, The Two Popes is a quiet, subtle stunner of enormous power.

You can also find The Two Popes on Netflix. Oh, and don’t turn it off when “it’s over”… the end credit sequence is pure joy.

DOCTOR SLEEP

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No one saw Doctor Sleep, which is such a shame. Easily one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King book ever, writer/director Mike Flanagan, who created the dazzling Haunting of Hill House series on Netflix, took King’s most personal novel, a sequel to The Shining, and gave us one of the year’s best and most wrenching movies. King, of course, hated the Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, which threw out the incredible ending of the novel and replaced it with a big fat nothing burger. Flanagan, however, knew Doctor Sleep had to at least use Kubrick’s iconic imagery, given the belated popularity of Kubrick’s film, a flop when it was first released. Without given much away, Flanagan brilliantly restores King’s original ending of the novel by using Kubrick’s hotel. It’s incredible.

I also must mention Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as Rose The Hat, Doctor Sleep’s villain. Ferguson somehow makes Rose as sexy and attractive as she is evil. Her performance is a stunner. So is Doctor Sleep.

CRAWL

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Yes, I’m including this terrific “Jaws-like” thriller. It may not be an Oscar-worthy movie but when something is this well crafted and gripping, with surprisingly good character depth, it ranks as “Best Of” for me. Crawl is an absolute blast.

Note: I have a feeling both The Farewell and 1917 will end up here. They are the last two movies on my big list I haven’t seen. 

Other noteworthy mentions:

I must commend Brad Pitt’s remarkable work in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. He’s so good in this movie his work seems effortless. It’s not. And while my favorite, QT, didn’t hit this year end list, the extended sequence in OUATIH at The Ranch is one of the best pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in years. Margot Robbie was also wonderful… the whole cast, really.

There’s Renee Zellweger’s performance in Judy. I didn’t think anyone could match Judy Davis’s genius in the 2001 TV version of Garland’s life but Zellweger certainly did. Such a pleasure to watch. And a very good film!

It’s scandalous that Paul Walter Hauser isn’t getting every acting nomination in the world for his phenomenal performance in Richard Jewell, another terrific movie Warner Bros mis-marketed. (Someone in the Warner’s marketing department is in a lot of trouble right now…)

Robert Pattison and Willem Defoe were both stunning in The Lighthouse. 

It was a divine pleasure to see Joe Pesci back on screen in The Irishman. He was so damn good. Al Pacino really captured Hoffa well, his best performance in a long time. I found The Irishman at times very good but often interminable. I realize a lot of people who love it are watching it in pieces on Netflix. That’s a TV show, not a movie. And I do think this would be a great TV show. I had to watch it all at once in the theatre, without even an intermission. It felt like 10 hours, not 3.5.

Let me know your favorites!

 

Halloween Favorites

27 Oct

 Some terrific scary movies you might not have seen…

Halloween week! You gotta watch at least one scary movie, right? Let me give you a few choices you may not know, movies you can easily find right now. 

Note: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find classic movies online… some favorites I wanted to list here… Ils (Them), Session 9, The Haunting, Rebecca, The Innocents… are not available, which is a problem. Still, this is a wonderfully scary list.

TRAIN TO BUSAN (Netflix)

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If you haven’t seen Train To Busan, this is your watch. It’s a remarkable movie. Not only is this hands down the best zombie movie ever made, Train is an equally gripping emotional rollercoaster, a beautifully crafted movie that goes much deeper than your usual scary movie. Think of the emotional depths of something like Ordinary People… combined with zombies. It’s that good. The first 45 minutes is textbook craftsmanship on how this kind of movie should open. The rest? Whoa.

If you think a zombie movie can’t make you weep, you haven’t seen Train To Busan.

THE ORPHANAGE (Hulu)

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The Orphanage goes just about as deep emotionally as Train To Busan. A woman returns to the orphanage where she was raised, now an abandoned mansion. She buys the house with her husband, intending to turn it into a home for sick children. More a classic ghost story than horror, that’s all you need to know.

Awesome, with an Oscar-worthy performance by Belén Rueda.

For more Halloween favorites, Continue reading

Jokers, Parasites and Fear

17 Oct

Why are people so afraid of Joker?

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In the September 25th issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael asked “Are people becoming afraid of American movies?” 

This was, of course, 1978, not 2019. Yet it seems likely the great film critic would have asked the same question forty-one years later, given the critical hysteria over Todd Phillip’s Joker.

Kael continued: 

When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It’s the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfathers before that… They don’t see why they should subject themselves to experiences that will tie up their guts or give them nightmares….Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art—of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism… and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision…

The parallels to today should be obvious to anyone following much of the critical reaction to Phillip’s brilliant and deeply unsettling masterpiece.

I’m a fan, obviously. Joker is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. If left me shaken, disturbed and in need of a double shot of Bulleit. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the troubled man at the center of the movie, delivers one of the great cinematic performances of all time. Brimming with dozens of cinematic references, the movie is gorgeously crafted: this was a crew that working overtime on every single frame. Joker resonates on a deep emotional level, particularly for those of us who have struggled personally or dealt socially with madness. Joker is upsetting for many reasons, not the least of which is that although it’s set in fictional Gotham of 1981, the movie thrusts many troubling aspects of our present society in our face, forcing us to bear witness.

The movie certainly has many fellow defenders. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival where it received an eight minute standing ovation. And the public is supporting the movie with wild abandon: the film is a smash hit worldwide, already earning over half a billion dollars.  In the US alone it had the biggest October opening weekend ever and broke even more records this past weekend, its second. Hitting #1 the second weekend is telling: films can have a big opening but then fall off once word of mouth spreads a movie is a stinker. Joker is not falling off. People are continuing to go see it. 

Yet many critics are assaulting the movie. I don’t mean the typical “I didn’t like this and here’s why” type of reviews. Before Joker’s release two weeks ago these critics were clearly trying to hurt the film, cripple its box office and wipe it from memory before it could get going.

Here’s a quick look at what some of these critics had to say:  “a viewing experience of a rare, numbing emptiness.” “ punishingly dull”, “pompous, grim, relentlessly one-note”, “Dangerous”, “pernicious garbage” , “grim, shallow, distractingly derivative”, a dangerous manifesto that could inspire incels to commit acts of violence” and “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting”, which, if you’ve seen the movie, even if you hated it, has to appear ridiculous given what happens in Joker. To call this particular movie dull and uninteresting is in itself “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting.”

Clearly the movie is getting under these critics’ skin. They are attempting to render Joker immoral, often wildly misrepresenting the movie and its contents in order to do so.

One frequent attack is that the movie is hero worshipping a killer, that it’s a how-to manifesto for incel violence, and that the movie turns the hero “into an angry guy with a gun and violent disregard for everyone.”

But this isn’t true in the slightest. Joker doesn’t go rampaging through the city shooting at any or everyone (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). Key here are two sequences: one in which Arthur lets a co-worker go free after killing another co-worker: “You were the only one who was nice to me.”  The other is Arthur’s TV appearance. He easily could have been depicted as going on a rampage, shooting into the audience, yet he only kills one man, the man who made fun of him. The violence in the movie, while shocking and horrifying, is nothing compared to normal screen violence (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). In fact, compared to such movies the body count in Joker is quite low.

Something interesting is going on. Continue reading

Best of 2018 Pt. 2: Everything else

20 Jan

I posted on my favorite films last week… here are my other favorites of the year:

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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Hill House

 

Hands down my favorite anything of the year. Anything. By far.

Mike Flanagan’s reworking of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel (he also riffs generously on Robert Wise’s wonderful 1963 adaptation, The Haunting) is, pardon my french, fucking incredible. Even the master, Stephen King, called it “close to genius.” I’ll one up my hero and say it plainly: The Haunting of Hill House is indeed genius. While Flanagan in his revision uses both the novel and film in clever ways, he’s up to something much deeper than just a horror series. At its core, the series is a penetrating and devastating family drama. It’s as if Flanagan took Ordinary People, magnified the emotional depth of that brilliant movie ten fold, then stuck it inside Jackson’s sick and twisted Hill House, “a house that was born bad.” Every episode scared the shit out of me, and each episode also hit me on a powerful emotional level. The intricacy of Flanagan’s time jumping plot is dazzling. When his technique purposefully dovetails into that intricacy, such as in the justifiably famous 6th episode, a series of single takes designed to look like one, the effect is truly mind-blowing. Don’t shy away from the series because it’s scary…  the family stuff is so universal, anyone can relate to the marvelous, human Crain family.  But be warned, it is indeed scary. Flanagan is the best ‘jump-scarer’ I’ve ever encountered. Those of us watching together starting counting how many shrieks each episode elicited from our group. And there’s this one particular scare… well, it’s the best scare of all time. If you watched the series, you know of what I speak. I had to stop this episode midstream and have a couple of shots of bourbon to calm down before I could finish the episode, though my heart was still racing hours later. As a creative, The Haunting of Hill House is the kind of narrative success that is both enervating and energizing. Enervating because I think, ‘Goodness, I could never achieve that, just stop trying” but also energizing because, for a storyteller, this series reaches the peak for which we all strive. I may never reach such a pinnacle but Flanagan and his remarkable team and superb cast of actors certainly make me want to try.

Finally, though I know people who disagree, Flanagans’ twist on Jackson’s famous last line is electrifying.

 

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The Bent Neck Lady

 

BODYGUARD

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Things are going to get intense

 

WHOA. One of the biggest hits ever in the history of UK broadcasting, Bodyguard is a short (six episodes) but far from sweet adrenaline rush I could not turn off. This is ‘call into work sick’ material, because you have to finish it. If you’ve seen it, you know of what I write. If you haven’t, the less you know the better. Richard Madden is stunning as ‘the bodyguard’, he goes deep, goodness and Keely Hawes matches him perfectly. As does the rest of the British cast. Great show, an intense blast to watch. 

HOMECOMING

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Something weird is going on

 

Julia Roberts is having one hell of a year. She gave the best performance of her life in superb Ben Is Back (see last post) and her performance in Homecoming is just as stellar. Yet she’s not getting much attention on the awards circuit… what gives?? Oh well, ultimately, who cares. After 30 years onscreen, she has become one of our best actresses and it was a joy to watch her this year. As for the show itself? Kick. Ass. A subtle mystery that really gets under your skin, I did not hear the podcast upon which the series was based so the story was new to me. Sam Esmail’s decision to approach Homecoming like a classic 70’s thriller in the vein of Alan J. Pakula et al. was a huge turn on to a film buff like me. As was his decision to score the entire series using music from those films. But you don’t have to be aware of that to enjoy. This is another one of those shows I watched and thought, ‘Wow, I wish I had worked on that.” Every performance is terrific, though I have to single out Stephan James and, in particular, Shea Whigham. His turn as a downtrodden DOJ investigator also deserves many more accolades than he is receiving. Finally, the genius move to make each episode 22 minutes instead of an hour made the show incredibly binge-able. Hear hear! Show creators, more of this in the future!

THE TERROR

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The Terror, indeed

 

One of my favorite novels, by the great Dan Simmons, became one of my favorite shows of the year. A fictionalized account of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition in 1845, this sumptuous adaptation is an atmospheric chiller, no pun intended, superbly directed with an outstanding cast. (Again, those Brits…) You may want to subtitle it, as the accents are pretty thick. Filled with shocks and surprises and deep humanity, The Terror is yet another reason 2018 was one of the best years of television in recent memory.

THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL SEASON 2

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I want to live inside this show

 

Paris! The Catskills! Lenny Bruce! Zachary Levi! Susie! Season 2 of one of the best shows on television was even better than season one. I cannot imagine what they spend on this show and/or how they get away with the production value and music budget. Sublime to watch, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is Amy Sherman-Palladino at her best, which is about as good as it gets. There are too many wonderful moments and performances here to even begin to start listing favorites, but may I say what a joy it was to watch Marin Hinkle’s Rose evolve this season. In the very strong likelihood you see me running around with a plunger over my shoulder, Mrs. Maisel is why.

WESTWORLD SEASON 2

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Brilliant. Frustrating. Westworld.

 

My favorite show of 2017, and, admittedly, an intense obsession, thrilled me for 9 brilliant episodes that came crashing down in the season two finale. I’ve friends I trust who love the finale, however, and I need to watch it again after some distance to see if I can overcome my misgivings. Still, those other 9 episodes. Wow. I watched each one twice without plumbing their depths entirely and am still enough of a fan to re-watch all of Season 2 before Season 3 begins… fingers crossed. 

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I read a lot of novels this year. And some I very much enjoyed. But for the first time, I didn’t have a novel this year I wanted to put on the list. I still read an amazing book, however: Simple, a cookbook by the extremely talented Yotam Ottolenghi. I have all of his cookbooks and use Jerusalem often. (Click here for a post covering that wonderful book.)  For me, if a cookbook is enjoyable to read and gives me just two or three killer recipes I will use for years, I’m happy.  I’ve been cooking a lot from Simple the last few months, however, and after making ten or twelve recipes, I’ve yet to hit one I didn’t love. This is a bonanza of flavor and food joy. (Do NOT miss the “baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic”… I’m Cajun, rice is one of my favorite foods in all the world, I’ve eaten white rice happily since the day I was born. This is the best rice I’ve ever had, bar none.)  Simple is hands down the cookbook of the year. 

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The best rice I’ve ever eaten

PADDINGTON 2

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Wonderful

I quietly scoffed at a couple of friends who told me Paddington 2 was the best movie of the year. Seriously? Well… I might not call it the best of the year but having just watched this delightful movie, I agree it is one of the best for sure. A visual feast that is creative, clever and ultimately heartwarming in the best way possible, Paddington 2 is one of the very few movies on Rotten Tomatoes to score 100%. Deservedly so. Additionally, Hugh Grant is %@$# incredible in it. Like Julia Roberts, he’s been on screen a long time and his gifts are now innumerable and invisible. Great performance, great movie.

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Our bear goes to prison!

Best of 2018 Pt. 1: Film

10 Jan

Belated Happy 2019! It’s been a long while for a post as I had an incredibly busy fall. Apologies for those who follow! I have a number of posts half-finished, including Breakfast Fried Rice and Heaven In A Bowl… let’s see how much I can keep on track this year. First, though, we begin with the requisite ‘best of’ posts. 

Below are my favorite films of the year. I have more movies listed than usual this year which surprised me because at the end of summer there were only a few movies I was excited about. But it was a strong fall for features. Not all are ‘great films’ but each achieved something wonderful, moved me deeply or took unusual risks that made the film worth mentioning.  In no particular order:

BEN IS BACK

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Ben Is Back slayed me. I’ve seen it twice, fell apart each time and will watch it again soon. It’s unfortunately one of those movies the studio can’t seem to pay people to go see. But I loved it and encourage you to see it. Julia Roberts give the best performance of her career, which is saying a lot, and Lucas Hedges meets her head on. (What a banner year for Julia, who will also appear in the next post.) I’m a big fan of the writer/director, Peter Hedges – yes, he and Lucas are father and son. See this movie.

ROMA

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A gorgeous, stunning film I can’t imagine working on TV at home, so Netflix’s decision to leave Roma in theatres for only a few weeks around Thanksgiving is incomprehensible. If you tried to watch it at home and turned it off, I understand. It starts very, very slow and certainly is never a wild ride. But the beauty of the directing, the cinematography (whoa!), the performances and the setting make Roma, for many of us, the best movie of the year. Spellbinding.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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If even two weeks ago you said to me I would pay money to see Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, much less put it on my ‘best of’ list, I’d have laughed in your face. Yet here we are. Ha ha indeed. Thank goodness friends I trust forced me to go see it. Easily the most original and creative movie of the year, this visual feast is a blast from start to finish. It’s also surprisingly moving. Great film.

SEARCHING

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Another movie most people missed, Searching is another extremely inventive movie, a sharp thriller depicted entirely on social media, a narrative device that would seemingly get old but in these capable young filmmakers’ hands, never does. Anchored by a terrific performance by John Cho, this is another ‘find this movie and watch it’ recommendation from me. Terrific.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE VI: FALLOUT

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Mission Impossible VI is not only the best action movie of the year (decade) it’s one of my top 5 of the year. Unlike any other series, MI gets better and better with each movie, meaning MI VI reaches pinnacles rarely seen in this genre. Filled with dazzling actions sequences and stunts done real time — take that, CGI! — the movie in the final act also has an emotional impact rare for actions movies. Director McQuarrie and star/producer Cruise, in top form as always, also were smart enough to bring back Rebecca Ferguson from MI V. May I have an enormous swoon for Rebecca Ferguson? Damn. In love. (Even with a porn-stache, I’ll also give a well deserved swoon to Henry Cavill. Oh my.) Movies don’t get much better than this.

GAME NIGHT

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I love this movie! I first saw Game Night on a plane, annoying everyone around me as I cackled with pleasure the entire time. I’ve shown it to others numerous times since, laughing just as much each time through. An extremely clever comedy unafraid to push boundaries and go to some dark places, Game Night is smart and clever; the first five minutes are so well done I taught this opening in my screenwriting class last Monday. It stays sharp all the way through, is at times wonderfully shocking and the entire cast is outstanding. (Rachel McAdams also makes me swoon. Damn.) I loved it. 

THE WIFE

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If Glenn Close doesn’t win every acting award for her performance in The Wife, there’s no justice in the world. By my count, she should already have two Oscars on her shelf. Yet she has none. Please let this be her year. She gives a master class in screen acting in this small but powerful movie. You can’t take your eyes off her. Close’s gifts are so strong she can do absolutely ‘nothing’… such as sit and listen to a speech… and be intensely riveting.  The movie is also excellent. Sony Pictures Classics is expanding The Wife back into more theatres this weekend. Go see it!

A STAR IS BORN

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The classic Hollywood story remade yet again but this time with depth and empathy. Usually filmed in grand fashion, Bradley Cooper’s decision to shoot the movie in an extremely intimate fashion pays off beautifully. His performance also blew me away, he completely transformed into someone else. And he can sing. Loser! Lady Gaga also is terrific and I love the music. The incredible popularity of the movie seems to have people turning on it as the award season ramps up. I guess that’s what comes with popularity. Awards or none, Cooper and Co. have the last laugh. A Star Is Born remains one of the best movies of the year.

BLACK PANTHER

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It may not be a great movie but Black Panther has many great elements and performances. More importantly, seeing this in the theatre felt like an enormous cultural event. And it was. There are movies that are of their time and movies that transcend time. Both are important so while Black Panther may be the former, being of its time in no way takes away from the movie. It was also a very enjoyable movie to watch.

FREE SOLO

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A documentary as riveting and suspenseful as MI VI, Free Solo is a stunner. A fascinating character study combined with intense thriller, Free Solo is also a beautifully crafted documentary. The less you know the better. Find it.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS

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A delight from start to finish. I know people obsessed with the original who balked at Mary Poppins Returns but I loved it and am glad it is performing well, given the filmmakers daring decision in the modern era to embrace the look and sound of both the original and classic movie musicals in general. Emily Blunt is practically perfect. Her performance seems so effortless I think a lot of people don’ recognize how damn good it is.  (Biggest swoon of the day for Emily, btw. Lord.) Anchored by Emily and wonderful performances across the board, Mary Poppins Returns creates a glorious world you don’t want to leave. I myself love the songs – whoa, amazing orchestrations, so incredibly lush and beautiful – and you’d have to have a heart of stone to be unmoved at the end when both Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury turn up to create even more magic. Infinitely better than it had any right to be. 

DESTROYER

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Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of my favorite movies of the last few years so I was excited to see her follow up, Destroyer. It doesn’t disappoint. An ultra dark Los Angeles neo-noir, Destroyer is getting a lot of attention for Nicole Kidman’s performance, which is amazing. The entire cast is superb, however; Bradley Whitford, for instance, is hilariously, deliciously slimy in one of many great scenes. Not perfect but Destroyer keeps you leaning forward the entire time. Definitely worthy of any list.

BEAST

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There are numerous beasts in this stunning debut from writer/director Michael Pearce. Only by the end of Beast can one figure out to whom the title refers and, actually, friends and I are still debating which character deserves the moniker. Moody and creepy, Beast slowly draws you into a beautiful yet disturbing world and Jessie Buckley, as the main character Moll, gives one of the best performances of the year. 

ANNIHILATION

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Okay, yes Annihilation has a lot of problems. But when this daring movie is working, it works so damn well, and takes so many risks, it makes my list. Based on what I considered an unfilmable novel, Annihilation is beautiful and disturbing and thought provoking and often shocking. You can’t take your eyes off it. Alex Garland, who also made the terrific Ex Machina, is bold enough to challenge the audience, asking a lot of us while also asking big questions with his narrative. Stunning visually, this is a movie well worth a look.

Also worth a mention: Bohemian Rhapsody, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Three Identical Strangers, The Favorite, BlacKkKlansman, Cold War, If Beale Street Could Talk

What were your own favorites? What have I forgotten? (Books and TV next week)… Let us know!

 

The Horror of “Get Out”

23 Feb

A week away from the Oscars means a rumination on a nominated movie is a great idea. A good friend and writing mentor, Jeff Meyers, has a take on “Get Out” I find extremely thought provoking and fascinating, so much so I asked him to let me post his ideas here. Whether you liked the movie or not (I realize as much as it invigorates many of us it befuddles others) , I think you will find his essay worthy of consideration and discussion.

It’s no secret that, historically, horror has been regarded as junk entertainment, a genre that relies on cheap thrills and lurid subject matter to draw audiences. And while critics have been willing to extoll the technical and cinematic achievements of the genre, they typically overlook the thematic, intellectual, and emotional resonance of the genre.

The well-deserved nomination of Get Out for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award is only the sixth time a horror film has been considered for such an honor. The first, 1973’s The Exorcist came 45 years after the Oscars were first introduced. Since then, only The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, Pan’s Labyrinth (Best Foreign Language Oscar) and Silence Of The Lambs (the only one to win… and regarded, by some, to be a thriller rather than horror), have been given such regard. Classics like King Kong, Bride Of Frankenstein, Psycho, Alien and The Shining were all, notably, overlooked.

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This dismissal of horror as a serious-minded expression of cinematic art and opinion has such a long and pervasive history that even some its own practitioners feel a need to distance themselves from the label, lest they be devalued as artists. 

In the introduction to The Walking Dead graphic novel, creator Robert Kirkman insisted that his goal was not to scare anyone, and that he wasn’t writing horror but rather “social commentary and character.” Writer-director Jordan Peele asserted that Get Out is not a horror film but rather a “social thriller.” 

With all due respect, Kirkman and Peele are wrong. While genre labels are often fluid and inexact, there is little doubt that a graphic novel that involves hordes of flesh-eating zombies, and a movie about a mad scientist that cuts out the brains of his victims in order to replace them with someone else’s brain qualify as horror. The rejection of the label is undoubtedly the result of those long standing dismissals of the genre. 

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