Saturday, August 04, 2018

Last word on 2017

[For months I’ve been waiting to fill in the beginning of this post by reviewing the five nominees for Best Foreign film, but it is a reflection of the marginalization of world cinema in the overall movie business, and of Netflix’s ever-waning commitment to breadth of DVD selection, that I still have not seen the top two.  So I am going to post this now, and add reviews of these when I finally see them: A Fantastic Woman (MC-86) and Loveless (MC-86).  (The first three reviewed below are the other Oscar nominees).]

On the other hand, Netflix streaming is the only way to see the Hungarian film On Body and Soul (MC-77, NFX), which is not an easy watch, but worth it for the award-winning work of two women, writer-director Ildiko Enyedi and lead actress Alexandra Bobely.  The latter plays a government inspector in a slaughterhouse, a pale fragile blond (I thought of Yvette Mimieux, if you can remember her).  Beyond shy, she’s clearly on the autism spectrum, and lives a bare life of managed scripts.  The boss of the place has his own social deficits, but reaches out to her, only to be rebuffed, until it is discovered that they are having literally the very same dreams – of the gentle relationship between a stag and a doe in a bucolic sylvan setting (shot beautifully, as in the finest of nature documentaries).  This film is a tough sell at best, starting with the slaughterhouse scenes, but develops a surprising power and poignancy. 

In The Insult (MC-72, NFX, AMZ), directed by Ziad Doueiri, a minor Beirut street encounter, between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee, escalates into continued altercation and eventual court cases, where the extent of sectarian atrocities and animosities that linger from Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s are brought into evidence.  I’ve tried to know as little as I could manage about Middle East conflicts during my lifetime, but this film was instructive in showing how Beirut went from cosmopolitan Mediterranean enclave to perpetual warzone, which prefigures Iraq, Syria, and all the rest.  It was also timely in reminding an American viewer of the extent of sectarian atrocities and animosities that linger from our Civil War in the 1860s.  A somewhat programmatic narrative is given depth by excellent performances across the board.

There were aspects of The Square (MC-73, NFX) that kept me watching long past the time when I knew I was not going to like it, primarily the film’s setting in an art museum in Stockholm, but by the end, I was resentful and wanted those two and a half hours of my life back.  Ruben Ostland’s film is provocative but inconsequential; it wants to make you uncomfortable, and does.  Occasionally comic in its satire but mostly cringe-worthy, it’s as smug and self-congratulatory as the people and situations it depicts, perfect for a Palme d’Or at Cannes.

I won’t go so far as to say the Swiss film The Divine Order (MC-67, NFX, AMZ) should have received a nomination, but I liked it more than most of those that did.  A polemical but sweet comedy about the coming of women’s suffrage to Switzerland (in 1971!), the film is obvious but rather endearing.  In a conservative village where no one will admit to favoring the vote for women, one housewife experiences an awakening, which becomes a movement that brings the tide of liberation to this backwater.  Somehow the film is simultaneously quaint and timely.

I mention Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (MC-60, Hulu), about a houseful of characters in 1970s Copenhagen, for two reasons only:  to praise the central performance of Trine Dyrholm, and to point you in the direction of an infinitely superior film in the same vein, Lukas Moodysson’s Together (NFX, AMZ).

Though The Shape of Water made a bigger splash, the best performance of the year by Oscar-nominee Sally Hawkins was delivered in Maudie (MC-65, NFX), Aisling Walsh’s adaptation from the life of Canadian outsider artist Maud Lewis.  Afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, Maud was virtually crippled, and mentally limited but shrewd.  Thrown out of her family home, she desperately attaches herself as housekeeper to an impoverished fishmonger played by Ethan Hawke, who is an even more limited product of an orphanage.  The house is so tiny that they have no choice but to sleep in the same bed, and eventually to marry.  The movie may have turned their lives into more of an unlikely love story than it was, but Hawkins and Hawke sell it convincingly, if inarticulately.  The husband’s harshness melts some when Maudie’s paintings start to bring in a little money, and then more as their house becomes a Nova Scotia tourist attraction (it now resides in a museum).  The seasons turn beautifully through the middle decades of the 20th century, as Maudie remains simply devoted to her painting and her man, the physical and emotional pain overcome by passion for her art.  I would show this at the Clark if I were still programming films there, maybe paired with another favorite of mine, Seraphine.

Last Flag Flying (MC-65, NFX, AMZ) is another film I single out as better than its general reputation.  Many critics seemed to resent Richard Linklater’s decades-later “sequel” to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, but I never shared that reverence for the original.  I would watch the Ashby again, if it were available, but it’s not really a prerequisite to the Linklater.  In the gap between Vietnam and Iraq, Jack Nicholson has morphed into Bryan Cranston, as filthy motor-mouthed iconoclast, now a drunken bar owner.  Laurence Fishburne has gone from hellraiser to preacher man, and Steve Carell is the gentle soul who served his time in the brig, only to lose his wife to cancer and his son to a Baghdad assassin.  He gathers the Marine buddies he hasn’t seen for thirty years, to accompany him to his son’s burial at Arlington.  Revelations lead to another road trip for the trio, as they re-forge their earlier comradeship.  Linklater’s relaxed and thoughtful direction gives the actors plenty of space to work out their characters, mixing the comic and the tragic, while commenting on America’s recent wars, those who serve and those who send them on fraudulent missions.

Finally viewed, Columbus (MC-89, Hulu) bumped the previous film from my top ten list for 2017.  In direction and themes, acting and setting, this debut film from Korean auteur Kogonada stands out and stands above.  It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about architecture, and one of the most architectonic in its own right.  You might find the film static and eccentric in its pacing and framing, but unlike so many “art” films, the elements of the human comedy come through clearly.  Ozu is a clear inspiration.  The director withholds and diverts attention, but does not frustrate.  The humanity of the film is immensely enhanced by the performance of Haley Lu Richardson as an extremely bright girl just out of high school, who lacks the finances and family stability to go away to college (reminiscent of Lady Bird).  So, stuck in her hometown of Columbus, Indiana (coincidentally, where Mike Pence is from), she forms an attachment to the architecture of this surprising mecca of mid-century modern architecture (the Saarinens et al.)  She works in the striking public library, but dreams of giving tours around the town’s great buildings.  She meets a Korean man – whose father is an architectural scholar, in town to give a lecture, where he suffers a stroke and now languishes in the hospital between life and death – and they bond over buildings.  John Cho is the son, and Parker Posey is the father’s protégé and associate.  Wistful, amusing, thoughtful, this film is a poem of blood and spirit, concrete and glass.

Molly’s Game (MC-71, NFX) was more engaging than a film about poker has any right to be.  Aaron Sorkin directs one of his scripts for the first time, and the cutting is as quick as the dialogue.  Jessica Chastain is quite marvelous as the title character, and Idris Elba brilliant as her lawyer.  Her career as competitive skier short-circuited by a serious mishap on the slopes, Molly Bloom deferred law school and went to LA, where she went from cocktail waitress to hostess of a high-stakes poker game, eventually running the whole show, and then moving it to NYC, where she ran afoul of various mobs, including the Feds.  This a crime story that turns on matters of honor and pride, rather than of guilt or innocence.  Maybe the first-person narration, adapted from Bloom’s own story, is a little too insistent, and maybe the film drags past the two-hour point and would have been well-advised to severely cut Kevin Costner’s role as Molly’s father – nonetheless I wouldn’t fold on it.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (MC-65, NFX) depends a lot on the appeal of Annette Bening, and the woman she plays, the film noir star Gloria Graham, both of whom interest me but may not interest you.  It’s the story of Graham’s last years, told through the memoir of her young lover, played well by Jamie Bell.  The gender reversal from the usual May-December romance is refreshing, and Paul McGuigan’s direction is effective, if a bit tricky.  I rather liked this romantic weepie with a hard edge, but it’s far from a must-see, unless you’re a particular admirer of Ms. Bening.

To me, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (MC-75, NFX) was a very mixed bag.  Joseph Cedar is an Israeli writer-director who made a point of casting his American Jewish characters against type.  Richard Gere transforms himself from WASP Master of the Universe into a Manhattan macher as shlub, a low-rent Madoff or Michael Cohen.  He’s well-dressed enough, but apparently homeless as well as officeless, walking the streets and taking refuge in libraries or coffee shops, always plugged into his phone, trying to make deals out of no tangible assets, except his ability to ingratiate and fabricate.  Michael Sheen is his nephew, Steve Buscemi is rather hilariously a rabbi, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is a corruption investigator.  Gere lucks out with a connection to an Israeli politician, who becomes an unlikely Prime Minister, and favors get exchanged, until he gets caught in a web of promises he can’t keep.  Cedar’s film is funny and sad, but tries too hard for an antic tone, while remaining serious, with a conclusion more wishful than convincing.

[Click through for more reviews and my tardy Top Ten of 2017]

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Ex Libris, et cetera

Given filmmaker and subject, there was little chance I wasn’t going to love Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (MC-91, NFX).  Predictably, I fell hard.  Frederick Wiseman is the unchallenged master of the institutional documentary, and in my view (and perhaps Wiseman’s) the library is the most representative institution of a democracy.  New York, the Public, the Library – all subjects dear to his heart, and to mine.  This is unquestionably my pick for Best Documentary of 2017, though I don’t believe any of Wiseman’s films have ever been nominated, even if he did receive an honorary Oscar in 2016 (check out his puckish acceptance speech).  He’s the ultimate fly on the wall, and lets scenes unfold at length without explication, and without any editorial intervention beyond shot selection, juxtaposition, and pacing.  His method is unvarying; his subjects diverse, but similar in the complexity of interlocking parts; the fascination of watching what he wants to show us is unfailing.  I confess to almost never viewing a three-hour-plus Wiseman film all in one sitting, not because I am ever bored, but rather because I am full up, sated for the time being, needing time to digest, and to refresh my attention.  Much of the film is devoted to the iconic building at 5th and 42nd, with the lions out front and Bryant Park out back, but many outlying and specialized branches are visited, including the Bronx Library Center designed by the firm of my architect friend William Stein.  You find yourself at meetings where none of the participants is identified, and at lectures where the speaker is unknown unless familiar from other contexts.  You are thrown back on your own resources of interpretation, though Wiseman is a subtle silent guide.  If you know his films, you must see the latest, but if you don’t, this would be an excellent place to start your acquaintance with one of my very favorite filmmakers.

I recently caught up with two Wiseman films that I’d never had the chance to see before:  Central Park from 1989, and Belfast, Maine from 1999.  These confirm that Wiseman’s work is all of one piece – and all of one quality, excellence – and by now his older films go beyond historical documentation to palpable time travel.  I’ve been following his career for fifty years, as a fellow Williams alum.  Too bad the availability of his films has been so limited, but there is now a representative sampling of DVDs on Netflix and streaming availability on Kanopy for cardholders of participating libraries.

The remainder of this post will be an omnium gatherum of loose ends – films or shows I’ve watched in the past year but never got around to commenting on.  But before the jump, I have to enter recommendations for a few streaming series that I’ve been absorbed in lately.

The Detectorists (BCG, NFX, Acorn) is a subtle, gentle, award-winning British comedy written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, who stars alongside Toby Jones.  The marvelous odd-couple pair spend their days in low-key bantering, out with their metal detectors crisscrossing fields in bucolic Essex, with pints at the pub afterward, and attending meetings with their strange-funny fellows at the detecting club.  This is one of those shows where the pleasures of making it – the people, the place, the material – show through.  The first two seasons stream on Netflix, but the third and apparently final season is only on Acorn (similar to Doc Martin in that respect, as well as others).

Sorry, but to describe the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country (MC-75, NFX), I have to recall Jean Renoir’s rusty but trusty truism, “The terrible thing about life is this: everyone has his reasons.”  Directed by brothers Chapman and MacLain Way, these six-plus hours follow the fate of Rajneeshpuram, a large early-1980s commune in central Oregon.  Though extensive archival news footage shows the media sensation the “free-love cult” became, I was happy in watching the series that I did not know how the story turned out, which left me open to the twists of the tale, and free to change my mind about the central characters over and over again.  On the one hand the direction seems try-anything and somewhat intrusive, like the music, but on the other hand it lets the characters unfold through their own words and memories, as juxtaposed to ample documentation from thirty-odd years ago.  The conflict between the Rajneeshees and the townspeople led to government intervention, and all three sides maintain their sides of the story to this day.  While the guru remains an enigmatic cipher, his steel-willed personal secretary is a fascinating paradox, either visionary or psychopath, or maybe both, an Indian woman we see then and now, as ruthless young go-getter and grandmotherly humanitarian.  It’s up to the viewer to unpack truths stranger than fiction.  This is not a documentary that tells you what to think, but one that presents lots of conflicting testimony and evidence and lets you decide who and what to believe, in an odd, but often repeated, sidelight of American history.

Though Hulu scored big with The Handmaid’s Tale (which I abandoned halfway through the first season), I took their month’s free trial to watch The Looming Tower (MC-74, Hulu).  Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning book was the one that informed my initial understanding of Al-Qaeda and the lead-up to 9/11, and he remains a much respected journalist, so his involvement here was key for me.  The actors also drew me in – led by Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, and Michael Stuhlbarg, though others less known perform equally well, as do name directors in several episodes.  In transition from book to screen, the emphasis shifts from the background of Islamic fundamentalism to American police procedural (or failure to proceed, given lack of cooperation between CIA and FBI), with some romantic complications added gratuitously.  Nonetheless, both stories track toward their familiar confrontation, but remain continuously involving.  The location shooting budget must have been substantial, and the intermix of documentary and drama works quite well.  I was reminded of Olivier Assayas’ outstanding Carlos trilogy.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Awards-season films

As I begin this round-up, just before the Oscar ceremony, I’ve seen only two of the nine Best Picture nominees, but this is the season when all the award candidates come to DVD in a rush, so I’ll be getting a steady diet, and updating this survey as they and other award-worthy films come to home video.

I’m going to start with the missing “tenth nominee,” namely The Florida Project (MC-92, NFX), which will certainly make my list.  Its only Oscar nom was for Willem Dafoe as Best Supporting Actor, and his performance was definitely an embellishment, but Sean Baker’s film has a lot more going on – its neophyte actors, its setting, its themes, and the humor and heart of its storytelling.   Foremost is the preternaturally poised and charming Brooklynn Prince, as the 7-year-old Moonee, who lives with her young single mother (Bria Vinaite) in the shockingly-mauve Magic Castle motel (where Dafoe is the sympathetic but overburdened caretaker) on an Orlando strip just outside Disney World, along with other “hidden homeless” parents and children.  It is literally a hand-to-mouth existence, but it is also a “magic kingdom” to Moonee and her friends, as they free-range over a tacky but kid-friendly environment, delineating both the deprivation and the delight of their enchanted existence.

There must have been something in the air, or the water, or the White House, for 2017 to welcome several films about a beleaguered nation in direst peril.  Two were nominated for Best Picture, but neither was my personal favorite on the subject of Dunkirk.  Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (MC-94, NFX) was a technical marvel (a good deal of which I missed by watching at home) with visual bravura, complex storytelling, and excellent actors, but did not in the end really satisfy me either as history or drama, more like an action flick with historical gloss.  I readily acknowledge it might have been different as a more immersive experience.

Somewhat better at the history and drama, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour (MC-75, NFX) stands or falls on Gary Oldman’s impersonation of Winston Churchill, who’s as perpetually present here as he is absent from Dunkirk.  Oldman does breathe some new life into the figurehead (as did John Lithgow in The Crown), but it still amounts to hero worship, and special pleading.  Ben Mendelsohn is good in the uncharacteristic role of King George, as are Kristen Scott Thomas as Clemmie and Lily James as the lovely typist who is our window into war room.  The film is not especially convincing or revelatory, but it is atmospheric, and suitably dark.

The Dunkirk movie I liked best was Their Finest (MC-76, NFX), which puts a frame on the event that is more humorous than super-serious, and leaks some of the hot air out of the other two.  Directed by Lone Scherfig, with an engaging lead in Gemma Arterton, and sterling support from the rest of the cast, the film follows an ambitious young woman into the film business, and into the making of a propaganda film about the Little Ships and Operation Dynamo, to serve the same purpose as Mrs. Miniver, to engage American popular support for Britain’s war effort.  After the elaborate CGI effects of Nolan and Wright, it’s a hoot to see how the movies at the time simulated the masses of men waiting on the beach at Dunkirk, by filming through a painted glass panel.  The rest of the film has a similar demystifying and humanizing effect, as a wartime rom-com.

Earlier in the year, I saw two films nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  The Oscar winner was Jordan Peele for Get Out (MC-84, NFX), though he was denied for Best Picture and Best Director, as was Daniel Kaluuya for Best Actor.  This is another film that strikes me as a good-but-not-great extended episode of Black Mirror, which is indeed where I first took note of Kaluuya.  The premise is certainly provocative, and I can see that genre trappings might have helped sell a thoughtful perspective on racism, and bring it to a wider audience.  I get the horror-show metaphor for slavery by other means, but there came a point when I tuned out on the twists of the plot.  On second viewing, I was more impressed with the witty double-meaning dialogue of the beginning, but just as put off by the blood-splattered zombie ending (though I can imagine the cheers going up among black audiences). 

Won’t have to look again at The Big Sick (MC-86, NFX), an early-year favorite that received token recognition with a screenplay nom.  This is a film that delivers all its pleasures on first viewing, and they are substantial, beginning with the script by Kumail Nanjani and Emily Gordon, firmly grounded in the truth of their actual history together.  Kumail has already endeared himself on Silicon Valley, and he is paired with the equally endearing Zoe Kazan.  Trouble is, his parents are trying to arrange his marriage to a nice Pakistani girl.  “Emily” gets sick bigly, and Kumail must interact with her parents in hospital waiting rooms.  They are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, so the riffs are pretty funny as well as wryly truthful, as is the whole film under the direction of Michael Showalter. 

I guess I must take back all the snarky things I’ve said about Greta Gerwig.  I’ve generally found her to be an oppressively free spirit, but in the wake of Lady Bird (MC-94, NFX), her first solo effort behind the camera, I have to acknowledge her artistry.  Clearly autobiographical in spirit, if not in fact, it follows the passionate and troublesome senior year of a Catholic high school girl in Sacramento, yearning to go to New York for college, despite her family’s sketchy finances.  One of the most amazing aspects of Saoirse Ronan’s pitch perfect performance (BTW, have you ever heard her natural Irish accent?) is coming across as more Greta than Greta, without slavish imitation.  Laurie Metcalf has been justly celebrated for her role as Christine’s (aka Lady Bird’s) mother, a psych nurse working double shifts to keep the family afloat, while Tracy Letts, in a gentler role than usual, is the sympathetic but superannuated dad.  Swift, funny, clear-eyed but affectionate, well-judged in every scene, Ms. Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut certainly ranks among the best films of the year.  How could I not love a film whose central moment appropriates one of my own key insights (or lifts it from the same place I did, wherever that was, as a fellow English/Philosophy major) – that love and attention are the same thing?

Here’s a brief detour to a film that is not in any awards discussion, but may give you a glimpse of the next Greta Gerwig, if you’re in the mood for an accessible, inoffensive Millennial rom-com.  Noël Wells writes, directs, and stars in the transparently autobiographical Mr. Roosevelt (MC-73, NFX).  She’s trying to make it as a comedian in LA, when she hears from her ex-boyfriend back in Austin that her cat is dying.  Impulsively, she flies back and finds out that not only has her cat died, but another woman has moved in with her ex.  Very much part of the Austin milieu, this is a witty and promising calling card for Ms. Wells (late of SNL and Master of None).

I’m going to enter a minority report on Call Me by Your Name (MC-93, NFX).  Luca Guadagnino’s film did not turn me on, as it did so many others.  I did not fall in love with either precocious teen Timothée Chalamet or grad student Armie Hammer, or the sensuality of a ripe Italian summer.  Nor with the former’s father and latter’s employer, archaeologist Michael Stuhlbarg (though Amira Casar is nice as the boy’s mother).  Perhaps I am a dried up old man, but I did not see this film as the critical consensus did.  I saw vacancy where many were filled with emotion.  I found the whole production slick and overblown.  Not without merit, but the film did not call my name.

Another minority report:  I fervently disliked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (MC-88, NFX), by writer-director Martin McDonagh.  I’ve never seen so many good actors so utterly wasted; I’m not even going to list them, to protect the innocent.  Somehow Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell won Oscars for this mess, and at least in her case, an argument could be made for her performance.  As in Olive Kittredge, she makes a sympathetic character out of an angry, strong, and difficult woman, but the material never rises to anywhere near her level.  To call the tone of the film uneven does not begin to address its lack of plausibility or coherence.  Is it an unfunny comedy, an unmoving tragedy, or a limp thriller?  I didn’t believe or care about a minute of it.  Watch if you must, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

With a predilection for documentary realism, I’m not generally a fan of movies dependent on CGI, though sometimes I simply have to acknowledge the state of the art.  I, Tonya (MC-77, NFX) was most acclaimed, and justly so, for the performances of Margo Robbie as Tonya Harding, and Allison Janney, cannily cast against type as her odious mother, deliciously evil.  Director Clark Gillespie sets a breakneck pace that is impossible to sustain throughout, even when driven by well-chosen pop songs of the era, but the film is grounded in a mostly truthful script, about the self-described redneck girl determined to make it big in the prissy, princessy world of figure skating.  Especially after watching the recent winter Olympics, it was fun to revisit early ’90s competitions, and I was particularly impressed (as with the tennis in Battle of the Sexes) at the way superhero and fantasy technology has been adapted into sports movies, for more seamless verisimilitude than heretofore.  I’m sure Margot Robbie and Emma Stone are fine athletes who worked themselves into shape, but CGI turns them into convincing professionals.  Fast, funny, factual, and even insightful, I judge this film to be an 8.1.

I approached the anointed “Best Picture” with mixed feelings.  Neither creature features nor Latin American “magic realism” have ever been my thing.  But I love Sally Hawkins, and I definitely appreciated Pan’s Labyrinth, so I had an open mind toward Guillermo de Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water (MC-87, NFX).  The film also features many familiar faces (mostly welcome):  Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Shannon (though is he ever going to be cast against type, as a good guy?).  The unfamiliar face is the most striking, the Amazonian fish-god played by Doug Jones in a dazzling meld of make-up and CGI effects.  Our girl Sally, a mute cleaning woman in a nefarious military research facility where the creature is alternately studied and tortured, falls in love with the figure in the water.  The affair is worked out with some plausibility, at least emotionally, but I myself did not fall in love with this “beauty and the beast” fairy tale, even with its cinephiliac gloss.  So while I don’t call bullshit on the Oscar win, this film was not the best in my book.

Phantom Thread (MC-90, NFX) is another film for which I cannot work up the expected enthusiasm.  In my view, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson looks magisterial but misguided.  He is a master of style(s), but his understanding of story and character is not congruent with mine.  I am left dazzled but befuddled.  It’s no surprise that my favorite of his films, Inherent Vice, tells someone else’s story.  In fact, he seems much like the character played here (impressively but opaquely) by Daniel Day-Lewis, a British fashion designer in the 1950s.  Both of them piece together designs that are striking and impressive, but outlandish and inhuman.  Lesley Manville is cut from the same cloth, as the sister who is the no-nonsense business and personal manager of the sensitive, odd artist.  Vicky Krieps is the waitress whom our Pygmalion plucks from obscurity to be the next in his succession of model-muses.  She is not a person to be dislodged, however, and makes unprecedented demands on the fragile genius.  Is this a love story, or a tale of mutual mania?  Don’t ask me. 

Be forewarned that I have an inherent bias toward films in which we see a linotypist setting copy – shades of my father! – after the reporters have done their work, and before the pressmen and mailers can do theirs.  Roll the presses, and you’ve won my attention and affection.  So it’s no surprise that I loved The Post (MC-83, NFX), like Spotlight and so many other newspaper films, even though I can go either way with Steven Spielberg films.  A few of his signature scenes are a touch much here, but on the whole he’s shooting a good script with masterful ease.  The astounding cast manages to match very familiar actors to historical characters in a way that offers a double layer of recognition.  Starting of course with Meryl Streep as Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, but the rest of the large cast comprises a who’s who of quality cable tv stars, too many to mention here, but you’re sure to glimpse some of your favorites.  Many strands are woven through the story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers, rapidly braided with plenty of historical context and highly-pointed contemporary relevance, about government lies and freedom of the press.  So of the Oscar nominees, I would have voted for The Post as Best Picture, while citing Lady Bird as Most Perfect Picture.

In the category of Best Documentary Feature, the Oscar-winner Icarus (MC-68, NFX) was a fascinating mess – too long and too scattershot – but timely and suggestive.  It starts as filmmaker Bryan Fogel takes PEDs to improve his performance as an amateur long-distance cyclist, and to unmask the failure of testing to reveal cheating.  He enlists as his guru the head of the Russian anti-doping lab, and the film takes an abrupt turn when that flamboyant character becomes central to the state-sponsored doping scandal that got Putin & Co. banned from the Olympics.  So what starts as a narcissistic project turns into a very telling inquiry into how Putin and his cronies operate, borrowing in style from the Citizenfour playbook.

A far better film, but also timely and suggestive, was Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (MC-73, NFX, PBS).  Now here’s an accomplished documentarian (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), with an intimate approach that opens out into a wealth of important and overlapping themes.  Abacus is a bank in NYC’s Chinatown, which was the only one prosecuted for the mortgage meltdown of a decade ago.  All the big banks paid huge fines without ever admitting guilt and never going to trial, but Abacus is taken to court in what amounts to a show trial.  On top of a conviction of their own innocence, the Chinese family had three daughters who were lawyers and could mount a multiyear defense amounting to millions of dollars.  The personalities of the patriarch and founder of the bank, along with his wife and daughters, and the community of Chinatown, become as important to this multidimensional film as the outcome of the case, which is suspenseful and eye-opening throughout.

Whether or not you’re already a fan of Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners & I and The Beaches of Agnès, or all the other films of her 60-year career, you ought to see Faces Places (MC-95, NFX), a thoroughly charming and characteristic collaboration between the 89-year old doyenne of the New Wave and a young French street-artist named JR.  He has a photo booth van in which they drive around to villages (as in the French title, Visages Villages), and invite people they meet into the booth, which immediately produces large-scale portraits.  When JR finds a surface he likes – abandoned brick house fronts, sides of barns, water towers, etc. etc. – he and his crew paste up huge images of local appeal.  Then Agnès films the reactions of the locals, as she and JR banter along.  The result is a miracle of delight and substance, a roadtrip into the heart and soul of France.

Netflix gives wide distribution to Oscar-nominated documentaries, not just streaming but actually producing them.  The unjust deaths of black men have been well documented over the years, but Strong Island (MC-86, NFX) is a very strong and personal addition to the genre, with much to make it more than a story you’ve heard before.  (Though you have heard it before, with distressing regularity.)  Yance Ford’s brother was murdered twenty-some years ago on Long Island, in a case where he was transformed from victim to suspect, and the white triggerman never charged.  Ford dives deep into the case, and into the legacy of pain and disbelief in his family, as well as revealing his own transgender experience.  It’s an intimate and unflinching self-portrait of a family under the greatest duress.

The final nominee is also on Netflix, and probably a worthy exposé, but I’m sorry, I couldn’t get more than a few minutes into Last Men in Aleppo (MC-80, NFX).  The sight of a crying infant being unburied from the rubble of a bombed building was too much for me.  The humanitarian crisis of Syria and the wider Middle East is beyond my ability to comprehend or to bear.

So my personal fifth nominee would be Jane (MC-87, NFX).  Apparently as plain and simple as its title, Brett Morgen’s film relies on rediscovered footage of Jane Goodall as a twenty-something English rose, lovingly shot by her husband-to-be, living alone amidst a community of chimpanzees in the depths of Africa.  You can readily see why she became an international media sensation – lovely, captivating, brave and determined.  And with latter day interviews, and some filling in of the intervening years, you can see how Ms. Goodall has put her celebrity to good use, and the wisdom she has distilled from her experiences.  It’s interesting to compare personalities and fates between her and Dian Fossey (about whom NatGeo also did a doc series).  This film is as artful as it seems plain and simple.  See for yourself.

While on the subject of documentaries worth seeing on Netflix, let me highlight two that merit their high MC ratings.  Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (MC-87, NFX) follows the prima ballerina from twenty years of headlining for the New York City Ballet, through a late-career injury and extensive rehabilitation, to the reinvention of herself as a dancer – a beautiful, brutal, and inspiring journey.

Also beautiful and brutal, but rather dispiriting, is Chasing Coral (MC-86, NFX), which documents the widespread phenomenon of coral bleaching, caused by rising ocean temperatures.  The viewer is captivated by the passion of the coral scientists and researchers who set out to capture the process, the life and beauty it destroys, in time-lapse underwater photography.  It’s a quest, but when the results are shown to a conference on the subject (and to us), all faces take on a funereal aspect, literally watching an ecosystem die from climate change.  If facts don’t convince you, feelings might.

This year’s slate for Best Animated Feature was not as strong as last year’s, with two nominees I have no intention of seeing.  The winner was Coco (MC-81, NFX).  Pixar’s film is not on the level of Up or Inside Out, let alone Toy Story or the studio’s other early hits, but still was appealing.  It followed more in the vein of its owner Disney with Moana, trying to be authentically multicultural, in this case by exploring the mythology of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.  Full to the brim with humor, color, music, and family feeling, Coco checks all the feel-good boxes in a story about the afterlife, in which half the characters are skeletons.  The protagonist is a plucky 12-year-old boy who defies his shoemaking family’s ban on music, in force since the long-ago disappearance of his guitar-playing great-great-grandfather.  Coco was his little girl at the time, but now she is the venerable matriarch of the clan.  Checking out how successful the film was, I realized that of the fifty top-grossing films of the year, Coco was the only one I’ve seen, aside from Wonder Woman and Dunkirk.  Keep that in mind when evaluating my movie recommendations.

The Breadwinner (MC-76, NFX) approaches the gravity of Takahata’s classic Grave of the Fireflies, in portraying the survival (or not) of children in the direst of situations, in this case a mother and two daughters who have to navigate a narrow path to get food on the table in Kabul, after the Taliban have thrown the father in jail for no reason.  I have to agree with the IndieWire reviewer that Nora Twomey’s film “cements Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon as an animation powerhouse worth mentioning alongside the likes of Pixar, Laika, and the great Studio Ghibli.”  (He forgot Aardman.)  Like the The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this film does drag a bit at times, but the simple graphic style is versatile and surprisingly expressive, like an excellent children’s picture book, and the story is worthily multicultural, giving a picture of Afghanistan from the perspective of its own history, even though the film is essentially a Western production (and decidedly PG-13).

I would have enjoyed presenting Loving Vincent (MC-62, NFX) at the Clark.  I’m sure art historians might quibble with the investigation of Van Gogh’s last days in this film by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, and painting aesthetes might sniff at jejune imitations of his style, but I still found the film remarkable in its unprecedented animation by thousands upon thousands of oil paintings.  The technique is something like rotoscoping, in that a live-action original is being rather woozily animated, but here it is not a digital process.  It’s created from a succession of painted frames based on Van Gogh’s iconic images, painstakingly executed by more than a hundred artists, in slightly varying styles, generating a pictorial kaleidoscope and an indelible homage to the beloved artist.  (The DVD includes a most interesting “making-of” extra.)

[I’ll be back to catch up with the nominees for Best Foreign Film, and other loose ends.]

Friday, March 02, 2018

Looking at the past year in film

As with my previous post on tv shows, I will lead with a somewhat gynocentric approach to the films of 2017, since most of my favorites featured women characters and creators.  That applies to one of the year’s best, My Happy Family, which I’ve already written about here.

Also guaranteed a place on my final best of year list is Mudbound (MC-85, NFX).  Though the film is the product of many voices, and seems to feature male characters, it is overwhelmingly a product of female sensibility, from the author of the original novel, to screenwriter/director Dee Rees (who is right up there with Ava DuVernay in the tiny elite of black female filmmakers) and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (first woman to get an Oscar nom in that category), to Cary Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, who are the soul of the cast.  The film truthfully depicts racial tensions in the Mississippi Delta in the Jim Crow years just before and after WWII, in a way that is both thoughtful and horrifying.  It tells the polyphonic story of two interlocking families: one white, poor and feckless but privileged to own their farmland; one black, hardworking sharecroppers with no rights to the product of their labors.  No Hollywood prettying up here, despite the intimately epic style.  These people are dirt poor, and bound to the mud from which they try to extract a living, and in which they wrestle with historic injustice.

A surprise possibility for my Top Ten is Marjorie Prime (MC-82, NFX, AMZ).  Though Michael Almereyda is the director, the soul of the film feels female, from its title to its two central characters, a mother and daughter played wonderfully well by Lois Smith and Geena Davis.  Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins play their respective husbands, in clearly supporting roles.  You might call this sci fi, or more probably speculative fiction – it could be a top-notch extended episode of Black Mirror – but it plays as a low-tech chamber piece.  I found out after the fact that it was a filmed version of a play, and that makes sense (I had to back up to catch some of the abrupt scene changes), but I did not feel my usual aversion to filmed theater.  The movie is a puzzle piece, and I’m not going to say anything more about the story, except that it’s a film to exercise your emotions as well as your intellect and insight.

Here’s a pair of 19th-century period pieces, each an unflinching portrait of difficult Victorian era womanhood, in their different ways.   In A Quiet Passion (MC-77, NFX, AMZ), Cynthia Nixon overcomes physical unlikeness to offer a highly credible portrayal of Emily Dickinson.  Terence Davies’ inventive and idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing renders her life with the paradoxical insight of his title, clearly identifying with her mysterious character, subdued and formal yet wild inside.  Jennifer Ehle offers superb support and counterpoint as Emily’s light-spirited sister, while Keith Carradine does the same as her rigid but intense father.  Like Dickinson’s poetry, this film requires submission to its individual vision, but rewards those who succumb to its lovely, subterranean power.

Lady Macbeth (MC-76, NFX) is based less on Shakespeare and more on a Russian novel, opera, and film about a 19th century character who is a cross between Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley, with an even darker shade of Gothic horror.  Transplanted from Siberia to the north of England, the story is immaculately filmed in a constrained style, directed by William Oldroyd, and held together by a magnetic performance from Florence Pugh, as the layers of the poor young woman’s abused character are disturbingly peeled away to reveal an amoral heart of darkness.  It’s an intense and unsettling experience, powerful but not at all uplifting.

To me, Kristen Stewart is not the mega-star of the blockbuster Twilight series, which of course I haven’t seen, but an inventive actress who inhabits challenging roles in independent films.  She is decidedly unglamorous but still transfixing in Certain Women  (MC-82, NFX), which Kelly Reichardt adapted from three short stories about women navigating the man’s world of small-town Montana.  You can understand why a lonely young horsewoman develops a crush on her, and your heart aches for that character, played by affecting newcomer Lily Gladstone.  In the other two barely-connected stories, the leads are played by Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, so you know there is some serious acting going on here, which makes it easy to ride out Reichardt’s slow-paced but meticulous storytelling.  Meanings remain elusive, but tangible reality is strong.

Kristen Stewart also made another film with Olivier Assayas, following up on Clouds of Sils Maria.  In Personal Shopper (MC-77, NFX), she is again a personal assistant to a celebrity, but now much more the center of attraction and attention, as she seeks paranormal contact with her recently-deceased twin brother.  I’m not much into ghost stories (or Ghost Story – see below), but this is definitely one that managed to be spooky without being real cheesy.  The film wanders and meanders, but one’s gaze never wavers from the morose Ms. Stewart, who can go from mousey to glamorous with a simple change of clothes.

A change of clothes also does wonders for Gal Gadot, but she is never mousey.  She is Wonder Woman (MC-76, NFX), and makes the movie well worth seeing.  I generally make it a rule not to watch any superhero flicks, but I made an exception for this film’s supposed feminist slant.  That may be overstated – all nine credited writers are male – but it is directed by a female (Patty Jenkins), and certainly is dominated by its actresses.  I was quite taken with the mythological backstory of the Amazon kingdom ruled by Robin Wright and Connie Nielson, and impressed by the transition to WWI Britain.  But the dazzle soon wore off in the inevitable and interminable action sequences.  Not my idea of cinema, but not an unpalatable taste of popular culture.

More my sort of thing, in various ways, was the backstory behind the female comic book superhero, in Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (MC-68, NFX).  First off, it added another black female writer-director for me to follow, in Angela Robinson.  In this cultural moment of female (dis)empowerment, she streamlines and dramatizes the same story told by Jill Lepore in The Secret History of Wonder Woman: how an academic psychologist wrote the comic in the Forties, to advance radically feminist ideas along with B&D sexuality, while living and having children with his wife and another woman.  As always for me, Rebecca Hall stands out in the cast, as the professor’s more brilliant wife and research partner.  Luke Evans is Marston, and Bella Heathcote is the student who becomes the other woman in the long-term triangle.  It’s all quite kinky, but serious and funny at the same time.  The Metacritic rating is decidedly on the low side, but Manohla Dargis’ review in the NYT captures the right note, in my estimation.

Speaking of wonderful women, Billy Jean King is engagingly played by Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes (MC-73, NFX).  As you would expect from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, this film is rather obvious and crowd-pleasing, but it does have some genuine period flavor and a lot of appealing performances.  Steve Carell makes Bobby Riggs more manic clown than calculating boor.  Their eponymous 1973 showdown in the Astrodome (watched by 90 million people on tv, including yours truly) provides a foregone conclusion, but also an exhilarating thrill of nostalgia, as the tennis scenes unfold with verisimilitude.  Among the women, Sarah Silverman and Andrea Riseborough provide distinguished support, as Billie Jean’s promoter and newfound lover respectively.  In the year of #MeToo, the creepiest scene of all is the actual Howard Cosell with his arm wrapped around the neck of his co-commentator Rosie Casals.  An enjoyable movie, if not an estimable film.

Not vying for my best of year list, but mentioned here for their female directors, are two quite different films from careers going in different directions.  In Beach Rats (MC-78, NFX), Eliza Hittman takes a further step into the moody, sensual, scary world of teen sex in Brooklyn.  As in It Felt Like Love, this film is carried in all intimacy by its lead performer, in this case the captivating Harris Dickinson (incredible to learn after the fact that he is British) as a boy with a girlfriend, who nonetheless trolls the internet for hook-ups with older men. 

While Ms. Hittman is coming into her own and finding her voice, Sofia Coppola is reduced to repeating herself, and older films.  Her remake of the Civil War drama The Beguiled (MC-77, NFX) is also a reprise of her first film, The Virgin Suicides, in its depiction of the sexual urges of sequestered females.  Style is all well and good, but here it decays into nonsense, without grounding in any sense of truth.  This story of a wounded Union soldier taking refuge in a southern female seminary is pure fairy tale, and its arbitrary transplantation from Louisiana to Virginia is indicative of the film’s carelessness and unreality.  I generally like Colin Farrell, but he is no Clint Eastwood, for better or worse, and this character is just an unmotivated hash.  The schoolmarm is Nicole Kidman, and among the rest are Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, who are of course watchable, even when their actions are either too obvious or too senseless.  I’ve been a follower of Ms. Coppola’s career, but here she leaves me behind.

Now we turn our attention from women to men, as characters and creators.  Ken Loach is among my favorite workingdirectors, and I, Daniel Blake (MC-78, NFX) ranks with his best films.  David Johns is excellent as the title character, a Newcastle widower who has had a heart attack and is unable to return to his job as a carpenter.  As such, he falls into a bureaucratic hell where he is ineligible for either welfare or unemployment benefits, just churned through the system and spit out.  He forms a bond with another of the system’s rejects, a young single mother with two small children (Hayley Squires), and caring for them gives him a reason to persist, and eventually to enunciate the film’s credo:  I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user.  I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief.  I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights.”  The lead actor’s background as a comedian does a lot to lift the mood of a film that could have come across as grim, though the residue of outrage remains.  The Criterion Collection disk of this film also contains an excellent feature length documentary, Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach.

Working in very much the same leftist vein as Loach, though in a different style, the Dardenne brothers’ latest is The Unknown Girl (MC-65, NFX).  I don’t understand the reservations represented by that Metacritic rating, twenty points lower than their typical score.  Maybe not quite up to the very highest level of their previous films, it’s nonetheless among the best of the year, IMHO.  In the same manner, the actress around whom the film revolves, Adele Haenel, may not reach quite the level of Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night or Cecile de France in The Kid with a Bike, but she is quite magnetic.  Maybe some critics were put off by the Dardennes spicing up their austere style with genre trappings of crime procedural, as a young female doctor investigates the circumstances of a death for which she feels guilty.  The setting, as ever for the Dardennes, is among the struggling lower classes of Seraing, Belgium, with a tone of deep human sympathy and understanding.

Lucky (MC-79, NFX) was written as a final starring vehicle for 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton, and it turned out to be something beyond memorial or reminiscence, astringent rather than nostalgic, as befits the long-time character actor.  Another busy character actor, John Carroll Lynch, makes his directorial debut in this comic meditation on mortality and the meaning of life.  In a hardscrabble desert landscape, a cranky old codger goes through his daily routine, waking up to his first cigarette of the day, doing his set-up exercises in his underwear, walking to the local diner for coffee and crossword, home to watch his afternoon tv shows, then back out at day’s end to hang out with the local eccentrics at his regular tavern, declaiming mordant affirmations of misanthropy and atheism at every stop.  He’s wised up, and dried up, but he’s not giving up.

Another miserable guy you come to like and even admire for his peculiarities is the Ray Kroc portrayed by Michael Keaton in The Founder (MC-66, NFX).  I don’t know why this film was not better reviewed; certainly Keaton’s performance here was much more impressive than in Birdman.  As Kroc, he’s a sharp businessman in every sense of the word, screwing the MacDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and the aforementioned John Carroll Lynch) out of their name and franchise.  He’s by no means a sympathetic character, but he is shrewd and indomitable.  Sure he’s as predatory a capitalist as they come, sure he dumps loyal wife Laura Dern for equally mercernary Linda Cardellini, but somehow you have to grant his energy and drive in transforming the landscape (and waistline) of America, for better or decidedly worse.  With this witty cast and even-handed irony, director John Lee Hancock delivers a smart satire of business to rival The Big Short.

[Click through for a score more films of possible interest]

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Looking at the past year in TV

Politically speaking, don’t we all wish 2017 hadn’t happened?  Cinematically speaking, it wasn’t so bad, but still felt vaguely disappointing, though all the returns aren’t in yet, at least for a tardy viewer like me.  Frankly, I don’t get out of the house much, and wait for new movies to come to me by some medium of home video. 

One of the year’s disappointments was the end of my role as film programmer at the Clark.  So I don’t get to foist my favorites on a willing audience anymore, but I still want to call attention to films worth seeing, so I am going to persist with this blog as long as I keep watching oh-so-many films and tv series. 

I’m going to take an anecdotal approach to reviewing the past year, more raconteur than critic, dispensing pats and pans rather than analysis, a simple matter of thumbs up or down.  Not assuming the voice of authority, I’ll take a conversational tone and not strive for rigor or brilliance.

As I look down the list of films and tv I want to highlight, one thing strikes me as a thread running through the year.  In the media, 2017 was definitely a year of coming out for women, as much as it was in politics, from pussyhats to #metoo. 

I’ll start with tv shows, and with what might seem an exception to that generalization.  David Simon is a favorite of mine, and I am inclined to absolve him and George Pelacanos of the male gaze in The Deuce (MC-85, NFX, HBO), and to give extra credit to Maggie Gyllenhaal as producer as well as star.  As she is in the story, playing a Times Square hooker who moves into pornography production in the Seventies.  I thought this was a limited series, but apparently two more seasons are planned, each jumping seven years into the future.  In an unnecessary gimmick, James Franco plays two brothers, one a conscientious entrepreneur and the other a charming ne’er-do-well gambler (he also directs some episodes).  One of the pleasures of the series is getting re-acquainted with alums of The Wire and Tremé – though this show has not yet risen to quite that level.  But, believe me, this HBO series, despite its subject matter, depends a lot less on T&A than GoT.

I gather Big Little Lies (MC-75, NFXHBO) will return for further seasons as well, and I’ll definitely take another look.  How could you miss with a combine of Nicole Kidman, Reece Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern?  Direction by film pro Jean-Marc Vallee adds gloss to a soapy adaptation of a pulpy novel.  Deluxe setting in Monterey showplace homes is made delicious by gossip and infighting among the mothers of a group of first graders.  This could have been “Odious Housewives of Upscale Enclaves,” but rather is rich in characterization, as well as humor and sentiment, and domestic terrors of one sort or another.

Hulu clearly intends to drag out Handmaid’s Tale (MC-92) as long as possible.  I gave it five or six episodes before abandoning it in exasperation and impatience, and will certainly not come back for more.  For me the year’s infinitely better Margaret Atwood adaptation was Netflix’s Alias Grace (MC-82, NFX).  Since I don’t know Atwood’s work at all, the first guarantor of quality here was the adaptation by Sarah Polley, whom I consider a great filmmaker.  Director Mary Harron also has a track record.  Emerging star Sarah Gadon exceeds expectation in the very complicated lead role, of an Irish immigrant servant girl convicted of murder in Victorian Canada, whom many want to see released.  So many in fact, that they hire an American alienist to interview her (Edward Holcroft, a dead ringer for Matthias Schoenaerts) and determine how guilty or innocent she really is.  True to the historical case, it is never made clear whether the protagonist actually participated in the murders or not, but the kaleidoscopic telling and retelling of the story opens up more mysteries than it forecloses.  Absorbing and impeccably done period piece.

Not at that level, but quite entertaining and maybe a bit more, was Feud: Bette & Joan (MC-81NFX), carried by fascinating, resonant performances from Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, centered on their wary, feral relationship while making Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci offer manic but effective support, as director Robert Aldrich and mogul Jack Warner respectively.  There are any number of backstage and backstabbing pleasures in this Ryan Murphy series.

I enjoyed a number of woman-centered half-hour comedies in the past year, about which I have already commented in previous seasons.  Better Things (MC-96, FX) was widely acknowledged as one the best current shows.  Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical series about a single mom raising three daughters just keeps getting better and better.  Reality meets shtick and both are enhanced.  Similarly with Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi (MC-82, AMZ), also better and deeper in its second season.  Catastrophe (MC-96, AMZ), from the writing/acting duo of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, continued its too-true potty-mouthed hilarity into a third season.  Each series comes with my highest recommendation.

A new entrant in this category is GLOW (MC-81, NFX), which stands for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and jumps off from an 80s collective of women creating their own characters, or having them created for them, in a cross-gender attempt to capitalize on the popularity of totally fake professional wrestling.  The collective is not exactly feminist, as masterminded by impresario Marc Maron, but comes to be woman-dominated, by Alison Brie who assumes a Russian villainess role while her ex-friend Betty Gilpin assumes a cartoon Miss America persona.  The other women are engagingly varied in ethnicity and type.  Netflix also has an entertaining documentary on the original GLOW girls.

Joined by a connection to two of GLOW’s creators, and one of its stars, there was a concluded series that I was happy to binge-watch all seven seasons of.  Nurse Jackie (MC-78 avg, NFX) ran on Showtime from 2009-15, and I have to say it’s the first series from that channel that I ever watched and enjoyed from start to finish.  They seem to have a tendency to peter out, even when they start strong (Homeland is only the most extreme example).  Edie Falco as the title character – an extremely competent ER nurse who happens also to be a drug addict – is the rock that holds this whole thing together, though the rest of the cast are effective as caricatures, who develop a shallow depth over time.  Merritt Wever stands out as Jackie’s protégé, who eventually becomes her conscience and nemesis.  I watched this while editing a book about nursing, and it really felt like useful research.

Another show that I caught up with through its final season was AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire (MC-92, NFX).  I wrote about the first two seasons last year, and was engaged by the reversals of the next two seasons, though I was not blown away by the series’ concluding episodes in a way that would move it into my top ten (or however many) of all time.  I enjoyed the journey with Joe and Gordon, Cameron and Donna, as their relationships shifted and characters evolved.  Also, the techno-historic journey from the PC (“the thing that gets us to the thing”) to the wonders of Internet search.  In this series too, the women moved from the periphery to the center of the story.  Between this show and Silicon Valley, I feel that I know something about something I know nothing about.

A real candidate to enter the pantheon, Better Call Saul (MC-87, NFX) continued to rise in its third season, almost to the level of its precursor, Breaking Bad.  Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Jimmy-becoming-Saul, as is Jonathan Banks converging as Mike, but the real heart of the show has become Rhea Seehorn as Kim, especially with the season-ending departure of another major character (I’ll say no more).  It’s a major point of concern among many of us, what happens to Kim between the end of BCS and the beginning of BB.  This is the show whose return I look forward to most.

Here I take note of several highly-regarded shows to which I cannot make a commitment.  I’m on-again off-again with Fargo (MC-89, FX) – dismissed the first season, loved the second, endured the third.  That could be the way with these anthology series.  With American Crime (MC-90, NFX), so hard to differentiate from American Crime Story (source of the great O.J. miniseries), I’ve never had that on-again moment.  Similarly, so many critics declared The Leftovers (MC-98, NFX, HBO) the best show of the year that I had to give it a look.  Admitting that it’s unfair to judge a third and final season without watching the first two, I have to say that I was not grabbed at all, except by the performance of Carrie Coon, who was also the best thing in this season of Fargo.

I’ve lost all patience (and amusement) with HBO’s comedy centerpiece Veep (MC-88, NFX, HBO), but find Silicon Valley (MC-85, NFX, HBO) getting better and better, the only guy-centered show that I really enjoy.  On the subject of HBO comedies, I have to highlight the return of High Maintenance (MC-85, HBO), even though I haven’t yet seen all the current episodes.  Same with Netflix’s Black Mirror (MC-77avg, NFX), though I’ve written about both before.

Before turning to the British shows I enjoyed most of all this past year, I have to cite two highly heterogeneous series that ranked among my favorites.

Everybody’s heard about the new Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War (MC-90, NFX, PBS), but I wonder how many have actually endured it.  I’m here to testify that it is definitely worth 17+ hours of your time.  The rewards are great, however painful at times, in recapturing and understanding an era, especially if like me, that era marks your formative years.  Vietnam was the television war, so there is astounding footage throughout.  Interviews balance all perspectives, including Vietnamese.  The contemporaneous music track alone will carry you through those years.  A powerful, powerful experience.

Nobody’s heard about the new French series on Netflix, Call My Agent! (NFX), but I’m here to spread the word.  If you are a Francophile in cinema, as I am in nothing else (except maybe painting), then this is a series you should not miss, two seasons of six hour-long episodes.  The central characters are four diverse agents for a company that represents French movie stars, one or two of whom appear in each episode.  Some of them are longtime favorites of mine – Nathalie Baye, Fabrice Luchini, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche – and some are totally unknown to me, but each episode is great fun, with undertones of real-life drama, backstage and in the office.

Though I am an Anglophile in many areas, the Brits really stood out in TV this year.  The second season of The Crown (MC-87, NFX) was every bit as good as the first, and cements Claire Foy as one of my favorite actresses.  It’s a shame she won’t be back as Queen Elizabeth in future seasons, but I will look forward to them nonetheless, since the intelligence of writing and quality of production will likely persist, and there’s some interesting history to traverse.  Talk about women in positions of power!  I don’t have the effrontery to name the best tv of the year, but I can say that there was no show I watched with more relish than this.

With much less notice or acclaim, the tv film To Walk Invisible (MC-71, NFX, PBS) gave a very credible and creditable portrait of the Bronte sisters, and how they broke into print from a world of familial fantasy.  The story and acting seemed true to what I know of the Brontes, and the Yorkshire locations for sure, as it was written and directed by Sally Wainwright, well known for Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley.

I know there are a lot of cooking competitions out there, but I was never lured to watch one until I got hooked on the latest season of The Great British Baking Show (MC-88, NFX, PBS).  Highly entertaining, and more revealing of a diverse national character than you would expect.

Last but far from least, I was thrilled to learn that there were two more seasons (the 7th and 8th) of Doc Martin (BCG, NFX, ATV) available through the streaming service Acorn TV.  If you haven’t sampled the delights of this series, the first six seasons are also available on Netflix.  If you have, you will be delighted to return to the utterly enchanting Cornish seaside village of Portwenn, with its equally engaging tapestry of quirky village characters, stitched around the Aspergerish doctor from London, brilliant but with no people skills at all, played by Martin Clunes.  Against all odds, through each season, his love interest is played by Caroline Catz.  I don’t know that there is a more purely enjoyable show out there, given the humor and heart of the writing, the exquisite scenery and setting, the ease and charm of both the human and canine acting, and the seriousness of purpose that Doc Martin brings to his work.  There’s no show I recommend with more confidence that you will enjoy it, unless of course you’re a miserable human being.

Now that I’m rolling again with this reviewing business, I’ll be back soon with my round-up of the best films of 2017.