Saturday, December 22, 2018

Best TV Shows of 2018

For me, contributing to Slant Magazine's list of the year's best TV shows is as much about the process as the result: It's the motivation I need to catch up on candidates I missed earlier in the year, and to watch end-of-year debuts that sound interesting. There's so much good TV now, on network and cable and streaming services like Amazon and Hulu and Netflix, that it's not humanly possible to see it all, but I've seen probably more than was healthy. So here are my top 10 picks and my honorable mentions.

Top 10
The Handmaid's Tale (my interview with Ann Dowd about The Handmaid's Tale, among other things)
The Americans
Homeland (my review of Season 4)
Bojack Horseman
Better Call Saul
The Terror
Killing Eve
Random Acts of Flyness

Honorable Mentions
Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas, Silicon Valley (my recaps of Season 4). The End of the F**cking World, Big Mouth, Jane the Virgin, Ozark (my review of Season 1), Pose, Claws, Dear White People, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (my review of Season 4), Wild Wild Country, The Good Place (my review of Season 2), Barry, Happy!, The Baroness Von Sketch Show, Salt Fat Acid Heat

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Interview: Pawel Pawlikowski on Cold War

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, like his Oscar-winning Ida, highlights a traumatic period in Poland’s recent history, and how a brutal political reality warps people’s lives. In the film, Poland’s totalitarian government and the iron curtain that separates the country from the West is hardly the only thing that keeps doomed lovers Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) apart, but it’s certainly the main one. It also interferes with their ability to do good work. Wiktor is the co-founder a troupe that performs Polish folk music and dances. Zula is the star of the troupe, whose initially artistic performances become steadily more maudlin and nationalistic under the heavy hand of Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the communist bureaucrat who runs the company.

After the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, Pawlikowski talked to me about the echoes of modern politics that Polish audiences detect in Cold War, how the film eluded the grasp of the propagandists who maligned Ida, and why he doesn’t stick too closely to his scripts.

I’ve seen two of your earliest movies, My Summer of Love and your first documentary, about Russian writer and dissident Benedict Yerofeyev. Ida and Cold War felt to me like they’re operating on a whole different, much deeper level. Did they feel different to you too?

It’s age. Age and experience. A mixture of, you know, calming down, maturing, craft. I never went to film school, so I did all my learning on the job. A lot of these early films are just rescue jobs—a good idea, and they generally work, because there’s something about them. I was usually just gripped by a story. Benedict was a writer I really loved, so I had to make a film about him. He was dying, and there was nothing to film. I had to invent a whole film around his book, so I pieced it together any old how, as poetically as possible.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Random Acts of Flyness

In the first episode of his Afrofuturist-ish HBO sketch show, creator, director, and star Terence Nance says Random Acts of Flyness is “about the beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.” That broad frame allows Nance to download a multiverse of thoughts and ideas, from pointed observations about casual misogyny to a satiric skewering of “white thoughts.” Building on his work in films like An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Nance invents his own kaleidoscopic audiovisual language. Images switch frequently between realistic and surrealistic live action, obscure archival footage, and various styles of animation. Words blossom in myriad forms: as near-subliminal messages, as text exchanges that break into the action to comment on it, as fast-talking monologues or probing conversations.

The Terror

Based on the true story of a failed British expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-19th century, The Terror explores the toxic combination of arrogance and bravery that fuels the exploratory missions launched by great colonial powers. After getting stuck for a year and a half in Artic ice, the men, weakened by lead poisoning and fighting the elements, set off on foot in search of salvation. The Terror brings those awful facts vividly alive—and then goes further, creating a full-blown horror story by introducing a monster called the Tuunbaq, which looks something like a giant polar bear with a human face. The men divide into two factions, battling one another as well as the monster while dying in increasingly baroque ways.


Unlike Homeland, which is based on another Israeli TV series, Fauda makes no attempt to cover the political debates or social context behind its constant action. Instead, like its main characters, it keeps its head down and its focus tight. The series follows the fictional members of an elite undercover unit of the Israeli army and whichever Palestinian freedom fighter/terrorist that Doron (Lior Raz), a rogue member of the unit, is obsessed with that season, while occasionally checking in with a handful of other Israelis and Palestinians—-family members, lovers, or commanding officers—-who either affect or are affected by the main characters’ actions. Fauda (Arabic for “chaos”) is particularly good at showing how war, especially one with no end in sight, poisons the lives of everyone—-even civilians.


This soulful soap operatic drama pays tribute to New York City’s ball culture of the 1980s. Painting in broad, dramatic strokes, the script highlights the factors—racism, homophobia, transphobia, AIDS, and the wealth gap—that inspired these men and women to create their own world and faux families, where they could show one another the love and respect that they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Interview: Nicole Holofcener on The Land of Steady Habits

In films like Lovely and Amazing and Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener's characters talk and talk, taking the temperature of the relationships that both provide them emotional support and serve as yardsticks to measure their personal growth or stagnation. Holofcener's sly observational humor helps make her dialogue feel like conversations with an old friend—honest, engagingly gossipy, and studded with thought-provoking insights—and ensures that, while bad things may happen to her flawed but well-meaning protagonists, her films never slide into mawkishness.

Her latest, The Land of Steady Habits, is in many ways a typical Holofcener film. Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) is a middle-aged family man who finds himself living alone, trying to construct a new life and mend a frayed relationship with his adult son (Thomas Mann) after leaving his wife (Edie Falco) and retiring from his lifelong career. The film is also a departure for the director: the first of her six features that isn't based on an original Holofcener script (she adapted the screenplay from Ted Thompson's novel), the first not to center on female characters, and the first that doesn't feature Catherine Keener, Holofcener's fictional alter ego ever since Walking and Talking. I spoke with Holofcener this week about escaping the “chick flick” ghetto, what Mendelsohn has in common with Keener, and her plea for older actors.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Interview: Andrew Bujalski on Support the Girls

The finely tuned bullshit detector that keeps writer-director Andrew Bujalski's ego in check, nudging him to sprinkle his conversations with self-deprecating demurrals and constant reminders of his own blind spots and vulnerabilities, is part of what makes him such an excellent chronicler of our inner lives and times. The New York Times's A.O. Scott called Bujalski's first feature, Funny Ha Ha, “one of the most influential films of the '00s.” Each of his subsequent films has been very different from the others—and from nearly every film imaginable. His work seems to exist outside genre and screenwriting dogmas, featuring characters who feel like people you'd encounter only in life, and plots so subtle they barely register as such.

Bujalski's films also share a slyly comic humanism that finds both pathos and humor—often at once—in everything from the most banal of conversation to the profoundest of emotions. His latest, Support the Girls, is about a Hooters-like sports bar called Double Whammies and the women who work there. And at the center of the film is Regina Hall as Lisa, the harried, insanely competent, and warmly caring manager who protects and defends the waitresses whose prominently showcased breasts are the sports bar's main attraction by making sure it lives up to its promise of being “a family place.” I talked to Bujalski about what places like Double Whammies tell us about American culture, finding the essence of the film in the editing room, and filmmaking as a balancing act between order and chaos.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Interview: Raúl Castillo on We the Animals

After moving in 2002 from his native Texas to New York City, where he soon became a member of the prestigious off-Broadway LAByrinth Theater Company, playwright and actor Raúl Castillo spent a decade or so playing supporting roles in film and television. Then came HBO's Looking, in which he starred as the boyfriend of the neurotic lead character played by Jonathan Groff. Castillo's soulful performance as Richie brought the actor a new level of attention. This year, the actor made a notable appearance in Steven Soderberg's Unsane, and last fall he finished work on what he calls “the first Latino superhero film,” El Chicano, in which he has his first lead role.

This week, you can see Castillo in director Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, a Malickian tale of a loving but volatile family told from the point of view of one of three young boys (played by Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian). Castillo is magnetically tender and explosive as Paps, the young father of the family and the sun around which his wife, Ma (Sheila Vand), and children revolve, even when he's an absent presence.

I recently spoke with Castillo about working with young nonprofessional actors in We the Animals, finding his character in Looking, and what Groff taught him about being number one on the call sheet.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Interview: Rob Reiner on Shock and Awe and the real source of fake news

Rob Reiner has acted in, written, produced, and directed almost every genre of film and TV show, but his wheelhouse is humane, sharply observational, and subtly unconventional comedy. He was deeply involved in at least three classic comedies: his own This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride and Norman Lear's All in the Family, in which Reiner played Michael “Meathead” Stivic, the liberal son-in-law of Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker.

Another side of Reiner, his commitment to social justice and democratic values, is front and center in his latest directorial effort, Shock and Awe. Reiner also stars in the film as real-life Knight Ridder editor John Walcott. Shock and Awe shows how two of Walcott's reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, exposed the lies behind the Bush administration's rush to war with Iraq after 9/11—and how their stories were drowned out by a tsunami of press coverage that unquestioningly amplified the White House's official story. The film is fierce in telling the history of the leadup to war and at capturing the journalists' irreverent patter and the smug prevarications of the Bush administration's cabinet members. I recently talked to Reiner about the real source of fake news, the surprising new urgency that Shock and Awe took on after the 2016 election, and why he wanted to change his name when he was eight years old.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Interview: Debra Granik on Leave No Trace and tuning into people on the margins

Debra Granik's social-realist films, which are concerned with people living on the margins of mainstream American culture, are full of engrossing and enlightening details. And like her 2014 documentary Stray Dog, about a burly Vietnam vet, Ron Hall, who's all about creating nurturing communities, Granik's three narrative features to date focus on individuals leading hardscrabble lives. The first two, Down to the Bone and Winter's Bone, catapulted Vera Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. Her latest, Leave No Trace, which centers around another veteran, Ben Foster's Will, may just do the same for Thomasin McKenzie

The 17-year-old New Zealand actress plays Tom, the severely traumatized Will's teenage daughter. Both live off the grid outside Portland, Oregon, until authorities arrest Will for squatting illegally in a public park and attempt to re-acclimate him and his daughter to “normal” society.

Last week, I talked with Granik at her publicist's office in New York. Animated, sincere, and intensely committed to her every word, she spoke of the importance of kindness, why her films tend to launch female actors into stardom, and what she, a liberal Northeastern artist, has learned from her work about how to connect with likely Trump voters in America's heartland.

We just accept that films like yours will play at festivals and art houses and won't garner big audiences even when they get great reviews, but sometimes I wonder why. Do you think it's because most people don't want to watch stories about people who are living in poverty or on the margins of society?

I think so. One of the things that's hard to argue with, and I think about this all the time, is that the main way we see the word “movies” is as entertainment, right? If one is going for escape or time out or relaxation, to see social realism is—if you're living it, or even if you're from a very different sort of social class and you've just never felt at ease with the way the economic culture is structured, on top of everything else you deal with, it can be hard to go seek that. It's not really entertainment any more.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Interview: Toni Collette on Hereditary

With a strong-featured, hyper-expressive face whose wide-set eyes don't appear to miss a thing and a joie de vivre that she radiates in person as well as on screen, Toni Collette imbues all her characters with a grounded sense of realism as well as layers of emotional nuance. Ever since she captured international attention as the endearingly open-hearted title character in Muriel's Wedding, she's been in constant demand, playing a wide range of parts—from warmly nurturing, realistically harried moms in films like The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine to The United States of Tara's title character, a woman with dissociative identity disorder who's fighting to keep herself and her family together while coping with an evolving cast of alter egos.

Collette has been exceptionally prolific in the past year or so, appearing in 11 films and two TV series since 2017, with three more films currently in post-production, but her tour-de-force performance in Hereditary stands out even in that tsunami of output. Always intense and increasingly desperate, Collette's Annie is our guide into the bloody heart of darkness that's writer-director Ari Aster's debut feature, a psychological horror film about a mother who keeps losing the people she loves in ever more macabre catastrophes.

I talked with Collette this week at the New York office of A24, Hereditary's U.S. distributor, about the advantages of aging and how she's learned to protect herself from the afflictions her characters endure.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Interview: Jodie Foster on Hotel Artemis

Though she's a two-time Academy Award winner (for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs), Jodie Foster has always been a bit of an outlier in Hollywood. As a child actor, her precocious self-assurance, intelligence, and self-described “gruff” voice made her something of an anomaly when she played bright young things in family-friendly TV shows like My Three Sons and films like Napoleon and Samantha. Then, in a run of emotionally complex roles in darker fare, most notably as a 13-year-old prostitute with a riveting mixture of childish innocence and world-weariness in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the actress's knowing gravitas found a worthy showcase.

That pattern has more or less held throughout Foster's career, as she has alternated between intelligently crafted TV shows and films like Spike Lee's Inside Man and lush melodramas or slick genre movies in which her nuanced, stubbornly realistic performances stood out like an elegant dive into a kiddie pool. Foster is now at the core of an ensemble cast in writer-director Drew Pearce's Hotel Artemis, a dystopian fantasy set in L.A. in a not-too-distant future in which the hotel of the title serves as a secret, members-only hospital reserved for criminals who pay an annual membership fee.

Last week I spoke with Foster, who plays the nurse who tends to the troublesome group of tenants, about Hotel Artemis and other things, including the time she was attacked by a lion, the memorable afternoon she spent with Toni Morrison, and the alternate lives she kicks herself for not having led.

You're quoted on IMDb as having said that you're better suited for independent films as a director and producer, and that you think you're best in mainstream films as an actress because your style of acting is too “linear” for indie films. First of all, did you actually say that?
I think I did, but I'm always cursing myself for the stupid things that I say in print. I don't think it's wrong, but I do think that indies are different now. The theatrical world and our viewing habits have changed so much that, increasingly, real story and narrative is found on cable and streaming.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Interview: Rachel Weisz on Disobedience

Less remarked on than the Me Too movement, but at least as important to the women of Hollywood, the unspoken rule that sidelined generations of actresses after they had reached 40 or so is unraveling fast. A radiant 48, Rachel Weisz is at the forefront of that change, living the kind of life that had traditionally been possible only for male actors. Still building her family with husband Daniel Craig—the baby she's due to have later this year will be the first for the couple, each of whom has a child from a previous relationship—she's starring in films by auteurs like Yorgos Lanthimos and Paolo Sorrentino.

Weisz helps make sure those roles keep piling up by developing scripts like the one for Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience. After deciding she wanted to star opposite another woman, she read all the lesbian literature she could find in search of a love story and eventually discovered Naomi Alderman's 2006 novel Disobedience, which she tried to get made for almost a decade.

At the start of Lelio's film, Weisz's character, Ronit, leaves her bohemian life in New York City for the Orthodox Jewish community in London where she grew up, to attend her rabbi father's funeral. Once there, she encounters Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she'd had a passionate affair that scandalized their community. The two women are drawn to each other again, causing both to question the way they're leading their lives. I talked to Weisz earlier this week at a hotel in Tribeca where she was promoting the film, which was about to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Interview: Andrew Haigh on Lean on Pete and the Appeal of Passive Characters

Yorkshire-born writer-director Andrew Haigh specializes in stories about ordinary people experiencing emotional tsunamis that upend their sense of self. His latest, Lean on Pete, is about a lonely 15-year-old, Charley (Charlie Plummer), who sets out on an impulsive road trip after what's left of his already precarious family life evaporates, leaving him alone except for the quarter horse he bonded with while working in a D-level racing circuit. I met with Haigh at the offices of the film's distributor, A24, where we talked about why he prefers passive main characters, the importance of being melancholy, and how Lean on Pete finds a new way of exploring a theme that runs through all of the director's work: our struggle to feel less alone.

Your work is usually about people finding themselves through relationships with other people, but Charley finds himself by relating to a horse. What was it about this story that compelled you to film it?

I think even [in my films about] people finding themselves through other people, it's about people essentially feeling very alone in the world, and they're desperately trying to find a way to not feel alone. If it's in the case of Weekend or 45 Years, it's through relationships, I suppose. But this was dealing with a similar thing, just in a different way. We all exist in a state of aloneness, and we find ways to not be like that, but they can very easily fall apart and we can fall back into aloneness again.