Friday, December 8, 2017
Here's Slant's list of the best films of 2017, which I contributed to.
And here are my top 10 picks and honorable mentions.
My Top 10
The Phantom Thread
A Quiet Passion
I Am Not Your Negro
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Lady Bird (my interview with Laurie Metcalf)
4 Days in France
My Honorable Mentions
For Ahkeem, Tempestad, BPM, Harmonium, Whose Streets?, The Florida Project, Intent to Destroy, Rat Film, Donald Cried, Get Me Roger Stone
Here's Slant Magazine's list of the year's top 25 TV shows, which I contributed to. And here's my 10 top list, plus a bunch of honorable mentions--lots, since there were so many good ones again this year.
My Top 10
The Leftovers (my interview with Ann Dowd)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Big Little Lies
The Good Place
The Americans (my review of Season 4)
Master of None
The Handmaid's Tale
My Honorable Mentions
Bojack Horseman, Narcos, Blackish, People of Earth, Rick and Morty, The Black Mirror, Alias Grace, Insecure, Episodes, Veep, Ozark, Better Things, Girls, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mindhunter, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Silicon Valley, You’re the Worst, Crashing
Get Out's central conceit, about a Stepford Wives-ish plot by blithely entitled suburban whites to colonize black people's bodies, is a trenchant metaphor for white supremacy. The timing, character development, and gift for social satire that writer-director Jordan Peele honed as a sketch comedian all translate effortlessly to horror, allowing the first-time filmmaker to entrance his audience as deftly as Catherine Keener's Missy mesmerizes Daniel Kaluuya's Chris with that tapping teaspoon. The Sunken Place where Missy maroons Chris is the film's most indelible image, a stomach-churning representation of how it feels to be stripped of your autonomy and personhood by a dominant culture that remains cruelly blind and deaf to your plight. In a world where almost no one is what they initially appear to be, Get Out anatomizes the evil lurking in the relatively benign-seeming prejudice that plays out as fetishization or envy, a form of racism that doesn't see itself as racist at all. Written for Slant Magazine
Except for some questions he's asked by interviewers and a few puny would-be rebuttals by smug debaters, whom he swats away like so many intellectual gnats, James Baldwin's diamantine words—sometimes spoken by the writer himself on video and sometimes read by a subdued Samuel L. Jackson—are the only ones heard in I Am Not Your Negro. Fueled by a perpetually simmering cauldron of grief and rage yet unfailingly compassionate and open-minded, the elegantly world-weary Baldwin traces the thick vein of racism that runs through the heart of U.S. history and culture, identifying it as the original sin the nation must come to terms with if it is ever going to become what it claims to be. “What white people have to do is find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place,” he says, just before uttering the phrase that gives the film its title—though he doesn't use the word “negro.” Raoul Peck borrows his film's structure from an unfinished work in which Baldwin had planned to compare the lives of three black civil rights leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The film sketches out the differing approaches adopted by the three leaders only broadly, but Baldwin's analysis shines through with brilliant clarity. While Jackson reads from both published and unpublished texts, archival video bleeds into recent news footage about travesties like the Trayon Martin killing, making it clear how distressingly urgent Baldwin's words still are. Written for Slant Magazine
Daily Show alum John Oliver has surpassed his former boss as the nation’s premier journalist/advocate disguised as a comedian. Jon Stewart’s near-nightly monologues sometimes skittered along the surface of a subject or fell into step with the rest of the stampeding media herd, but Oliver dives deep every week into a single topic, and he always chooses subjects whose bones have not been picked dry by cable news or other late-night commentators. Whether he’s discussing the true face of coal mining, the threat to local news posed by Sinclair Broadcast Group, or the many dubious products peddled by Alex Jones, he lays out facts with deadly precision, nailing what is being done and why it matters while pointing out underlying motivations and patterns. In his final show of the season, which summarized the first year since Trump’s election, he identified the three methods the president is using to undermine our democracy: delegitimizing the media, “what about-ism,” and trolling. Perhaps most impressively, he makes it fun to learn all these dry and/or depressing facts. His research and analysis may be solidly journalistic, but his delivery is acerbically comic, combining explosively expressive profanity and cheerful self-mockery with a classically British mix of verbal adroitness, instinctive distrust of authority, and an outraged contempt for hypocrisy. Written for Slant Magazine
The Good Place is to a lot of its fans what its resident philosopher, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), is to bad-girl-trying-to-make-good Eleanor (Kristen Bell). At first, Eleanor’s afterlife adventure felt like a familiar enough twist on standard sitcom tropes that we took it a bit for granted even as we started falling for the series’ heart, its smarts, and how good it always left us feeling—not to mention that brilliant twist at the end of season one. Then this season tossed all our assumptions about the characters, the relationships between them, and the world they live in into the air like so many mylar balloons, and there was no denying it any more: We are in love. An exploration of what it means to be a good person, The Good Place is so buoyantly silly that you might be surprised it earns the approval of a Fordham bioethicist. And, like Brooklyn Nine Nine and Parks and Recreation, two other shows by writer-producer Michael Schur, it has a generosity of spirit and a belief in the power of community that feels particularly necessary these days. Written for Slant Magazine
The first season of Master of None focused mainly on food-obsessed metrosexual Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) prototypically millennial attempts to attain a solid footing in his love and work lives, though his attempts to make it in show biz were sometimes complicated by his Indian-American ethnicity. This season, Dev’s career and love life more often retreated into the background to make room for other issues—and other points of view. “New York City, I Love You” shifted between a series of characters, like doormen and cab drivers, who generally appear only in passing in Dev’s travels through the city, and Dev was just a supporting character in “Thanksgiving,” a delicately told tale of how his friend Denise (Lena Waithe) came out as gay, first to him and then to her mother and grandmother. Those two standout episodes, plus bits in others like Dev’s decision to out himself as a pork eater to his Muslim parents, transformed Master of None from a very good rom-com about late adolescence in urban America to a rallying cry for the soul of the nation. Written for Slant Magazine
Tig Notaro’s traumedy is a dryly comic, deeply moving reimagining of the time in her life when she moved back home to Biloxi while recovering from two profoundly challenging events: the death of her mother and her own breast cancer diagnosis. Season 2 maintains the first season’s fine-tuned sensitivity to the characters’ feelings and relationships while upping the moral and emotional antes.
Tig and her brother (Noah Harpster) grapple with the guilt and trauma they carry as a result of the sexual abuse that she suffered and he witnessed when they were children. That memory surfaces after Kate (Notaro’s real-life wife, Stephanie Allynne), the producer of Tig’s conversational/confessional radio show, is sexually assaulted by a colleague. And falling for an African-American colleague forces Tig’s socially awkward stepfather (John Rothman) to come to terms with the legacy of racism in America in general, and in the South in particular. Meanwhile Tig and Kate finally become a couple after a long, one-sided courtship during which Kate, who thinks of herself as straight, sorts out her feelings for Tig. Their love feels authentic and hard won, like everything else in this show—which is beginning to feel as much like a chronicle of present-day America as it is of Notaro’s recent past. Written for Slant Magazine
An extravagant beauty who delights in playing the fool, Michaela Coel plays Chewing Gum’s main character, Tracey, with a near-irresistible combination of wide-eyed gusto and coltish naivete. Add in a hormonal young woman’s determination to escape the Puritanical constraints of her fundamentalist upbringing by having as much sex as possible and you have the perfect heroine for a surprisingly wholesome and endearing comedy about sex and other stupid human tricks—but mostly sex—in and around a British public housing project. This season, which Coel has said is the series’ last, makes excellent use of the actress’ gift for physical comedy, her elastic face, and her ability to telegraph buoyant vulnerability. Swiping on clownish makeup in a botched attempt to impress an ex or striking exaggeratedly alluring poses at a sex club only to face repeated rejection, Tracey is laughable and loveable, a glorious, openhearted self-directed experiment.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Michael Stuhlbarg was already beloved by fans and critics of New York theater, especially for his role as the childlike, mentally disabled younger brother in playwright Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, when he rose a few rungs on the ladder of fame by playing the title role in A Serious Man. Joel and Ethan Coen's masterful tragicomedy got much of its soul from Stuhlbarg's performance as a middle-class, middle-aged Midwesterner whose comfortable life is upended by a baffling onslaught of calamities large, small and ridiculous. Since then, Stuhlbarg has disappeared into roles ranging from quietly terrifying gangster Arnold Rothstein on HBO's Boardwalk Empire to loyal sidekick Sy Feltz on season three of Noah Hawley's FX series Fargo to brilliant but schlubby Andy Hertzfeld in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs.
The increasingly in-demand actor met with me at his publicist's Midtown office to discuss two of his latest films, Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name and Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. Stuhlbarg speaks softly and deliberately, often pausing to think about what he wants to say, yet he's no tortured artist. Smiling or laughing frequently, he often used the word “joy” as he talked about studying with Marcel Marceau, growing up as “the luckiest kid in the world,” and whether he would want to play a character he hated.
Monday, November 6, 2017
After a five-year apprenticeship as a producer for the pioneering documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, Joe Berlinger launched his directorial career with Brother's Keeper. Made in tandem with another Maysles employee, Bruce Sinofsky, the documentary did something near-revolutionary for the time: It used fiction-film techniques to tell the true story of two isolated rural brothers, one of whom was being tried for the other's death. In the 25 years since that influential debut, Berlinger has continued to make waves with films like the Paradise Lost trilogy, which covered the trials of three young men in West Memphis, Arkansas accused of the ritual killings of three boys and uncovered evidence that led to their release from prison.
I recently spoke to Berlinger at his Radical Media production company in downtown Manhattan about Intent to Destroy, a documentary about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Turkish government's century-long campaign to deny that it happened. Self-assured and voluble, Berlinger talked about the new wave of documentary filmmakers that he has been part of, what Turkey's denial of the genocide has in common with President Donald Trump's “alternative facts,” and why audiences have responded much better to Intent to Destroy than distributors have.
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Laurie Metcalf is a powerfully empathetic actress whose often comic and always ferocious intensity inspires an equally intense empathy in audiences, encouraging us to love our fellow humans not so much despite their flaws as because of them. She invites her viewers to relate to a kaleidoscopic range of sometimes absurd or regrettable emotions and behaviors, not just from one part to the next, but within nearly every character she plays.
A charter member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, Metcalf still prefers live theater, and she recently won a Tony for her role as Nora in the Broadway production of Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part Two. But she has created indelible characters for TV and film as well, including Roseanne Connor's endearingly klutzy sister Jackie on Roseanne and the big-hearted but harried mother of Saoirse Ronan's main character in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, a coming-of-age story that is, at its core, a mother-daughter duet.
In an interview to promote the film, Metcalf talked about her aversion to working with cameras, why she runs through all her lines before every performance of a play, and how being shy helped her as a young actor.
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Writer-director Sean Baker’s brand of neo-neorealism focuses on people, like Tangerine‘s fierce transsexual prostitute or Prince of Broadway‘s immigrant hustler, who’re ordinarily seen only in the background of films and TV shows—if at all. His latest, The Florida Project, offers a non-judgmental, child’s-eye view of life in the Magic Castle, one of the seedy but fabulous motels in the outer orbit of Orlando’s Disney World that function as temporary housing for people one step ahead of homelessness.
While helicopters take off in the background, like emissaries from another planet, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), roam happily through the motel and the surrounding area, exploring their turf like a pack of wild dogs under the indulgent but protective eye of the motel’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, Moonee’s very young and rebellious mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), while hustling hard to support them, creates an environment risky enough to trigger an investigation by the Department of Children and Families.
Baker called me from a train from New York to Philadelphia, where the film was about to have a gala preview at the Philadelphia Film Festival. We talked about how he works with first-time actors, why it’s hard to make character studies for American audiences, and the many factors that make it hard for people like Moonee and her mother to form stable, long-term relationships.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Ozark delights in toying with our expectations. Its first big reveal is that the central characters, financial advisor Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman, whose natural trustworthiness nicely complicates the man’s buttoned-down efficiency) and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), aren’t the porn-addicted shyster and clueless, cheery wife and mother that they initially appear to be. More stereotypes are subverted when, in a desperate ploy to save himself and his family after skimming cash from a drug-lord client, Marty spirits Wendy and their two kids to the Ozarks, expecting to find a safe hiding place and plenty of easy marks for a scheme that will allow him to pay back the drug lord. Instead, through a rapid series of downward-spiraling twists, Marty gets stuck between the rock of a south-of-the-border drug cartel and the hard place of an equally vicious hillbilly one. His family, his business associates, and the other people he encounters almost never just go along with Marty’s plan, their own agendas getting in the way of his and further complicating the fast-moving plot. But not all of his surprises are bad ones. Adversity knits together his beloved family, and they find at least one friend in the Ozarks, Julia Garner’s Ruth, who’s becoming a powerful, though conflicted, ally. Written for Slant Magazine
The fact that Making a Murderer was the most engrossing true crime story of 2015 no doubt helped build its enormous buzz, the need to know what happens next pulling viewers through marathon binge-watching sessions. But the show’s true greatness lies in its anatomizing of one infuriating example of the abuse of power and scapegoating of the poor that often happens in our legal system but is rarely reported in such detail. After spending months embedded in Steven Avery’s community and years researching his tortured journey through the legal and penitentiary systems, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi tell the story of Avery’s first, 17-year imprisonment for a crime he never committed and his second trial and conviction for another that he may well have been framed for as well. With the help of footage of his second trial, interviews with family, friends, and lawyers, the filmmakers elucidate various aspects of the story, from widespread contempt of Avery as “white trash” to arcane legal arguments raised by the trial, with admirable clarity. And, as the police and prosecutors of Manitowoc County keep trying to prove Avery guilty of some heinous crime, the series finds them guilty of gross miscarriages of justice. Written for Slant Magazine