Favorites of 2018

In no particular order, here are my favorite movies, shows, and performances from the last year…

Favo(u)rite Films

Black Panther: The soundtrack. The villain. The villain’s complicated but understandable worldview. The women. The vibrant world of Wakanda. This is what a solid, live-action superhero movie looks like.

The Favourite: You’ll never hear the words “Rub my legs” the same again. I love a good historical drama, but I especially love a historical drama through the eyes of director Yorgos Lanthimos who turns history into a dark comedy, chock-full of the crass reality of early eighteenth-century life. Darkly lit settings, gross diseases, duck races, and a moment of strange break dancing are just a few of the reasons that make The Favourite a unique film. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, and Joe Alwyn make this grim and witty tale about class and power politics even better, and then it leaves you pondering just how far you’d go for (what you think is) power.

Game Night: An unexpected, R-rated delight, full of fun performances from the whole cast. But perhaps Billy Magnussen and Jesse Plemons take the cake for the biggest laughs. Plus, love that Freaks and Geeks alum John Francis Daley co-directed.

Love, Simon: It’s hard to think that before 2018 we hadn’t had a gay lead in a studio teen film. Luckily, Love, Simon changed that with a charming story that gives us realistic young people to root for, even if they’re making mistakes along the way to adulthood. Props to Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel for being the couple and parenting role models that dreams are made of.

Paddington 2: The bear with the most returns in an even stronger sequel to a very strong debut in 2015. Though the plot surprisingly places Paddington in prison (he didn’t do it!), Paddington 2 is cute as hell. Ben Wishaw continues his voiceover work to make Paddington the most earnest and forthright character we’ve seen in recent years and Hugh Grant shines as a multi-talented villain.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Although time has proved that Solo didn’t really make much of an impact in the cultural zeitgeist this year (as say, Black Panther has), I found this to be an entertaining romp. It’s also a really beautiful looking film. Alden Ehrenreich did the impossible—he stepped into the shoes of Harrison Ford and did a pretty darn good job at it too.

Sorry to Bother You: Sorry to Bother You is a weird, timely, and Black Mirror-esque allegory about race, labor, power, and the media. And for that, it’s unlike anything else this year. It also shows how great a villainous sociopath Armie Hammer can play, undoing the crush you may have developed while watching last year’s Call Me By Your Name.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Mind-blowing animation. Ace voice acting. Deeply funny and earnest. Spider-Verse gives us thought-out characters and beautiful set pieces, and I came out of the viewing loving teen lead Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, and Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker. Worth seeing in theaters if you have the chance.

Three Identical Strangers: A different type of documentary, Three Identical Strangers is full of quasi-reenactments and confessionals that make for really interesting storytelling, not to mention the most energetic and fun beginning to a story I’ve seen in awhile. The title gives away part of the story, but there is so much more under the surface that will leave you shocked, heartbroken, and angry.

To All the Boys I Loved Before: Lara Jean is basically a new teen movie and Rom-Com icon thanks to this surprise Netflix film. Lana Condor is a standout as Lara Jean and gives her that relatable humanity that so many young girls (and grown women) crave to see in pop culture. Not to mention, Noah Centineo, also known as Mark Ruffalo’s Looper, is the teen crush that young girls (and grown women) also crave to see. The story is sweet, but perhaps the sweetest moment is Lara Jean talking to her dad, played wonderfully by John Corbett, talking about Lara Jean’s late mom set to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Cue the crying.

Favorite TV Shows

American Vandal: Season one of American Vandal was so unexpectedly good that it seemed a second season was going to just be a re-hash of the same sort of thing. Wrong! Instead of focusing on “Who drew the dicks?” in the first season, we go to the main mystery of “Who is the Turd Burglar?” in season two. It might sound like frat-bro humor, but I assure you the whodunit of the Turd Burglar is so much more. The show also creatively incorporates a few past characters of season one and brings them into the excrement-chasing fray of a new school in the Seattle area. The only downside of season two was later learning that Netflix cancelled the series and we’ll never know what crime involving a body part or bodily function season three could have brought us.

The Americans: Farewell to the Jennings family. The final season of The Americans came back in full force after a somewhat lackluster fifth season (although still great by comparison to many TV dramas), and ended on a high note. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys proved again why they are so deserving of their recent Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, while other cast members like Noah Emmerich deserve more love. But all said and done, the series gave fans a satisfying ending that both punished and relieved our leading family. And, on point as ever with their music selections, the show used U2’s “With or Without You” perfectly—even though it’s being used quite literally in one of the season finale’s final scenes, its presence only elevated it to make it one of the best television sequences, perhaps ever.

Atlanta: Two words: Teddy Perkins. Perhaps the most talked about episode of television this year. Beyond that, the second season of Atlanta brought us many great moments, like the mythical “Florida Man” in the season opener, the mythical Drake in a great Van-focused episode, and the hilarious Bibby the barber in the “Barbershop” episode, in what was my personal favorite episode of the season.

Glow: I just think this show is so much fun. It’s like the adult version of watching camp movies as a kid, but with the addition of glorious 80s hair, cocaine, Marc Maron, and spandex. This season, Ruth and Debbie still shine, Bash deservedly gets more airtime (and playing to my heart, makes reference to The Muppets Take Manhattan), and we get a real “GLOW” episode within an episode, which includes a beautiful studio-film era dance set-piece featuring two of GLOW’s lesser-seen ladies.

The Haunting of Hill House: For a show with a lot of creepiness and scares, it sure did make me cry a lot. I especially loved seeing Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas on screen in emotionally developed characters. And a job well done on casting two generations of actors for the central kids that felt fluid and believable.

Homecoming: Not only does Homecoming break the norms of a “drama” by giving us half-hour episodes, making for a breezy 5-hour binge, it also breaks many formatting molds. Without giving too much away about this story involving America’s military complex, pharmaceuticals, government investigations, and ordinary people, there are some really interesting cinematic choices at play here from director Sam Esmail that reflect tone, time, and mood, plus grade-A performances from Stephan James, Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Shea Wigham.

Killing Eve: Beyond the excitement of watching charismatic Sandra Oh in an unexpected show, not to mention as an MI5 agent in a British show, Killing Eve introduced us to Jodie Comer as the truly horrifying yet oh-so-stylish serial killer, Villanelle. With other stellar performances that gave this dark show lots of dark humor, we have the great Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the helm of this series as creator and writer to thank. It’s all a recipe for a devilishly delicious 8 hours of primo television as female lead hunts the other female lead, and vice-versa.

Queer Eye: After 2017, we desperately needed something goodhearted. Well, we got it in early February, and then again in June, with the rebooted version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The later batch of episodes feels a bit more contrived and schmaltzy than the first, but you can’t deny the chemistry and earnestness of this fresh-faced Fab Five and the diverse group of men they work with.

Sharp Objects: For some, this was too much of a slow burn. For me, it was an intoxicating tale with powerful and sinister performances, complemented by my experience listening to Vanity Fair’s “Still Watching” podcast, which explored all the symbolic layers that one could find, say, in a creepy dollhouse. Extra points for rewarding viewers who watch the credits.

Succession: I discounted this series from the initial trailers—I was not interested in watching a rich, media-mogul and his family be rich assholes thanks to our very own rich, media-adjacent family in the White House. Of course, there’s something much more fun about watching a fictional family instead. The devious backstabbing, the ridiculous rich-people traditions, and the ultra dysfunctional family at the center of this dramedy are extremely entertaining, as are the opening credits and score, which craft the right tone. The icing on the cake? My two favorite performances of the year: the very strange character of soon-to-be-member of the family Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen, and his relationship with cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun.

Survivor: David vs. Goliath: It’s hard to believe that we’ve had 37 seasons of Survivor, but here we are. That many seasons later, however, the show has managed to keep twists coming and find new castaways that viewers love and want to see win a million dollars. It’s the characters that developed this season, plus fun editing that we’ve never seen before, that made this a fun season with all first-time players.

 Wild Wild Country: Two words that entered the 2018 zeitgeist? Tough titties. This Netflix documentary, which focuses on a subject I knew nothing about, truly is a wild ride. There is no clear side to root for, but it will provoke you to think about what it means to find meaning in something bigger than yourself, as well as what it means to have a way of life you’ve known for decades be turned upside down.

Favorite Performances

The cast of The Haunting of Hill House

Jennifer Garner in Love, Simon

The cast of Homecoming

The cast of Sharp Objects

Charlize Theron in Tully

Ben Wishaw in Paddington 2 and Mary Poppins Returns

Hugh Grant in Paddington 2

Hayley Atwell in Howards End

Matthew Macfadyen in Howards End and Succession

The cast of Succession

Travis Tope in American Vandal

Jodie Comer in Killing Eve

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve

Lily James in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Jesse Plemons in Game Night

Billy Magnussen in Game Night

Lana Condor in To All the Boys I Loved Before

Noah Centineo in To All the Boys I Loved Before

Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thomas Haden Church in Divorce

Molly Shannon in Divorce

The cast of Sorry to Bother You

The voice cast of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Advertisements

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may be a collection of short films about life in the Old West, but each chapter of the titular book within a film has a lot in common with each other—and in common with life today. Now, the Old West is much different from our contemporary lives, especially on a material and a daily-way-of-life level—but what has really changed? We still migrate in order to find a more prosperous life somewhere yonder. We still hope that we might catch a lucky break and strike gold, or at least a metaphorical gold. We still work ourselves to the bone and struggle to make it by, and sometimes go to drastic measures to stay alive. We still may be uncomfortable around others not quite like us, perhaps making us act in unthinkable ways. We still are depleting the land we settle on. Yes, it’s all pretty bleak stuff, but these themes are at the core of the anthology.

There is something very raw and unnerving about most of the vignettes in Buster Scruggs, but there is also something extremely transfixing. While the wry charm and dark wit that you’d expect from directing pair Joel and Ethan Coen remains, many of the stories leave you feeling cold, with your gaze paralyzed on the screen. (And no it’s not from watching the “Meal Ticket” segment, where Liam Neeson and Harry Melling do an excellent job portraying despair and exhaustion during a frigid winter.) Maybe it’s the thought of transporting yourself to that time and realizing you’d never make it, or on the flip side maybe you’d do exactly what these characters do in order to live another day.

“Meal Ticket” is especially dark, with an ending that you fear is coming all along but don’t want to believe will happen. But, oh boy, does it happen. Throughout the stories, the Coens cut away from some of the most brutal moments, but one easily fills in the blanks. These visual omissions don’t make it any less visceral of a viewing experience. Thankfully, after “Meal Ticket,” we go to Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon,” a somewhat more optimistic story—at least by way of soothing scenery and the simple enjoyment of watching Waits on screen with that scruff and deep growl hollering “Mr. Pocket!” over and over. The pleasantness, of course, is short-lived.

“The Girl Who Got Rattled” is another standout, and seems to be leading toward a less-depressing outcome…until it doesn’t. It’s a reminder of the brutality that can accompany exploration and the unknown—and catching an unlucky break. And much like every life lived, an instant can change everything. Just ask doggo President Pierce!

Ultimately, Buster Scruggs is about survival. It’s about the hopes and wishes we have for the future if we survive, and, much scarier and even harder to cope with, the anxieties and fears that live with us in the moment as we survive, grasping to get to the former. Perhaps that’s the harshest realization from Buster Scruggs, that the Manifest Destiny permeating in the Old West was just as much intoxicating as it was fatal. And in the end, after enduring the fears and struggles and hopes, all that happened to these people was that they became ink to paper, bound in a book. Which, sadly (optimistically?), is all we can ever hope to become.

Speaking of the Emmys…

I’ve been watching Succession (late to the party) and I truly hope Emmy voters don’t forget this summer show for next year’s awards. I particularly hope they recognize Matthew Macfadyen in the weirdest, yet thoughtfully fleshed-out performance as Tom and Nicholas Braun as innocent and well-intentioned Greg (who will also answer to Craig). And when the two of them are in a scene together, they make one another shine.

The 70th Annual Emmys

Just as the telecast opened with a tepid show tune-style number poking fun about how the most-diverse body of Emmy nominees ever had fixed racism and prejudice in the television business, we were then made witness to white person after white person winning the first several categories—yes, we clearly have a long way to go. It says one thing when diversity can be recognized, but it says something more when a voting body is still afraid to actually vote for those voices and negates the nominations in the first place. We get it, Academy—you love Jeff Daniels! It wasn’t until Regina King won—deservedly so—as we got into the Limited Series portion of the night that a person of color received an award. And after that only RuPaul and Thandie Newton went home with statues. I don’t say this to take away from those who did win tonight (Yay, Henry Winkler!), and there was indeed more diversity in the winners at the Creative Emmys last week (including Tiffany Haddish and the cast of Queer Eye) and tonight there was some LGBTQ representation and a woman (Amy Sherman-Palladino) won for writing and directing in comedy. However, the opening song ended up being way too accurate in its satire. And this just set the course for a weird vibe all night. Let’s go through the lows and few highs that were able to cut through the “NBC legacy”-laden ceremony.

Hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che

Highlight:

Michael Che’s prerecorded “Reparations Emmys,” which gave some familiar faces of African-American TV history recognition and credit for their contributions to pop culture.

Lowlights:

The opening monologue was the equivalent of a shrug. Not terrible, but nothing exceptional.

Their bit with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. I adore both, and here we had a major SNL mash-up, but it fell flat from the beginning. Fred saying “we good?” made me chuckle at first, but it wore on. I like the idea on paper, but not in execution.

Presenters

Highlights:

willferrellwalking

Will Ferrell walking. He committed to the bit and it worked.

hannahgadsby

Hannah Gadsby made me laugh more than anyone else in this entire show and I think she was on stage for maybe thirty seconds. Gotta love an awkward exit!

I don’t know why Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, and Benicio del Toro presented together, but Benicio’s line delivery and I-don’t-give-a-fuck-I’m-just-here-for-the-gift-basket vibe was oddly funny. We are all Benicio in that moment.

Blink and you miss it: Mozart played as Sarah Paulson strutted to the microphone and her dress billowed in the wind and it was three seconds of perfection.

Did not expect Aidy Bryant and Bob Odenkirk to present together, nor did I expect the tongue-and-cheek banter to be that funny.

Winners

Highlights:

Henry Winkler wins his first primetime Emmy for what I think is the best part of the entire season of Barry.

sadphillip

The Americans’ Matthew Rhys finally wins for playing quite possibly the saddest man to ever exist in a television show or real life.

Thandie Newton being real and admitting she doesn’t believe in god (but if she did god is a she), plus just the fact that she won. I don’t watch Westworld but love Thandie Newton and she looked genuinely shocked to win. Legend.

Lowlights:

Atlanta not winning anything. Two words: Florida man. Two more words: Teddy Perkins.

kerirussell

How do you not give this an Emmy? I’m starting my #JusticeForKeri campaign now.

A mediocre season of Game of Thrones won over the stellar last season of The Americans. People love them some dragons, I guess. I’ll just count my blessings that This Is Us didn’t win instead.

Overall Lowlights

That this was on a Monday night (or late afternoon if, like me, you’re on the West Coast). Thanks a lot, NBC. I hope I don’t get fired when work finds out I was live streaming the red carpet from my desk!

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 12.33.33 AM

This tweet is a real mood. And yes, I’m still not over Keri Russell not winning.

‘So You Think You Can Dance’ is Strong as Ever

Typically you might expect the fifteenth season of a show to be worn out and overdone, but that hasn’t been the case for the fifteenth season of So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). The show has had its ups and downs—its downs mostly being the changes in judges and formatting and the best-to-forget “junior” season—but this year it is busting at the sequined seams with a stellar roster of contestants and choreographers (the latter including returning favorites and exciting newcomers). What blows me away most though, is how reliably entertaining and pure it is. More than other dance-based reality shows, there is something very genuine about SYTYCD in its love of this art form. Yes, it’s a competition, but most if not all of the dancers competing audition for this show because of their love of dance. Nearly all of them are bound to be professional dancers, usually by the mere fact that they are talented enough to be selected for the show, but it never seems that anyone here is for money or fame per se—it’s for the love of dance. And because of this, the show soars in bringing unique dance styles to a national stage and giving creative freedom (or at least it appears this way) to the choreographers. Sometimes the routines are simply fun and entertaining, other times so emotionally raw it can give you literal chills. Here a just a few examples of the breadth of what is delivered, often found in a single episode:

Cerebral Creativity

Sure, season in and season out SYTYCD needs to present fresh ideas. Props and concepts can run the risk of being gimmicky, but a simple idea or storyline executed in the right way can do wonders.

Art for Change

Dance with a social message, especially something you haven’t seen done before, can be breathtaking when you have the care and respect that choreographer Travis Wall and contestant Darius bring to this piece. When is the last time you can say you saw representation like this on broadcast TV?

Good Ol’ Fashioned Fun

The personalities of this group number shine through, and the result is a highly infectious hip-hop number.

Emotional Therapy

There are many moving contemporary pieces every week of the show, but then you get something like this group number that is simply joyful. Props to choreographer Mia Michaels for sneaking some Vivaldi into primetime television.

From krumping and contemporary to African jazz and Broadway, the dance styles are as diverse as the dancers dancing them. I suppose that’s the other thing—while the contestants all have dance as their common interest, they come from such different backgrounds and life experiences. Luckily for the viewers, this is reflected in what we see on stage, bringing a welcome display of unique perspectives for all of us to enjoy and learn from.