Best of 2022: Hey, The Wire is really good!

22 Dec

During the summer, I diligently watched “The
, going at a rate of one episode per night. I stuck with it
during the not-so-great season 2 and made it through season 5 just to see how
it all ended. But season 1 and 3 were phenomenal. I’m reminded of a college
professor who said, about the movie “Traffic”, which had just come
out, that Steven Soderbergh could have written a thousand op-eds about the drug
war. Instead he created a 90 minute piece of art to illustrate it. David Simon
left journalism to tell a multi-faceted tale of Baltimore through the eyes of
its poorest citizens and the police officers who play cat and mouse. What they
all have in common? Drugs.

You can understand, on an intellectual level, that the drug war is a failure
and that it has devastated the inner city. But you don’t truly grasp the human
cost until you see it play out in this look at Baltimore. From local politics,
to the drug addicts of the projects, to the courts, to local police, to public
schools, and more, “The Wire” shows it all. A brilliant cast brings
the stories of this world to life- there is not a false note among any of them.
A particular standout is Michael K. Williams as Omar, the gay Robin Hood of the
‘hood who strikes fear into the heart of the criminals of East Baltimore.
Watching him on the show just made me miss him and all the great work he could
have done.

The show isn’t without its flaws. As I watched seasons 1 and 2, I kept
wondering, where are the women in this world? We have one police officer, and
an attorney. But this is largely a men’s world. This is just something to
accept as you watch. It’s a testosterone-driven world. Also, we spend a lot of
time with cops in this world. Is “The Wire” just copaganda, looking
at inner city crime and asking us to sympathize with law enforcement at every
turn? This might be true if all we ever saw was the law enforcement
perspective. But we see the drug trade from every aspect. “The Wire”
shows Baltimore and all its flaws from every angle, from the most powerful to
the least. I’m so glad I finally watched it.

Maybe next year I’ll finally watch The Sopranos?

Best TV of 2022

21 Dec

It was quite a year for big, bold, cinematic TV series. The shows I’ve chosen as my top 5 of the year run the gamut- different genres, different locations in time and place, even different languages and accents. What they have in common is unique characters whose stories are told with clever writing that keeps you tuned in episode after episode. In no particular order:

Mo: You may have known that Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country- some say the most diverse- but you don’t appreciate it until you see the city through the eyes of Mo Najjar, the fictional counterpart of Mo Amer. He’s Palestinian, his girlfriend is Mexican, and his best friend is Nigerian. We see as he does what he can to scrape by without papers, selling junk for cash from the trunk of his car, working as a laborer on an olive tree orchard outside the city, and eventually, getting involved with local underground criminals. “Mo” sets a tone that is at once light when showing the ridiculousness of Mo’s life and the situations he gets himself into, and dramatic when focusing on his memories of his past fleeing Palestine then Kuwait, or trying to reconcile with his girlfriend. The whole show is a fun ride, and yes, it is great to see Arab representation, like Mo’s insistence that flavored hummus is a war crime (I’m right there with you).

Los Espookys: If Mo is a great opportunity to see Arab representation on TV, “Los Espookys” is a chance to see representation of oddball Latinos. It’s sadly not coming back for a 3rd season, though I was genuinely surprised that it even got a second season. Who is “Los Espookys” for? I imagine that those of us who enjoy the show- bilingual Latinos who appreciate off-kilter humor- are a tiny sliver of the public. Part of the joy of the show is seeing what weird details the crew will come up with, like Andres getting a job modeling staircases in a showroom, or Tati finding a side gig rewriting literary classics based on audiobooks. The universe of “Los Espookys” is weird and wonderful, and it’ll be missed.

Severance: This show was hard to watch, because it was so thoroughly creepy. Menace lurked around every corner of the underground offices inhabited by the worker drones of “Severance”. With each episode, more secrets about the world of “Severance” are revealed, like why someone would choose to have their work and personal lives literally severed in two. Although it was often hard to watch, it was worth it to see more of the mystery of this company and its town be revealed. I was also impressed by Adam Scott, who ably carries the show in a dramatic turn as a widower who prefers living severed to remembering his deceased wife. I can’t wait for season 2.

Pachinko: It’s rare when a book is successfully adapted for TV and movies. It’s even rarer when the adaptation surpasses the source material. That’s how good “Pachinko” is. I’ll admit that the English-language, 1980’s set portion of the show is the weakest bit, but the heart of this story of three generations of a Korean family in Japan is the story of the first generation as matriarch Sunja moves from her home in Korea to Japan. The epic scale of the story, the acting from all the main players, the story of immigrants striving to make it in a new land- this is why “Pachinko” was so wonderful.

Derry Girls: If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to grow up in a war zone, or wondered how life can really go on while conflict flares up all around ordinary people, “Derry Girls” shows what that looks like. Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1990’s, the show follows a group of friends as they navigate their high school years during the violence of the ancient conflict that engulfed Ireland 25 years ago. It’s possibly the funniest thing I watched this year, and I loved the 90’s setting- like the girls trying to get into a Fatboy Slim concert, or the hijinks around trying (and in Clare’s case, failing) to get a train for a weekend getaway. Martin Scorcese knows what’s up- “Derry Girls” was the best.

Best of 2022: Sheng Wang, Sweet and Juicy

20 Dec

Sheng Wang’s debut Netflix special, “Sweet and Juicy”, was an unexpected delight for me this year. I didn’t keep it to myself- I told everyone I knew about it- and I’m happy to say that several told me that they watched the special themselves and laughed (or so they told me, but I believe it). I don’t even remember how I heard about it! Something prompted me to search for this on Netflix, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve now watched it three times. And I’d watch it again.

What makes it stand out in a sea of stand-up comedy specials? It’s not mean-spirited. It’s quirky- you didn’t think there was humor in cookie sheets, oh but there is. I don’t think you have to be familiar with Mitch Hedberg to appreciate Sheng Wang’s low-key, observational, one-liner style. But if you are a fan of Mitch Hedberg, you’ll really enjoy Sheng Wang. Just like Hedberg found the humor in random, everyday situations, so too does Wang, mining mammograms, office printing, and a snoring father for unexpected guffaws. I giggle thinking of Wang’s description of taking advantage of yearly health-care deductibles (“getting sick in December is for losers”). For being an unexpected find, a one-hour source of happiness and humor, and a gift you can share with just about everyone, I loved “Sweet and Juicy” by Sheng Wang. I can’t wait for him to come to the Bay Area.

Top movies of 2022

17 Dec

This year saw much more exciting offerings on TV; among my top 5 picks are two movies that I saw at the beginning of the year. This list includes a documentary, a French film, a movie available on Hulu that I was only able to watch during one weekend when I was able to access the channel, and two movies that I saw at the beginning of the year that have stayed with me since. Want a guide to standout movies from the past twelve years? Check out my picks from 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

The Lost Daughter: Olivia Colman plays a woman, Leda, with a mysterious past who goes on vacation in Greece; through flashbacks we learn why she is reacting so strongly to another family vacationing on the island. Director Maggie Gyllenhaal expertly shows how the protagonist’s past has made her the paranoid, neurotic woman she is today, as she is given constant reminders of the choices she made as a young mother. Throughout, we see something we rarely see on the big screen- a portrayal of ambivalent motherhood. Leda, the main character, is complicated, and it is hard to think of anyone else playing her than Olivia Colman, who makes her sympathetic, even as her actions become stranger and harder to defend. The whole is mesmerizing.

The Worst Person in the World: I have a soft spot for coming of age movies about young women making their way in the big city. And this one is so gorgeously done, a love letter to a city, Oslo, I hadn’t thought much about before. But in the hands of Joachim Trier, the city becomes the backdrop for a young woman, Julie’s, coming of age, as we see her discover herself and her interests as she navigates her way through two significant relationships. The scene where she crashes a wedding and meets one of her great loves, and they explore ways to get to know one another without cheating on their significant others, is a joy to watch. The movie shows the highs of new love and the lows of loss. We witness Julie mature, and the journey is a wonder to behold.

Navalny: It’s rare that a documentary is as exciting as a thriller. I’m not even a documentary person per se, but when I saw this in a special showing at the San Francisco Film Festival, I was hooked. Alexei Navalny, the Russian dissident whose very real struggle against his government is the heart of the film, addressed the screen in English at numerous points. This immediacy, interspersed with footage from his home life in Germany before returning to Russia, and the remarkable phone call to his would-be assassin make this an exciting and urgent viewing experience.

Petite Maman: If you know some basic French, you know what the title of Celine Sciamma’s movie means, and like me, you might be able to figure out what this movie is about before you see it. A simple, sweet story told in a lovely way, it’s economical- not wasting time explaining how the two little girls at the center of the movie meet, but just accepting the fact of their meeting and what it means for both of them. It’s a gem of a movie.

Good luck to you, Leo Grande: Any opportunity to see Emma Thompson in a movie is worth seeking out, and this film is no exception. She plays a woman who has reached retirement age, and widowhood, with little knowledge of sex and her body, and wants to explore. The differences between older generations, for whom sex is sinful and not spoken of, and younger generations, who see it as a fact of life and something to be enjoyed and celebrated without shame, all form the crux of this film. As a vehicle for Emma Thompson to play an older woman, the likes of whom we rarely see on film, this movie works. (Just forget the regrettable title. Sometimes bad titles happen to good movies).

Honorable mention, Babylon: I just saw this at an early screening last week, and I’m still thinking about it. Is it one of the best of the year? I’m not sure. But I loved the insane opening party scene, gorgeous period costumes, the bonkers, swing-for-the-fences ending, and the performance by Mexican actor Diego Calva, whose charisma could power a small town. He carries every scene of this movie. It’s worth your time.

Players to watch at the 2022 World Cup

18 Nov

The World Cup this year is different. Like me, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there is a World Cup this year. Spring and summer came without a reminder and now, with Thanksgiving just a few days away, the Qatar World Cup approaches. There is a lot wrong with this World Cup- it’s being held in a tiny country that, rather than being picked for its modernity and infrastructure, had to build infrastructure from scratch to host the Games. Its cultural conservatism doesn’t bode well for an international party on the scale of the World Cup. But there is one perennial highlight of the World Cup every four years, and that is the plethora of handsome dudes competing from around the globe. I’ve done the difficult but necessary task of compiling what I consider to be the highlights of the tournament. In alphabetical order:

Argentina – Lautaro Martinez

Australia – Matthew Leckie

Belgium – Thomas Meunier

Brazil – Eder Militao

Cameroon – Karl Toko Ekambi

Canada – Steven Vitoria

Costa Rica – Kendall Waston

Croatia – Mateo Covacic

Denmark – Kasper Schmeichel

Ecuador – Moises Caicedo

England – Callum Wilson

France – Olivier Giroud

Germany – Manuel Neuer

Ghana – Osman Bukari

Iran – Shoja Khalilzadeh

Japan – Maya Yoshida

Mexico – Hector Moreno

Morocco – Zakaria Aboukhlal

Netherlands – Daley Blind

Poland – Robert Lewandowski

Portugal – Rui Patricio

Qatar – Ahmed Alaaeldin

Saudi Arabia – Nawaf Al-Abed

Senegal – Edouard Mendy

Serbia – Marko Dmitrovic

South Korea – Kim Moon Hwon

Spain – Alvaro Morata

Switzerland – Yann Sommer

Tunisia – Naim Sliti

Uruguay – Edinson Cavani

USA – Christian Pulisic

Wales – Gareth Bale

Top movies of 2021

22 Dec

Any movies that we saw last year were most likely filmed before the pandemic, AKA the before times. Movies that we saw this year, however, were filmed in the trickiest circumstances. The quality of movies was so high this year that it seems like filmmakers were chomping at the bit to put their visions, once and for all, into the world. Last year, my favorite movies of 2020 were all seen at home; this year, I ventured out to theaters, mask worn from beginning to end of the show (movie popcorn will have to wait). It was hard to choose, but below are my favorite movies of 2021 (and my favorite movies from years past are: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010, where it all began).

Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar: Today the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the shortlist for several Oscars categories, and it’s a downright shame that nothing from this comedy was nominated- not “I love boobies” by Dick Cheese, not even Edgar’s Prayer, which features Jamie Dornan kicking and prancing on the beach. This is not the most prestigious movie of the year, by far. But I enjoyed it immensely- the silliness, the spoofing of Midwestern culture and movie musical tropes. I think we’ll be watching this one and laughing for years.

Cyrano: The sign of a good musical is that the songs and score linger in your mind long after the movie, and in this sense, Cyrano has succeeded. A simple story about a love triangle and love unrequited benefits greatly from passionately-sung music, and Haley Bennett enriches the soundtrack with her rich voice. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Peter Dinklage aren’t nearly as talented musically, but they make up for it with wonderful acting, especially Dinklage, who can say so much with a downward glance, or a smirk. “Cyrano” is cinematic, and well worth seeing.

The Green Knight: Like “Cyrano”, “The Green Knight” takes old (very old) material, and makes it fresh. It also doesn’t play the gimmick of taking telling an old story in a modern setting. It takes place firmly in the 14th century, but filmed with bravura by a director, David Lowery, who I’d never heard of before, but who I will be seeking out now. Each scene is gorgeously filmed, lending the story a truly mythic quality. The English countryside is gorgeous, but star Dev Patel ably carries the film, and matches the lovely scenery in beauty. This was one under-the-radar film from the spring that was well worth watching.

West Side Story: Yes, there are a lot of musicals on this short list. It’s not just because they’re musicals; they’re really, really well done. Music and lyrics, when they’re well-written, can be the perfect engine to convey deep emotion, and also to create a really fun time. “West Side Story” achieves this easily. Yes, the dance and music are (mostly) the same as the original movie, which is one of my all-time favorites. But the love story between Tony and María has real urgency as portrayed by Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort. And the color and vibrancy of the sets make the case for this remake. Steven Spielberg can definitely direct all kinds of movies, musicals included.

C’mon C’mon: Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the beauty of a story of an uncle and nephew because of I’m an aunt to a niece and two nephews. And I love the idea of a precocious boy finding solace with a trusted adult, who in turn becomes a paternal figure and role model to his nephew. The film has a documentary quality, with its slow pace, observing its central characters at a remove. Joaquin Phoenix does an outstanding job- it’s a subtle performance, with no fireworks. Just the subtlety of an uncle and his young nephew. Also, bonus points for using a lovely version of “Clair de lune”.

Honorable mention: “Palm Springs”, which came out in 2020, but which I finally saw this year. Original premise- a love story in a time loop- and achingly funny (especially everything with J.K. Simmons). Outstanding.

Best TV of 2021

15 Dec

Sometimes we just turn on the TV to have some ambient noise in the background while cooking or cleaning, and we don’t want shows that require attention to the dialogue. Just sound. But in the evening, after I’ve showered, I like to sit and watch something of quality, something beyond just reruns of old sitcoms. Below is a selection of the shows that blew me away this year:

Schitt’s Creek– The series may have ended in 2020, but I spent my summer evenings with the Rose family in their charming, little town. I’ll admit- I rarely found the show funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, anyway. Catherine O’Hara as Moira was hilarious, though- a divine mix of over-the-top physical comedy (those wigs!) and that ridiculous accennnnt. But mostly I enjoyed the show because of the lovely, little world that Dan Levy created- a small town where the local yokels accept the kooky Roses, and where the Roses in turn feel totally at home. Stevie the sassy front desk receptionist at the motel, Twyla the bubbly waitress at the cafe, and of course Patrick, who, along with David, was half of one of the most endearing couples on TV. I was sorry when my time with these characters ended. But I’ll watch anything Dan Levy does now.

Love Life– Both seasons of this HBO Max show were unexpectedly deep, going beyond the typical rom-com clichés to show every aspect of two young people’s maturation as they move from their 20’s into their 30’s. Season 1 focused on Darby, played by Anna Kendrick and shows how certain male figures move in and out of her life, with a visit into her high school days in the middle of the season to gain further insight into her insecurities. Season 2 followed Marcus Watkins, brought to life by William Jackson Harper, and we similarly see his flirtation with a friend/lover throughout the years as he dates other women and eventually settles down with said best friend (a phenomenal Jessica Williams). For showing the beauty and heartbreak of navigating big city life in one’s 20’s, Love Life was outstanding.

Hacks– Another standout show on HBO Max, this one starred a woman over a certain age partnering with a much younger woman, brought in to punch up the veteran’s stale standup act. It’s a great premise that Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder bring to life with great chemistry- though it’s not always smooth sailing. The fireworks between these two very different funny women drive the story, and the writing is top notch. There’s a scene in an antique store in the middle of the Nevada desert that is hilarious- high stakes and high camp. The next season promises to be just as delicious.

Squid Game– What can I say about Squid Game that hasn’t already been said? I wrote previously about how much I adored “Parasite”, and it seems that Korean filmmakers are able to tell brutal stories about inequality and the desperation of the have-nots in a way that storytellers from the U.S. and other countries cannot. Squid Game is brutal not just in its violence- and it’s very violent- but also in its worldview, that some people would rather risk death than live their dreary, debt-filled lives one more day. And yet the show was very entertaining, expertly paced, and very, very good.

The Underground Railroad– I would watch Barry Jenkins direct a Geico commercial- I love his style so much, and this series was the perfect marriage of material and maker. Each episode aligned with a chapter of Colson Whitehead’s book, so we see a chilling distillation of different horrors of African-American history (a town where medical experiments reminiscent of Tuskegee and the early days of gynecology lurk beneath the surface; an all-white town that has expelled blacks; and a community of free blacks that coexists uneasily with local whites). And all along the way, a moving score by Nicholas Britell and luminous cinematography by James Laxton take us on this journey further and further north. William Jackson Harper also stands out as a young man, Royal, who falls in love with Cora, the lead played by Thuso Mbedu. Ten hours of a moving story told by Barry Jenkins, this era’s Terrence Malick- what a delight.

Downton Abbey (inspired by Films to be buried with)

7 Mar

Film as comfort food. We may watch different movies for different reasons- to have a good cry, like with “The Joy Luck Club”, or to have a good laugh, like with “The Birdcage”. But some movies are just like warm blankets, something to snuggle up with and enjoy when you’re in the mood for something pleasant and not too challenging. With the pandemic and shelter in place of the last year, many of us have watched and rewatched certain TV shows and movies to get our minds off of the awfulness of the news outside our doors. Last March, during the initial shutdown, I found myself watching the movie “Downton Abbey”. For me, it was like discovering a whole new world, since I had never seen the TV show. The movie received poor reviews, because it had a scant plot, barely a reason to exist. There is no story, but rather a two hour hangout with beloved characters in a welcoming setting. And that is what has made it such comforting cinema to watch and rewatch.

The gorgeous music, the sumptuous interiors of the home, the green fields surrounding it- for me, these are the main attractions of the world of “Downtown Abbey”. The characters are mostly secondary, but even their dramas are quaint in comparison- a butler experiences a gay night on the town, the princess learns to accept her curmudgeonly husband thanks to an exchange with Tom, the Irish widower who lives at Downton Abbey. The plot is low stakes, and I love it. All the better to sit back, relax, and spend two hours in this lovely little early-20th century world.

Legends of the Fall (inspired by Films to be buried with)

6 Mar

I’ve been wanting to write about a movie that I consider to be the sexiest movie, but there’s been a problem- I’ve had trouble deciding on what is the sexiest movie. I can think of sexy scenes easier than I can think of a sexy movie. And is this a movie that inspires lust, or that just portrays it? I decided to go for a sensual movie, one with a sweeping, epic story about three handsome brothers, one in particular. “Legends of the Fall” is one particularly sexy movie that marked the adolescence and teen years of a lot of women my age. Brad Pitt as Tristan in that movie was the definition of what a manly, loyal, passionate man looks and sounds like.

“Legends of the Fall” also has the bonus of being about many things, not just a sexy couple spending lots of time romping around together in bed (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Perhaps that’s my Catholic shame peeking through- I can’t focus on a sexy movie about love and sex, so I choose one that instead shows a family over a period of many years. Yet at the heart of the movie is the tension between one brother, Alfred, who is logical and wants to live a respectable life, and another brother, Tristan, who is untamed, passionate, and as wild as the Montana wilderness. He goes on to have an affair with his brother Alfred’s wife (during the regrettable part of the mid 90’s when Hollywood tried to foist Julia Ormond on us). She is drawn to him for every way that he is different from her aloof husband. And Brad Pitt gets many chances to smolder directly into the camera. Which makes this movie the sexiest of all.

Temple of Doom (inspired by Films to be buried with)

5 Mar

Is there a film that you used to love but have since come to realize is pretty bad? The answer, for me, comes in the form of Indiana Jones, Willie Scott, and Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. This movie fell very far for me- it used to be way up there, and now, when I recently watched it, I could only count the many ways it failed. How could a movie that once brought me so much joy be so bad, after all? Let’s see:

The story is a mess (first we go from China, to a plane crash, to an Indian village, to a trek to an Indian palace…). The editing, continuity and sound mixing are bad (Willie Scott yelling at her elephant like a ventriloquist). The one note characterization of Short Round, Indiana’s sidekick who has seemingly known him forever? The cartoonish portrayal of the evil Thuggi cult, and the icky foreign food like chilled monkey brains. So much of it now is eyeroll-inducing. And yet as a kid the sense of adventure that animates “Temple of Doom” won me over. There was a period of several months during elementary school- several months!- when my brother and I would pop this VHS tape in our VCR and watch it promptly after school EVERY DAY. We knew all the lines and every beat by heart. We cheered as Indiana and his friends liberated the imprisoned Indian children. Perhaps this movie is best watched with an uncritical eye. But as I recently discovered, it’s hard to watch as an adult.