I had some really great media experiences in 2017, though as usual some of the works I list below were released in earlier years. My comments are mostly spoiler-free, but since I don’t really care about spoilers, I might not have noticed if I revealed anything important. If you are a spoiler-phobe, tread lightly…
This film is a masterpiece, and I do not say that lightly. It is poetic, beautifully acted and shot, and deeply sympathetic to the human condition while also being about specific people in a specific place and time. And it speaks volumes about how identity is both inborn and constantly learned and performed in a hard world where the expectations are full of contradictions and pain for almost everyone, but especially for those who are marked as “different” from a young age — like Chiron, the poor, gay, black male at the center of this story. Though it is deeply sad at times, the film shows how help or a moment of beauty can come along unexpectedly and transform everything, in the inner world if not necessarily the outer. It’s beautiful – and also hopeful.
Related: From Bittersweet Childhoods to ‘Moonlight’, a biographical piece about Tarell Alvin McCraney (the writer of Moonlight) and Barry Jenkins (the director), who grew up in the same neighborhood in Miami, but never met until they made the movie. Also, see the moving Hollywood Reporter piece by Mahershala Ali that I link to in the “Online Writing” section below.
The Big Sick
This movie does many things, and makes them all look easy. It’s a depiction of cultural mixing and the complexities of holding on to one’s heritage and family ties while adapting to new circumstances. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the world of stand-up comedy. It’s a nuanced portrayal of the stress and weirdness that go along with health emergencies, hospitals, and a parade of doctors and nurses who all seem to have only part of the picture. And, of course, it’s a romantic comedy about two smart, funny people who seem like they’d be a delight to know in real life. But what surprised me about this film, and truly elevates it in my eyes, is that the real courtship — taking more running time than the initial romance — is the one between Kumail and Emily’s parents. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are great in their roles, and the emotional arc they go on with Kumail while Emily is asleep feels like a real journey, from angry distance to true connection. It’s something new I haven’t seen in a movie before. Highly recommended.
Related: How A Medically Induced Coma Led To Love, Marriage And ‘The Big Sick’, a lovely interview with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the writers of the mostly-autobiographical movie
In contrast to Moonlight or The Big Sick, I don’t feel there is any genius artistry at play in Thor: Ragnarok that breaks new ground or says anything deep about humanity. I just want to watch it over and over again. There’s something about the overflowing enthusiasm and goofiness of the film that I find very entertaining and life-giving, despite all the fight scenes and killing – similar to the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie (though not the second, which I found disturbing). Just thinking about the opening scene — in which Thor good-naturedly explains to a nearby skeleton how he ended up sharing a hanging prison cage with it – makes me start chuckling, and there are many other moments that do the same. (“He’s a friend from work!” is never going to get old.) I give the credit to director Taika Waititi and actor Chris Hemsworth, who are both very funny and good-natured people in real life, and who know how to translate that onto the screen. And also Marvel, who let it happen.
Related: Some other pretty awesome Waititi movies I saw this year were What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about vampires sharing an apartment in Wellington, NZ; Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a dramedy about a foster kid and his cranky guardian fleeing through the New Zealand bush; and Moana, a Disney animated film about Pacific Islanders that was originally written by Waititi and features his friend and collaborator Jemaine Clement in a prominent role
To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters
I am a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte’s novels Jane Eyre and Villette, and recall enjoying Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it decades ago, so I was curious what the family life of such gifted writers would be like. The answer is: kind of crazy! But also fascinating. Their brother Branwell takes up more screen time than I would like – especially as he is depicted as a self-involved wastoid who takes advantage of everyone – but the sisters are well-developed and very well-acted, and their relationships with each other are complex and interesting. Finn Atkins as Charlotte is particularly well-realized – she has the mousy appearance, flinty determination and smoldering heart that I always imagined Jane Eyre herself would have – but Chloe Pirrie as Emily and Charlie Murphy as Anne are both wonderful as well. I believed they could have written some of the most celebrated novels of all time, and I was even more saddened that they all died so young when so many more classics might have come from their pens.
Halt and Catch Fire, season 4
This series began as what seemed like a version of Mad Men in a different industry (computer tech) and a different decade (the 1980s), and suffered in the comparison. But starting with season two, something amazing happened: the show-runners ditched the focus on tortured antihero Joe and turned instead to the relationship between female innovators Cameron and Donna and their startup gaming company Mutiny. The result was a gripping and hugely improved drama about the early days of online gaming and social networking as well as a welcome counterbalance to the male angstiness of prestige television. Season three rebooted yet again, with a relocation from Texas to Silicon Valley that saw big changes for all the characters, and raised the bar even higher.
And then there was this, the final season of the show, which might be my favorite season of any TV show, ever. At this point, ten-plus years have passed, and each of the characters has gone on a real journey through success and failure, growth and retreat, and just plain old maturation, and the way those journeys are affected by their individual personalities, their ideals, random events, and the other people they connect with (or have given birth to — Donna & Gordon’s teenage children become major characters this season) are depicted with insight, sympathy, imagination, and remarkable narrative rigor. The portrayal of the tech world is also fascinating, not just for the historical detail, but also for the commentary on where we are now with personal computing devices, gaming, social networking, and how all of that relates to our desire to express ourselves and connect with others. A wonderful fusion of ideas and character-based drama. I will miss it.
A bizarre, occasionally quite violent, and very entertaining drama from Bryan Fuller and Michael Greene, based on a book by Neil Gaiman (which I read after season one of the show ended and didn’t like nearly as much). The concept is that gods exist because people believe in them, and when people emigrate to new places, they bring their gods with them. Thus, in the United States Vikings brought Odin, African slaves brought Anansi, Slavs brought Czernobog and the Zorya sisters, etc. In our present day, these old gods are becoming weak and tired because their believers are dying out and the youth are flocking to the new gods of technology and media. Mr. Wednesday (soon revealed to be Odin) decides something needs to be done and recruits a clueless ex-con named Shadow Moon (really) to be his right hand man. Their road trip is full of incident, side characters, sex, blood, sadness and laughs. And at least one important zombie. It’s crazy and super fun.
The Good Place
A comedy about ethics in the afterlife? A strange idea, but I’m down for it. There is an entire episode of this show devoted to “the trolley problem”, and it is hilarious. It also has an appealing main cast and a surreal satirical quality that one doesn’t often find on network TV. I forking love it!
Related: Dystopia in “The Good Place”, by Emily Nussbaum, one of the very best TV critics
A prequel to Ellen Kushner’s novel Swordspoint, originally written as a serial by a team of authors (including Kushner herself, who wrote the first and last chapters and was heavily involved with the whole production), then published as a complete novel. There is lots of sword fighting, queer romance, intrigue, and scholarly pursuit, as well as a fresh look into the world of trade in The City. I love Kushner’s Riverside works, so I was a pushover for this. But even so, I think it’s pretty great!
Horizon Zero Dawn
An open-world game about a very athletic young woman named Aloy wandering a far-future Earth who seeks understanding of her own parentage and the historical events that have led to the current state of the world, which is similar to the Americas, pre-European-contact – except for the fact that herds of dangerous mechanized beasts roam the countryside. There is lots of sneaking and fighting and resource-gathering involved in the game dynamic, which is better balanced and more intuitive than many other games I’ve played recently. It’s also the most beautiful game I’ve ever experienced; characters look like real people, and the trees, grass, and sky are beautifully animated and free of pixelation and rendering glitches. I haven’t finished it yet, but the story is also becoming quite gripping, with plenty of commentary on short-sighted capitalism and how future generations end up paying for the mistakes of their ancestors. Timely! (But isn’t it always?)
Perfume Genius – No Shape
Croony, emotionally bare, funky, surreal, orchestral – this album has quite a range. Some of it is so beautiful it almost hurts. The unusual synth effects and sonic lushness remind me of early Kate Bush, the percussive bass and funk remind me of Prince, and the frequent falsetto reminds me of both of them! Then there’s the cabaret vibe on several tracks, a bit of trip-hop, and more than a hint of Leonard Cohen. I’m probably missing some influences… but the important thing is that it all comes together into an original and vivid work of art that really moves me.
Related: I love this video for “Wreath” compiled from footage fans sent. So joyful and weird and lovely!
The Comey Diaries (my name for James B. Comey’s prepared statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence dated June 8, 2017)
Typecast as a terrorist | Riz Ahmed
Pres. Supervillain on Twitter