As always, I remain fairly indifferent to spoilers, so continue at your own risk.
Faces Places (2017)
A documentary about a road trip around rural France that is also a documentary about itself and the growing friendship between the directors, New Wave legend Agnès Varda and “photograffeur” JR. There’s a free-wheeling openness to experience and the people they meet as well as a touching exploration of the duo’s growing bond as the film progresses. The result is a film that is conscious of its own artifice while being no less genuine and heartwarming for it. An awareness of mortality and the passage of time permeates, not least because Varda is 55 years older than JR and suffering some ailments of old age, but both of them are so full of curiosity and creative energy that it is never depressing. By the end, I felt as if I’d learned to see with new – and old – eyes.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
A love story about two very specific people (young, queer, Jewish) in a very specific place (Italy) and time (1983), this film gets at something timeless about love and loss. Timothée Chalamet is a revelation in the role of Elio. He’s precise, but also vital and deeply emotional. How rare it is to see an actor show unguarded, genuine openness on screen! Yes, it’s part of the job to try, but… it’s very hard to do convincingly. In the happier scenes of this film, the emotion comes shining out of Chalamet’s face like sunlight as he gazes adoringly at his lover. And in the final scene, we see the flip side of it as he suffers terribly from the loss. The film has many other things going for it, too – the setting, the script, the music, the other performances are all wonderful, and the use of multiple languages is fascinating – but Chalamet elevates it all to another level.
Related: ‘Call Me By Your Name’: Love, Their Way (my favorite review of the movie, by Glen Weldon)
The 1980s in rural New Zealand. A young Michael Jackson-obsessed boy is excited when his dad returns after years away. His dad is the coolest! Or so he assumes. Then reality comes into screeching collision with the heroic image he’s constructed of his father. Writer-director-star Waititi sketches out the disordered family dynamics, the economic troubles of the town, the way children have to fend for themselves, while making light of it all with jokey dialogue and cartoonish elements like the field full of holes where Alamein Sr. is searching for the stolen money he hid years earlier. And then the end turns up the intensity just the right amount, making it clear how magical thinking and jerky bravado can both have their source in grief. It’s a perfect balance of light and heavy.
Related: Thriller Haka to Poi E From Taika Waititi’s “Boy” (this plays during the end credits of the movie and is absolute genius!)
Black Panther (2018)
The importance of this film can’t be overstated. Its exuberant embrace of Afrofuturism, fabulous majority-black cast, and outstanding box office performance – both domestic and international – were game-changing for superhero movies and Hollywood in general. Studio execs simply can’t say with straight faces any more that movies like this don’t sell. Did I have some problems with the plot? Yes. (I am really not into monarchy as a form of government. Or trial by combat as a way of selecting new leaders.) But so much else in this movie is imaginative and groundbreaking that my reservations seem minor in comparison.
Atlanta, seasons 1 & 2
A series of short tales about an up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta, his cousin/manager, and the small group of people they mix with. Very weird, very smart, very black, and quite beautiful to look at (director Hiro Murai is amazing). Creator and star Donald Glover is a mysterious and alienated human being, and I’m not sure if he’s trying to convey something specific with the show – it doesn’t have a clear storyline or tone and often feels like an anthology series that happens to use the same cast across episodes. But the impression one gets is of the absurdity and myriad contradictions of American life for black people, especially in the south. It’s billed as a comedy, and it certainly has its funny moments, but it’s also diagnosing something serious and often disturbing about our country.
An agent working for MI5 in the UK becomes fascinated by an international assassin, who soon starts to reciprocate the fascination. Who is hunting whom? And what do each of them *really* want? The two leads (Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer) have such fun in this show that it feels fresh and giddy, despite all the bloodshed. The script is clever and unexpected, the supporting cast is great, and the cinematography is wonderful. A delight for those who can tolerate all the murders.
The Good Place, season 3
This show keeps going new and unexpected places with great energy and weirdness – and exploring ethics quite enjoyably as it does so. You can see the actors (and by extension, the characters) developing real affection for and intimacy with each other as time goes on, and it’s a joy to behold. Special props for the excellent show-related podcast hosted by Mark Evan Jackson (who plays Shawn the demon) that airs throughout the season and features showrunner Mike Schur, the actors, and various people involved in production.
Related: The Good Place – The Podcast
We Were Eight Years in Power (2017)
This collection of essays is drawn from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing for The Atlantic during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. The earlier essays are worthwhile but slight in comparison to the later, heavily researched works. “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” are absolutely essential reading for anyone seeking to understand American history, the profound influence slavery and racism have had on it, and the reality that the problems are very far from resolved. The fact that the title – a post-Reconstruction quote from the 1890s – is still so resonant today is a telling detail.
The residents of a small New Zealand town are infected with deadly madness, then sealed off from the outside world with a mysterious force field. A few survivors are trapped inside, unable to escape or communicate with anyone outside the “No-Go” barrier. And that’s just the setup. I’ve read and loved several other books by Elizabeth Knox, but this one breaks new ground in an exhilarating way. I was both sickened and thoroughly gripped by its opening pages and finished the book a day later – something that rarely happens to me these days.
Related: Why Horror? (Knox’s thoughts on writing Wake)
Two stories by Ursula K. Le Guin: “Pity & Shame”, “Firelight”
Ursula Le Guin was one of my very favorite writers and made an enormous impact on my life. She died in January of last year, and I felt such a need for closure that I flew out to her hometown of Portland, Oregon in June to attend a ceremony honoring her life. While I was there, I picked up two literary magazines containing these stories, both of which were published after her death. While the stories are quite different in length, tone, and genre, I was struck by their common focus on human frailty and mortality, and the loving presence of female caretakers. They are both beautifully crafted, and “Firelight” — almost certainly the last tale of Earthsea — made me silently cry in the middle seat of the airplane on the return trip. Go with dragons, Ged. And you, Ursula.
Related: Write, Critique, Revise, Repeat: On Le Guin and Asking the Hard Questions of Ourselves, by Mary Anne Mohanraj