The Best Non-Movies of 2017

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I watch a lot of movies, but I also do other stuff. Here’s just a sample of my favorite things that weren’t movies.

Best Book: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking  by Samin Nosrat
I don’t read a lot of book (I’m especially bad at reading novels), but if there’s no piece of literature I love like a good cookbook. Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a unique cookbook in that there are very few recipes in it. Instead, Nosrat focuses on what she considers to be the four most important elements of good cooking, devoting one chapter to each of them, explaining why they’re so important, and how to master them. It’s like taking an introductory course at culinary school, and Nosrat’s writing is so exciting you will want to jump to the kitchen after reading only a few pages.

Best Television Drama: Big Little Lies (HBO)
Initially dismissed as nothing but a fancy-looking soap about “privileged women stuff”, Big Little Lies quickly proved the old adage that it’s not about what story you’re telling, but how you tell it. It’s not as if the show doesn’t have its weaknesses, but armed with the excellent trio of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern (all doing some of the best work of their careers) and some of the most delightful plotting of this year’s television, Big Little Lies wasn’t just the art-house version of the Real Housewives, it was a surprisingly insightful and moving tale about female lives, and female friendships.

Best Popstar: Kesha
By the time opening track “Bastards” was over, I had to pick my jaw off the floor. That was my experience listening to Kesha’s new album, Rainbow, for the first time. I had always considered Kesha to be a savvy hit maker, this year she revealed herself as a pop music genius. Collaborating with The Dap-King Horns, The Eagles of Death Metal and freaking Dolly Parton, Kesha looked at the past to re-envision her future. This album, of course, comes off the controversial case in which a judge denied to breach the singer’s recording contract after she accused her producer of inappropriate sexual conduct. It was a rough moment of gross injustice, but if Rainbow -the most raw and emotional album of the year- is any indication, Kesha has emerged from this whole thing stronger, and willing to keep fighting.

Best Play: The Antipodes by Annie Baker
A group of writers comes together in a conference room to try and create the next great television show. They have no idea what it’s gonna be about, so they just go around the room telling stories in order to find inspiration. Watching The Antipodes is like experiencing a Kafkaesque nightmare through the lens of Frederick Wiseman. Annie Baker serves up a mix of sober naturalism and surreal excess that presents a seemingly superfluous play that is actually the most transcendent experience you’ll have in the theater.

Best Movie Podcast: Blank Check with Griffin and David
I am not exaggerating when I say that I look forward to every Monday morning because it means it’s time for a new episode of Blank Check. The fact that these guys can make you look forward to the start of a work-week is the biggest praise I could give them. The premise of the podcast is that they focus on big name directors and explore their filmographies one movie at a time. This year, they covered Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow. What makes the podcast so great? The chemistry between Griffin and David, of course, and the fact that they can be incredibly insightful and incredibly funny at the same time.

Best New TV Show: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
After the premature cancellation of Bunheads (now on Hulu!) and all-too-short Gilmore Girls revival last year, we finally have the return of Amy Sherman-Palladino. Last year’s Gilmore Girls specials took the characters in an interesting way, but didn’t quite hit in the humor department the way the show used to. Being a period piece, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel –about a female comedian breaking through in the fifties- frees the Palladinos (creator Amy and her husband Daniel) from the crutches of pop culture references. They hit both comedy and drama out of the park

Best Album: Melodrama by Lorde
How do you mix the bouncy style of Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen and the avant-garde sounds of Björk and PJ Harvey? How do you make an album that reaches into atmospheric experimentation without sacrificing the mass-appeal of pop music? Melodrama answers these questions by planting one foot on the past and another on the future. The album is so and adventurous, it took me many listens until I fully grasped it’s genius. Lorde has given birth to a baby made of pop music. This album is so immersed in references it even quotes itself, but it’s also its own being. It’s not a copy or a pastiche. It’s something bright, poppy, and new.

Best Television Comedies: Big Mouth (Netflix) and Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
This duo of animated comedic from Netflix were undoubtedly the most hilarious one-two punch of 2017. Big Mouth, in its first season, is a show about a group of pubescent kids, and it is as filthy as that sounds. The brilliance, of course, is that its completely ridiculous and gross humor will ring through to anyone who has gone through puberty. Bojack Horseman, meanwhile, is a show that’s gained a bit of a reputation for providing one of the most unflinching and honest portrayals of depression on tv. This statement is absolutely true, but makes Bojack sound like a drag when it’s one of the silliest and most original showbiz satires I have ever seen. It’s a show that can be painful, hilarious, and its fourth season (which may very well be its best), even heartwarming.

Best Film Critic: K. Austin Collins (The Ringer)
A great film critic not only has good opinions, but knows exactly how to best articulate them. Case in point, The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins and I share a lot of opinions. The big difference is… well, that he’s a better writer than I am! Even the reviews I’m most proud of become peanuts when compared to what he writes. He just knows how to make his thoughts -which are always interesting- come across. But why write about him, when I can let his work speak for itself. Highlights of his work include writing on The Beguiled, Good Time, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and his brilliant essay about “The Movie That We Need Right Now.”

Best Musical: Spongebob Squarepants
When it was first announced, the idea of a Broadway musical based on Spongebob Squarepants seemed like the horrible brainchild of a capitalist maniac. And sure, this might not be the most sophisticatedly written musical to have ever graced the stage but boy if it isn’t the most energetic and invigorating musicals I have ever seen. What’s more, what could’ve been a commercial cash-grab is actually a rather beautiful story about kindness in the face of doom, which only seems appropriate for our times.

Best Song: Cut to the Feeling” by Carly Rae Jepsen
It’s a pity we didn’t get a full-on new album from Carly Rae this year, but this one song might make up for it. Play it ten times in a row and you got yourself one of the best albums of the year. At this point, there is no question Carly Rae is the best pop star currently working. She is unafraid to dive deep into the pool of bubblegum pop, and even more impressively, capable of emerging triumphant. This song is an epic adventure. Big, pompous, and fun in a way that reminds us that there is self-affirming value in the pure joy of escapism.

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With ‘The Post’, Steven Spielberg completes an excellent trilogy about the Constitution.

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America’s never been great, but that’s not entirely America’s fault. No country is inherently great. No constitution, no matter who writes it, guarantees a country’s success. The constitution of the United States of America is no different, but that doesn’t prevent its citizens from being obsessed with it. America, in many ways, is obsessed with itself. Almost every controversy in this country is followed by commentators, politicians, and celebrities philosophizing on what it does and doesn’t mean to be an American. “This is not who we are”, “This isn’t the image America should give to the world”, “America is better than this.” We can debate whether this “American exceptionalism” does more harm or good, but there is no question that most Americans believe in it.

The ability to believe in this message of exceptionalism while simultaneously examining -even questioning- the machines that make it work is what makes the recent work of Steven Spielberg so fascinating. Judging by his movies, Spielberg is a believer in America’s ability to be a force for good. Moreover, he believes that the American constitution is a perfectly fine blueprint for achieving this greater good. At the same time, however, he understands that the constitution isn’t perfect, and more importantly, is not going to uphold itself. Being a force for good is possible, but it’s not an easy job. It’s not that the constitution magically created a great country. The constitution is important, but even more important is the belief behind its creation, that a country could be great.

In order to explore this question, Spielberg’s made a trilogy of films that serve as a lesson in American civics. Each of these movies interrogates the idealism of the constitution by focusing on the practical. Each movie shows what it looks like for a different democratic institution to try to uphold the ideals behind this founding document. The first movie of the trilogy is Lincoln, which chronicles the process of passing the 13th amendment that ended slavery and was integral step toward actualizing the “all men are created equal” element of the constitution. Lincoln deals directly with the notion that it’s not the constitution itself, but people’s interpretation of it, that creates equality. It also shows that achieving something as great as the passage of an invaluable amendment can be an extremely tricky process.

President Lincoln -portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis- is a wise and charismatic man; he’s also a cunning strategist. A large chunk of the movie focuses on the unorthodox methods Lincoln used in order to convince congress to pass the bill. Not everything that was done was ethical, not everything that was done was legal. There was extensive trickery, and lies, involved. But such is the democratic process, the movie argues. The juxtaposes the idealism of one of the brightest moments in American history with the down and dirty reality of the political machine. John Williams’s heroic score can swell while Lincoln gives a speech, and still the movie understands that idealism is nothing without action.

The second movie in the trilogy, Bridge of Spiesfocuses on the judiciary. All-American Tom Hanks plays attorney James B. Donovan, who takes the job of defending a captured Soviet spy. The first half of the movie includes a lot of Donovan speechifying about how granting this man -no matter his crime- is the right, American, thing to do. Not doing so, according to Donovan, would be forgetting the ideals of the constitution, lowering the standards up to which American Democracy holds itself. This is very much a movie about the cost of idealism. Doing what’s right turns Donovan (and his family) into pariahs. So much so that instead of throwing rocks at his house, an angry mob decides to shoot at it.

But Donovan just has to do what’s right. In the second half, he is unexpectedly called to East Berlin, where he has to negotiate the release of two Americans who have been imprisoned by the Soviet and East German governments respectively. Donovan, as played by Hanks, is the most heroic character in this trilogy. He is an everyman who is thrown into impossible situations in which he simply has to what’s right. Donovan’s time in East Berlin is, simply, excruciating. He must deal with two corrupt governments, impossible bureaucracy, a lack of sleep, and the fact that he has a cold. In Bridge of Spies, upholding the constitution and doing what’t right is physically exhausting. But it’s what’s got to be done. Donovan refers to the constitution as “the rulebook.” Adhering to the rules, he claims, is “what makes us American”

The trilogy closes out this year, with The Postwhich is currently playing in theaters and might just be the perfect capper. The last entry in the series feels like a much more urgent film than the ones that preceded it, and for obvious reasons. Famously, Spielberg first read the script for The Post in February. Less than ten months later, the movie was screening for critics. To say that the movie was inspired by last year’s presidential election would be an understatement. The movie focuses on the publication of classified information known as The Pentagon Papers, and the subsequent lawsuit that the executive branch of government filed against the New York Times and the Washington Post. This is a movie about how the freedom of the press is essential in a democratic government.

The Post not only deals with the Executive Branch, but with the “Fourth Estate” that is meant to hold it accountable. It’s interesting that the movie chooses to focus on the people working at the Washington Post. The New York Times was the first paper to publish classified material that made clear the government was lying to the public about the Vietnam War, but focusing on The Post allows Spielberg to put the focus on the underdogs. Not only because the Post was a relatively small regional paper at the time, but because he finds a very fascinating hero in the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep).

Graham is a very unusual heroine. On the one hand, she is an underdog. She is a woman in a position of power at a time in which such things were more than uncommon (and she only got ownership of the paper after her husband died). As such, she has a hard time getting the men around her to fully respect her, and is incredibly doubtful about her decisions. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong and courageous woman. If anything, it means the opposite, that a woman raised in a system that was overwhelmingly against her agency forged on to defy the U.S. President is outstanding. On the other hand, Graham is a privileged woman. She’s a wealthy socialite who spends a lot of her time at fancy dinner parties.

Because she is a Washington socialite, Graham is friends with many politicians, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When she first hears about the possibility of publishing the papers, she thinks of her friend of Bob, of what this whole situation will do to him and his reputation. One of the most effective moments in the movie comes when Graham and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), go on about their friendships to ex-Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Were they softer on them than they should have been? How are the people meant to hold the President accountable be the President’s friend?

And at the same time, you have a whole group of reporters at the Post working hard to find and publish these papers. Graham might be at the center of the story, responsible for the ultimate decision to publish, but this is a team effort. It’s not just one person, it’s not even just one paper. It’s, again, a movie about doing what’s right on the face of fear. The things at stake are money, power, reputation. Those are all things that America loves, but those are not the thing behind the ideals of the constitution. That’s what Spielberg has been trying to get at in this section of his career. What does it mean to do the right thing?

At a time when culture is focused on nostalgia for the past. At a time where movies and tv shows insist on recycling the magic of the movies Spielberg made in the nineties, Spielberg has decided to go on a fully opposite direction. He’s making movies that have a classical sheen, following the legacy of Frank Capra and John Ford. That movies, in this day and age, can be bold and earnest about the thing they are about. That they can be transparently idealistic and incredibly honest at the same time. That there is a director like Spielberg, who can make these movies with such directorial aplomb. All of these things make me happy. All of these things, I celebrate.

The Lamest Show on Earth: A Review of The Greatest Showman

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If nothing else, The Greatest Showman captures the embarrassment of watching a clearly uncool adult trying to be hip. Like that one time your math teacher wanted to prove he was “down” and so he tried to ride a skateboard, or even worse, said he liked Radiohead. This movie is a G-rated musical about the life of 19th Century circus mogul P.T. Barnum. Each word in that sentence is less cool than the one that came before it, and yet, The Greatest Showman insists on trying to be a “cool” movie. It loads its forgettable pop ballads with chantey choruses, hip-hop choreography, and toothless dub-step sounds. But as everyone who’s ever been a teenager knows, insisting that you’re cool will only make you sweaty. A truly cool person doesn’t care if they’re uncool, and a cool movie doesn’t either.

Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, a man who began his life as the son of a humble tailor, but managed to rise up through will power, work ethic, and charismatic salesmanship. He established a “museum” in New York City, which was more of a circus featuring trapeze artists but also what at the time would’ve been called “sideshow freaks”, such as a dwarf and a bearded lady. The Barnum of the movie is a kind-hearted family man who wants nothing more than to secure a better future for his daughters, and decides to use his passion for entertainment to do so. He sees the showcasing of “different” people in his act (i.e. racial minorities, and people with disabilities) as a way to empower them. The Barnum of real life, though… That’s another story.

It might seem a little foolish to criticize a circus musical aimed at the whole family for historical accuracy, but doing that is the only way to understand how misguided the very idea of a movie like The Greatest Showman is. The real P.T. Barnum was an incredibly creative man, which made him a ruthless -and therefore successful- businessman. He made his fame through hoaxes. He famously presented a mermaid that was actually the top half of a monkey sewed to the bottom half of a fish. He also contracted people who looked “exotic” and built fake narratives around them in order to showcase them. Most of these narratives focused on the person’s race or physical appearance and would seem offensive to a contemporary audience.

All of this, of course, is sanitized by the movie. The most egregious example is the movie’s treatment of Charles Stratton a.k.a. “General Tom Thumb.” In the movie, Barnum approaches Charles, a 22 year-old dwarf, and convinces him to be a part of his show by promising him he will dress him as a general so that people will no longer laugh, but salute when they see him. In real life, Barnum did dress Charles up as a general, and as many other characters, and made him perform in a sort of vaudeville act around the world. Charles, however, did not just join the circus. He was adopted by Barnum when he was only four years old.

If you think that sounds like a fascinating story, then that makes two of us. Just reading over Barnum’s Wikipedia page is enough to make anyone agree the man led a fascinating life. There are so many tensions inherent to Barnum’s place in American history. He stands right at the crossroads where capitalism, entertainment and social justice meet. There is so many thing to think about when considering the way he made his name and fortune. so why on earth would anyone think that the most interesting way to tell his story is to turn him into an “inspirational dreamer”? P.T. Barnum was many things, but a woke ally was not one of them.

Apparently, this movie was a passion project that Hugh Jackman had been wanting to take off the ground for a long time. What exactly drew him to material is unclear to me. From the information I could find, he seemed to have been interested in Barnum himself (which makes sense), and not necessarily on this script, which builds a typically hollow “a man with a dream” story out of the man’s life. It’s very rare for original musicals (other than animated films) to be bankrolled by big studios these days. The bargain in order to bring this project to the screen seems to have been to sand off all the edges until you have a perfectly round, and perfectly boring ball.

Even the songs, which can turn even the most misguided musical into a cult object if not an outright hit, are a complete failure. The songwriters in charge are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the songs for last year’s La La Land as well as Broadway sensation Dear Evan Hansen. With the exception of one truly catchy number, all the songs in this movie are not only forgettable, but made up of nothing but empty pop sounds and cliched lyrics. I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish one song from the other, let alone have any kind of emotional reaction to them.

The decision to go for the mass-appeal sounds of top forty radio in the soundtrack of this movie is truly indicative of the kinds of choices to contribute to its ultimate failure. This movie wants to appeal to everyone, and ends up satisfying no one. You can’t say you’re hip one second and be unfathomably sincere and old-fashioned the next. You can’t appeal to grandma and the emo teenager at the same time. You can get a great movie by going for one or the other, but no good movie will result from playing it save. Two things that I ask myself every time I see a movie are: Why this story? And why told this way? The Greatest Showman didn’t give me a satisfying answer to either of them.

Notes on ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

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1. Everybody who has even the slightest interest in seeing this movie is going to see this movie, so what good is it to write a “review”, or pretend like anyone will want to hear whether or not I think this is a good movie? Instead, I’ve written down a number of thoughts that occurred to me immediately before, during, or in the hours between watching The Last Jedi and writing this. Needless to say, this will be full of spoilers. You have been warned.

2. I know I literally just said I wouldn’t go on too much on whether I think the movie is any good, but let’s get it out of the way for the curious among you (of which I’m sure there are practically none). In short: I’m feeling like a real Kylo Ren about this movie. There are many things I loved. Many moments that seem more ambitious and daring than anything we’ve seen from Star Wars… well, ever. And then there’s a lot of bullshit. You can say I’m being pulled between the light and dark sides of the force or whatever.

3. Speaking of which, I think Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was my favorite character in this movie. Well, at least the most interesting. An angry fanboy who idolizes Darth Vader and struggles to get in touch with his feelings is definitely the appropriate villain for out time. I wonder how the toxic Star Wars fans (of which we know there are many) are going to react to him. I thought he was great. He definitely gets top prize out of the characters who were introduced in The Force Awakens. 

4. My favorite character in Force Awakens was obviously Rey (Daisy Ridley), who does not get as much attention here as she did in the last movie. Part of this is because, unlike the previous movie, this one isn’t structured as a traditional “hero’s journey.” The whole thing about Rey and Kylo Ren sharing a connection, however, that was all great. And the way it comes together in the throne room sequence makes for the best moment in the movie.

5. Next on my ranking is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who gets his own story-line after a relatively small role in the last movie. I also loved this part of the plot. His arc is basically a hot-headed guy who must learn not to mansplain all the fucking time (I also wonder how the toxic fans will react to this part of the plot). His relationship with General Leia is really touching, as is his love for BB-8.

6. Speaking of BB-8, I am sad to report that after being absolutely in love with the droid in the last movie, I was a little taken aback by how many crazy wacky things BB-8 gets to do in this one. Some of it is still great (like the opening bit with the sockets), but then he pilots an AT-ST Walker and it was just too much. It reminded me of the crazy fighting they had R2 do in Revenge of the Sith. 

7. Part of the disappointment with BB-8 comes from the fact that he is stranded for much of the movie on what is clearly the weakest plot. Finn (John Boyega) and a new character called Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) go off in search of some McGuffin to help the Resistance and end up in this Casino planet where they liberate a bunch of animals… I didn’t like practically anything about this whole thing. You could easily have cut the whole thing from the movie, except Finn needed something to do.

8. Let’s take a minute to address the themes of the movie, since we’ve laid out basically the three main plots. I have issues with the execution (more on that later), but I think it’s in its themes that The Last Jedi truly excels. Its first order of business regarding theme is to introduce a little bit of moral complexity to the good-vs-evil world of Star WarsWe see Kylo Ren do good things, we see Poe make mistakes, it adds a level of complexity that I didn’t know Star Wars was capably of addressing (kudos to writer-director Rian Johnson on that).

9. The Casino plot also serves moral complexity by showing us the people who profit from this endless war, and there’s also the bit with them selling arms to both the good guys and the bad guys. It’s kind of weird to see such an overtly political message about overthrowing the oligarchy in the middle of a Star Wars movie produced by Disney, which makes the decision at least interesting. I ultimately think it doesn’t really add that much to that part of the movie. Or there could have been other ways to get at those points that didn’t involve the bit with those deer-horse creatures (I really hated everything to do with those animals).

10. The casino plot does introduce us to the little kids that close the movie, which brings me to the second big theme of the movie, which is all about actually passing the torch to a new generation of heroes. I’ve thought this is where Star Wars was going for a while, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. By the end of this movie, Luke, Han, and Leia have all pretty much excited the picture. And that’s kind of interesting, wondering where things will go from here. It’s also quite hopeful, touching, inspiring, all of those things. And it speaks, again, meta-textually to the fandom.

11. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher do lovely work in this movie, by the way.

12. As far as new characters go, my favorite is Laura Dern (duh!), who provides the second best moment in the whole movie. My second favorite are the little chicken-like creatures called Porgs, they’re cute and funny. Third comes Rose, who is a perfectly good character except she is stranded on the stupid casino plot. Last, is whoever Benicio Del Toro was playing, because that guy fucking sucked.

13. I am deeply saddened that we will never get a Star Wars movie centered on the lovely relationship between General Leia and Laura Dern’s characters, a character study of two good friends sharing stories about how hard it is to be a tough lady in a warn-torn galaxy.

14. The Force seems to go to unexpected places in this one, huh? Like I said, I loved the connection between Rey and Kylo Ren. I’m on the fence about Luke projecting himself to the battle scene, especially since he ends up dying anyway (I said spoilers!). I don’t think I liked the Leia in space moment, though, in large part because I don’t think it adds much to the movie. It shows Leia is powerful with the force, I guess, but otherwise feels like a fake-out death and… I don’t know, it’s just another thing to add to this movie.

15. And this is the thing. This is A LOT of movie. There’s way too much plot, too many things happen. When the movie was over, I go exhausted at just the thought of thinking about the movie. This is part of the problem with banking on these franchises to be as huge as they are. It’s the pressure to always go bigger. It’s a shame, because most of the best moments in the movie are all small character beats.

16. Speaking of character beats, Kylo Ren killing Snoke? How cool was that? I was especially happy that we didn’t have to see Snoke in another movie, since he is a terrible piece of CG animation crap.

17. The editing. The Force Awakens benefitted so much from the relentless pace of its editing. That movie is always moving forward, and so fast that you don’t even realize its weaknesses until the movie is over. It makes it incredibly watchable. I don’t know if I could even sit through The Last Jedi a second time (at least for a while), it’s just so overstuffed and long and exhausting… For a lot of the movie we’re just cutting from one storyline to another with very little forward momentum or thematic sense. It’s very inelegant.

18. That Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) cameo was an atrocity.

19. The Yoda cameo, though, that was pretty sweet. Especially because he was a puppet.

20. Let’s leave all the “fanboy” stuff behind and get into the nitty gritty, though. Watching the movie, characters were talking about this war, and how people profit from it, and how it will never end and I was thinking… isn’t that what this is? This Star Wars machine is being fed to us over and over again, and who profits? It’s an ironic statement to find in the middle of a Star Wars movie, especially if you watched it (like me) on the day Disney bought 20th Century Fox. Someone on Twitter (I forget who) said something to the effect of “corporations have made brands the focus of culture instead of artists, and thus fans are happy for a merger of two gigantic conglomerates.” I am not saying that liking Star Wars is wrong, it’s just something I’m dealing with as I get older.

21. And that’s basically it. My main takeaway from The Last Jedi, outside of the things I liked, and the things I didn’t like, was that I might be getting too old for shit.