The 20 Best Movies of 2018

With so many movies coming in and out of theaters and streaming services every year, it’s become my custom to withhold my best of list until just after the Oscars, so everyone’s had a chance to catch up on what was supposed to be good from the previous year. A best of 2018 list at the end of February may not be super relevant, but we’re not all critics who can see everything right away, so hopefully you find this list useful as you look to parse through the hundreds of movies that may or may not be worth your time from the previous year.

And yet, you could also completely disagree with my admittedly eclectic tastes, in which case, feel free to make your case in the comments or on my social media. Until then, enjoy getting mad at said takes as I present to you the 20 best movies of 2018!

 

Didn’t Make The Cut – Widows, Sorry to Bother You, The Commuter, Green Book, Black Panther, First Man, Isle Of Dogs: This is a list of my favourite movies of 2018, so I won’t bore you with the reasons why these didn’t make the cut, unless you ask nicely in the comments But it should be noted that I did enjoy all of them, just not any more than 20 other movies released in 2018.

HM – Tag/Blockers/Game Night: No straight-up comedy was able to break my top 20 this year, so I thought I’d give a shoutout to three I thought highly enough that I would totally consider revisiting in the future.

HM – Won’t You Be My Neighbor/Three Identical Strangers: My documentary game was weak in 2018, but I did manage to catch these two buzzworthy films that were both unfortunately snubbed at the Oscars. The Mr. Rogers doc was feel good and emotional, while Three Identical Strangers is the kind of doc I have shamelessly tried to get everyone to watch because of how crazy it is, which is the #1 thing I look for in a doc these days.


 

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20. Deadpool 2

It’s not exactly surprising to see a superhero sequel match or surpass the quality of its predecessor, but a comedy that’s able to do so is extremely rare. Seriously, comedy sequels suck so hard that Deadpool 2 might just be the best comedy sequel ever made. It’s full of delightful twists, surprises, cameos and easter eggs, and most importantly, I think I probably laughed at it at least as much as I did Deadpool 1.

19. The Favourite

Before I finally got to see The Favourite, I thought it would be much higher on this list. Both of Yiorgos Lanthimos previous films were among my favourites of those years, and there’s something about his filmmaking that really speaks to me, as odd and stilted as it is. Perhaps The Favourite wasn’t weird enough, since it lacked his touch in the screenwriting department, but it felt as if this was a movie that didn’t know what it wanted to be nor did it really have anything to say, fluctuating between slapstick parody and poignant sociopolitical commentary. Swinging further in either direction would have made The Favourite more interesting, but even as it is, it’s still beautiful, well-acted and entertaining.

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18. Leave No Trace

Debra Granik’s striking film about a father and daughter who live off the grid (and have to cope with being thrust into it after they’re caught) is a prescient look into some of the issues currently facing society and may wind up standing the test of time as a cult classic as some of her other films have. The only thing holding it back is that I don’t feel it goes far enough in a year jam-packed with culturally relevant indie films.

16. Creed II

Even though this sequel and eighth film in the Rocky franchises didn’t have Ryan Coogler at the helm (it was directed by Steven Caple Jr.) and the story relied heavily on revisiting things from Rocky IV, Creed II finds a way to nearly match the greatness of its predecessor, which is something I didn’t expect to be saying along with all those other qualifiers. I hope they keep making movies in this universe forever. Just keep rebooting it with the offspring of whatever side character every 20 years.

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16. Eighth Grade

Also See: Eighth Greade and the Coming-of-age State of the Union

The genius of Bo Burnham’s directing on Eighth Grade and how he manage to capture the spirit of middle school teenagers has been much discussed ever since the film came out, but the truly impressive feat lies in his he was able to translate a week in the life of Elsie Fisher Kayla to an audience that  includes someone like me, a dude in his thirties. If this is a sign of what millennial filmmaking is going to be like, we’re in good hands.

15. Love, Simon

For years, Greg Berlanti has been surprising and disappointing us with various DC comic book shows, so it was somewhat shocking to see him pull a movie like Love, Simon out of his sleeve, a very Hughes-ian movie that’s charming and graceful all while remaining poignant and making tough choices with regards to its story about a high school kid who makes every possible wrong move as he struggles with coming out of the closet and falling in love with a mysterious pen pal he’s trying to find. If Berlanti can do this after a decade of making, let’s be honest, middling superhero TV, I can’t wait to see what else he can do away from the formula he’s become accustomed to.

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14. Mandy

Also See: Mandy Review from Fantasia Fest 2018

I could show you the Nicolas Cage freakout scene from this movie as justification of its spot on this list, but that’s only the halfway point of this epic revenge fantasy that goes further than you might ever expect in order to pay off the tension it builds in its first half, as Cage’s character snorts drugs and fights demons with chainsaws on his journey to seek vengeance against the cult leader (Linus Roache) that wronged him.  Mandy is the most metal movie I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s so gratifying to see that Cage has still got that in him, and that audiences and critics are still willing to buy it from him.

13. BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s latest is not perfect by any means, and probably not his best, but it manages to prove that the 61-year-old director can still make relevant, poignant, and most importantly entertaining films that resonate with people just as much as they always have. The performances he’s able to pull out of John David Washington and Adam Driver are great, the way he’s able to weave the message of the story into a point about race relations in 2018 is impressive, and even devoid of that the story itself, about an African-American police officer who casually infiltrates the Klan is riotously entertaining. All of that combines to transcend the problems that most biopics face these days, proving that the stories of our past still have something to say about our present and future, despite less effective efforts from movies to toe a political line. Like Lee, his film is unambiguous about what it is or what it has to say, and that alone is worth your time.

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12. Vice

Adam McKay’s second serious(ish) political film is perhaps a step back from The Big Short. His Dick Cheney biopic doesn’t go nearly far enough in admonishing its subject’s effect on 21st century politics, or his financial ties with defense contractors, but I suspect there might be legal reasons for that. But a middling political biopic from someone like McKay still manages to be inventive, entertaining and informative at a time where we need to be repeating these kinds of stories, lest we forget about the political mistakes that are barely in our rearview. I imagine that McKay’s best work is ahead of him, as he hopefully takes the criticism he’s received from his last two films seriously, but Vice still manages to be an important must-watch film in 2018 and likely the best biopic of the year, and that’s without even mentioning the transformative performance from not only Christian Bale in the titular role (who should have won the Oscar, if Gary Oldman as Churchill in a body suit is supposed to be the standard-bearer now), but also Amy Adams as Mrs. Cheney, Sam Rockwell as W., and especially Steve Carell as Donald Rumseld, who steals the show by playing him as a Chaotic Evil Michael Scott.

11. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Whenever Tom Cruise dies doing one of these crazy Mission: Impossible stunts, they’re going to finish the movie, include the damn death scene in the final product and we’ll all go and see it in some sort of massive countrywide funeral. That has to be the endgame here, right? And I think we’re all totally fine with that, because his opus is clearly putting his life on the line for us, the audience, and the result is consistently the best action you could possibly imagine, somehow defying the odds and reinventing and improving a franchise that by 2021 will be eight pictures old. And yet the scene where Cruise breaks his leg in a chase is only one of several awesome sequences. Take your pick between that, the helicopter duel, the final fight on a cliff, the damn halo jump and (my personal favourite) the club bathroom triple threat fight scene. It’s kind of insane how much these movies have to give.

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10. A Star Is Born

Like everyone else, I was initially skeptical about this remake of a remake of a remake of a seemingly generic story about romance and art and fame that we’ve seen so many times before. But somehow, Bradley Cooper’s passion for the story he wanted to tell (both in front of and beyond the camera) turned this version of A Star Is Born into something special, including arguably the cultural and musical touchstone of 2018 with Cooper and Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow”, likely the one moment in film that will stand out from this year when we look back. I think everyone’s affection for this film (including my own) overall has kind of waned in the months since it was released, which is why it just barely scrapes into the top 10, but it’s hard to describe this as anything less than a well-crafted crowd-pleaser.

9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The latest from the Coen Brothers came and went rather quietly, but I suspect this will be one of those Coens movies that winds up ranking surprisingly high on people’s top 10 lists in a few years time, because it’s hard to find much flaw in Buster Scruggs. While I remain curious about a Coens television anthology western, as this was once rumoured to be, I can’t really imagine it being any better than this, a crisp two-ish hour adventure that flows seamlessly from one tale to the next. Each story is compelling, and while the tone of each one ranges from absurd to macabre, it all manages to fit together perfectly, exactly as you’d expect it would from these creators, with the talent they’re capable of amassing on screen.

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8. Heredity

Hereditary is a rare horror film in that it spends the vast majority of its run time wringing out every possible drip of tension out of its story, setting and characters before absolutely drenching its audience with the payoff. Some might consider that a squandering of said tension buildup, but not this guy. I couldn’t appreciate the fact that everything it builds up pays off at the end, even if, upon my initial viewing, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. In that sense Hereditary manages to truly sell itself as a thrill ride, asking you as the viewer to simply hold on and trust that the filmmakers know what they’re doing. Whichever side of this coin you might fall on, though, there’s no denying that, in the process, Toni Collette delivers one of this year’s best performances, or that this film’s twists are brutal and crazy in a way that went unmatched in horror films last year.

7. Roma

Like with A Star Is Born, “well-crafted” is probably the first term that comes to mind when speaking about Roma. Alfonso Cuaron’s craft, his devotion to film, his keen eye for cinematography and creating the images he envisions (be it a single upper-class home, the slums just outside of Mexico City or full city blocks in the city itself) go unmatched. He’s probably the best working director in Hollywood and he’s earned every single Oscar on his shelf hands down. But outside of the craft, Roma feels a little hollow. I don’t think its story about class and status and the personal tales of its two lead actresses resonated as much as they would have in perhaps a different film. It’s harder to sell seemingly deeply personal tales, and it’s harder to identify with a movie like Roma, which maybe makes it more inaccessible. And yet as a mostly subtitled black-and-white period drama, I doubt Cuaron ever cared about that, and that’s part of what makes Roma such a great artistic achievement.

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6. First Reformed

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that the quiet story about a contemporary New England priest having a crisis of conscience upon inheriting the plight of a man obsessed with the effects of climate change didn’t make a bigger impact than a lot of the movies on this list, but nevertheless, this is one of those movies that will certainly resonate if you manage to get your hands on it. Even after all these years, Paul Schrader is still capable of telling an incredibly relevant, multifaceted story, and Ethan Hawke, in one of his best ever performances (and arguably the biggest Oscar snub of the year) was the perfect vessel for that story.  The only reason this one didn’t crack the top five is a weird ending which we won’t get into here, but otherwise, First Reformed is a movie more people should be talking about.

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5. Blindspotting

What I said about First Reformed could largely be applied to Blindspotting as well. It’s a film that’s incredibly relevant, imaginative, and well-acted, and the more poignant aspects of it find a way to hit you by surprise. The only differences are, obviously, that this isn’t a movie about climate change but instead about racism and the pitfalls of the American criminal justice system, as told through the eyes of a recent ex-convict (Daveed Diggs) trying to keep his nose clean on his last week of parole, and the negative societal influences around him (including his best friend, played by Rafael Casal, with whom Diggs co-wrote the film). The other big difference is that Blindspotting manages to stick the landing, with an imaginative and uniquely poignant ending that left me reeling after seeing it. I appreciate that the Oscars were capable of recognizing multiple Black films this year, but Blindspotting was perhaps ironically one that never got out of their blindspot.

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4. Avengers: Infinity War

This shouldn’t have worked. Avengers: Infinity War is the first half of a movie designed to be the payoff and culmination of a decade of superhero films. It’s told from the perspective of the villain. It ends with that villain winning and turning half the good guys into dust. And yet it overcomes all of its flaws and gives us two and a half hours of the best that comic book adaptations have had to offer. The fact that Kevin Feige and Marvel pulled off what they said they were going to do is truly astonishing. And it’s only the beginning of the end of the beginning, with Endgame to come in 2019 and no end in sight to these films.

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3. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

For seven months between the May and December, there was no question in my mind what the best comic book movie of the year would be, as we just discussed. And yet, along came a spider near the end of the year to turn everything upside down, reinventing not only what a superhero movie could be but creating a unique and immersive style of animation in the process, and telling a kind of story previously unfathomable, even with everything that Marvel has been able to accomplish with the MCU. And if that isn’t enough to sell you on an animated Spider-Man movie, this one features Nicolas Cage voicing Spider-Man Noir and John Mulaney as a spider bitten by a radioactive pig.

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2. A Quiet Place

A lot of my favourite movies of last year had something to say. While I wouldn’t quite pretend as if A Quiet Place was devoid of any messaging, the reason it’s all the way up here has more to do with how finely crafted a science fiction movie it is than its themes or statements. John Krasinski’s unique vision comes to life in this movie about a world devastated by an alien that can’t see, but comes for you at the faintest hint of a sound. Of course the movie is also about female empowerment as it props up both Emily Blunt’s matriarchal character and their fictional daughter, who has a hearing disability that is much more than just a cute take on a world where sound is so important and so dangerous. But beyond that, it’s just a super cool movie with tremendous creature design, endless tension and great action, that leaves you wanting so much more (although it’s yet to be determined if they forthcoming sequel giving us more will be a good idea).

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1. Annihilation

It’s hard to describe the experience of reading the Jeff Vandermeer novel this movie is based on. It’s a book that is completely disinterested in holding your hand through the world that it creates, the story it tells or what any of it is supposed to mean. It’s like a dream that leaves a lot to be interpreted. That’s why it’s completely unsurprising to see a visionary science fiction writer/director like Alex Garland take on the task of translating it to a visual medium, and just as unsurprising when you see the final product and realize that he pulled it off. If you’ve read the novel, Annihilation might not be what you quite envisioned the film version to be. It’s so different, and yet so much more. It’s weird, devastatingly frightening and most importantly completely original even with the novel tie-in. Garland recreates a hellish dreamscape that will leave you pondering what it all means for a long time after the credits role. Annihilation features no less than three haunting sequences that have stuck with me ever since I first saw it last spring, including a finale that is memorable and original in ways you couldn’t even imagine. This is a movie that’s an allegory for climate change, for the pitfalls of advancement, and even for depression and mental illness, and it’s the best movie of 2018.

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The Top 20 Best New Shows of 2018

I probably don’t need to remind you of the sheer ridiculousness that is the wealth of content we currently face on television and streaming platforms. It seems like we can barely ever go a week without something new and exciting dropping as Peak TV continues to miss reaching the actual peak we’ve been promised year after year. It’s gotten to the point where new shows are more exciting than most returning shows, not only because they keep attracting bigger and bigger stars both on and behind the camera, but also thanks to the talented writers and creators getting more and more out of the medium creatively. 2018 was no different, as 2018 saw big stars like Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Emma Stone and Sean Penn take their first starring roles on the small screen, competing with the creative apex of talented veteran TV actors and comedians like Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Sandra Oh. 2018 saw a surge in horror television like we’ve never seen before, creative original shows which you can barely even talk about without spoiling, expanding cinematic universes and gratifying miniseries. And that’s just the beginning.

You might be sick of hearing this year after year, but 2018 might seriously have been the best year for new shows yet. To the point where I felt I had to delay this list to get in as many shows as possible. And still, I’m missing a lot of shows which will probably get me in trouble with the people reading this. I’m ashamed to say that I still haven’t gotten around to shows like Cobra Kai, Corporate, The Haunting of Hill House, The Terror, Escape from Dannemora, DC’s Titans, and I’m sure that list is missing shows I haven’t even thought of that’s making someone very angry as they’re reading this.

In other words, you can’t make everyone happy, and this is your general disclaimer that this list is very subjective and tailored to my personal taste. So don’t @ me, but please @ me in the comments, and consider this a living list as I fill in the gaps mentioned above throughout 2019.

Still, I watched enough TV in 2018 to come up with a list of over 20 fantastic new shows, so let’s not waste any more time!

But first, a couple of Honourable Mentions to four Netflix talk shows that I really enjoyed: The Joel McHale ShowThe Break With Michelle WolfMy Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj all gave me a reason to tune in to Netflix weekly for large chunks of the year. And that’s something that I felt I couldn’t really say about Netflix a lot on 2018. While they released a record amount of content, not as much of it hit for me as in years past. They also started cancelling shows for the first time in any significant way (pouring one out for Joel and Michelle), so clearly these talk shows were a means for Netflix to try something new. With only a few of them renewed for more episodes this year, the jury on this experiment is still out, but I would definitely like to see more content like this, even if the algorithm may have told Netflix that this wasn’t really the case. Nevertheless, I’ll always have those dozen or so weeks with Joel!


 

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20. A.P. Bio – NBC: Glenn Howerton’s attempt to branch out from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia started off rocky but really came into its own as this NBC sitcom’s first season wore on. I’m glad this show is coming back for more as it has potential and a great cast.

19. The Looming Tower – Amazon: Amazon’s 9/11 miniseries featuring a great scenery-chewing performance from Jeff Daniels tells the story from the perspective of the FBI and CIA butting heads in the months leading up to the attack. This show earns its spot based largely on its premise, performances and early episodes, as things get kind of muddled, especially when they start reaching the finish line, which, as you may have guessed, depicts the events of 9/11 and ends the whole series on more of a downer than it probably earns.

18. The Kominski Method – Netflix: While I suppose I don’t know what all these awards shows are seeing in Chuck Lorre’s rather pedestrian foray into the world of Netflix sitcoms, portraying LA from the perspective of an over the hill actor/acting coach (Michael Douglas) and his even older agent (Alan Arkin), the two main performances from those aforementioned actors are so good that it lifts the show passed what you might figure is its potential.

17. New Amsterdam – NBC: I’m not really a fan of the current crop of network medical dramas, so NBC’s flashy new medical drama really filled a big gap on my viewing schedule this past fall. It’s over the top, preachy and often ridiculous, but it’s anchored by a charming lead (Ryan Eggold), a good cast and a lot of attention-grabbing tricks like its persistent percussion soundtrack and a good balance between cast drama and interesting medical cases. Let me be clear, this show is probably not good, per se, but it falls perfectly into that territory of dumb network shows you need once or twice a week.

16. Castle Rock – Hulu: I’m not sure I get what’s going on on Castle Rock most of the time. I’m not even sure what the show is supposed to be about, as it’s set in the world of Stephen King’s tales and often references them, but sort of does its own thing. Castle Rock earns most of its points on ambiance and tone, as well as great character actor performances (Sissy Spacek, Andre Holland, Bill Skarsgard, etc). This world feels lives in, and everything is confusing and creepy, and that’s probably what the show’s creators were going for, making me happy to be along for the ride.

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15. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Netflix: I’ll be honest; I probably disliked as many thing about Sabrina as I liked. The casting is great, the characters are great, the world feels rich and lived-in and the show perennially feels like it’s going somewhere. But I also hate how slow it is, how much each episode drags  (Netflix needs to crack the whip with the editors that make their shows, every episode could be at least 15 minutes shorter), and how far it leans into the CW school of how to make teen dramas. But there’s one thing that sets Sabrina apart and keeps me coming back for more, and that’s the pitch perfect casting of Kiernan Shipka in the titular role. I just hope season 2 is a little more streamlined, a little tighter.

14. The Little Drummer Girl – AMC: Speaking of shows that overstay their welcome, I don’t understand how you can make a show out of a John Le Carre novel so well and yet so utterly boring at the same time. This thing is only six episodes, but it feels like twelve. If I’m being honest, this is a case of Peak TV going too far and making a show out of what probably should have been a movie. Nevertheless, TV is where Le Carre stories have decided to reside, so this is what we get, a show with great performances (Florence Pugh is a revelation, Alexander Skarsgard continues to make me wonder why he isn’t already a movie star, and Michael Shannon is, well, Michael Shannon), a compelling story and beautiful settings that doesn’t really know what to do to put all of it together. It’s almost a wonder that someone could make a show with all of that good stuff (good enough to earn a spot on this list) so boring. Then again I tend to be overly critical on the lower end of these lists…

13. Everything Sucks! – Netflix: The thing that sucks the most about Everything Sucks! is that Netflix didn’t have the confidence in this quiet little show about growing up in the 90s enough to renew it passed a second season. Maybe it was a tad too derivative or reliant on nostalgia, but I really like what they managed to do with a cast of unknowns and with the plot they had. It’s a shame more people didn’t see it, but with a relatively close-ended arc, I’d still highly recommend the one and only season.

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12. The First – Hulu: Between this and First Man, space stories with “First” in the title wound up kind of under-performing, despite big budgets, star power and compelling stories. I think for similar reasons too. Both Hulu’s near-futuristic drama about the first manned mission to Mars and Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic relied a little too heavily on uninteresting character drama. The First is largely build around Sean Penn’s character’s relationship with his addict daughter and whether or not he can leave her behind to go to Mars. First Man centers around Armstrong’s difficulty overcoming the death of his daughter. It’s just unnecessary. I can get this kind of character drama from any show, and it feels shoehorned in in both cases, maybe because some executive didn’t feel confident in a show being capable of enticing audiences on the premise alone. But we’re talking about space, goddamnit. Going to Mars (or the moon) is cool. Center the drama around that. Get me interested in that. Thankfully, when The First isn’t bogged down in what this non-astronaut drug addict girl is doing, it’s actually pretty good.

11. Counterpart – Starz: Counterpart is probably a little too low key (and tucked away on a network nobody watches like Starz) to earn a spot much higher than this, but if this list was about new shows with coolest premises, it might have been a lot higher. Counterpart is a sci fi spy drama about a portal that opens between almost identitcal dimensions, and the spy shit that goes on in order to keep the existence of the other world secret and in control of nefarious higher powers. J.K. Simmons plays a master spy in one world, and a mild-mannered middle-management type in the other in a fantastic dual-role performance, as each character is forced to confront the failings of the other all as cool spy shit happens all around him (them). I think where this show thrives (and weirdly also why I didn’t deem it flashy enough to go higher on the list) is in how quiet and introspective it manages to be despite that crazy premise. In all honesty it probably needed a few more explosions to be truly great (as cynical as that might sound), but it does a lot with the real estate it’s given.

10. Collateral – Netflix: Probably the best and most repeated compliment that people like to give UK TV is how their shows are really good about not overstaying their welcome. Collateral may have been the poster child for those things this past year, as a police procedural about a murdered migrant pizza delivery guy  that somehow manages to weave in all sorts of very topical takes on current events in just four tight, measly episodes. If anything Collateral is probably too short, if you can believe it, as it most certainly leaves you wanting more about where these stories and its characters might go. At the very least, they could probably tell more stories with these characters, but that’s not how UK TV usually works, baby. I hope to someday see John Simms and Carey Mulligan go back to these characters, but if they don’t, Collateral holds up as the perfect little British miniseries.

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9. Maniac – Netflix: I don’t know if this is fair to say, considering Netflix’s Maniac isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill drama, but it sort of feels like this show came a year or two too late. On a list full of unique premises and weird shows that bend the limits of the medium, it feels really weird that Maniac doesn’t do enough to set itself apart. It’s auteur driver (created and directed entirely by Cari Fukunaga of True Detective fame), has two huge stars at the apex of their careers (Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, not to mention a great supporting cast including Justin Theroux and Sally Field), it does that thing I love where it’s a drama but isn’t bogged down by a run time, which most episodes hovering between 40 and 50 minutes, and it’s super weird and quirky with a great story that goes some really weird and interesting places. And yet it’s one of those deals where all of that couldn’t get me as excited about the show as I thought I might be. On paper, this should be my #1 new show based on all of the criteria I’ve set forth. So why is it insteat at #9? I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s good, it’s unique, it’s weird, it stars people I love… and yet it didn’t put all of that together as well as it probably could. But hey, don’t let my negativity stop you, because it is still a great show.

8. Kidding – Showtime: We were so overdue for Jim Carrey’s renaissance that none of us realized that it might happen on a half hour Showtime dramedy, of all places. But the fit is perfect, as shows about flawed people is what Showtime does best, and Carrey is really underrated when leaning dramatic. Throw in the penchant for the weird and absurd that both he and EP/director Michel Gondry have known to wade in and you have a really unique series in Kidding, a show about a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s figure facing the unbearable and cruelty of the real world persistently trying to push him down, testing his resolve., and Carrey is the perfect person to convey that. The show probably isn’t good enough to suggest that Mr. Pickles is anywhere near his best role, but it often comes close.

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7. Sharp Objects – HBO: This might be a hot take, but I thought Netflix’s 2018 was kind of disappointing for new shows. Despite occupying 5 slots on this list, little on that platform really wowed me. And yet, for the first time in a while, HBO had like three new shows that blew me away, which, per capita, is much more impressive. The first of those shows was Sharp Objects, the latest in the network’s miniseries efforts, and, boy, do they ever knock it out of the park with this one. The idea of a character-driven murder-mystery drama might feel very on brand for HBO, but the writing (led by showrunner Marti Nixon and Gillian Flynn, who wrote the novel), directing (Jean-Marc Vallee) and acting (Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Eliza Scanlen) are so good that it really puts the show over the top. There are things Sharp Objects does with editing, cinematography and sound design that even the most creative and inventive streaming shows can struggle with. The production values are so high that there’s little I look forward to these days on TV over their yearly (or more often) dark, dramatic miniseries.

6. Killing Eve – BBC America: I hope you’re ready for the hottest take in this article, because while I really enjoyed Killing Eve (clearly, as it’s in my top ten), I think it probably can’t live up to its hype, especially as it goes into its second season in 2019. It’s this year’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as a show with a compelling and relevant story with great (notably female) performances at its core, managing to capture the attentions of a lot of people its first season before we all inevitably realize that the premise isn’t sustainable for as long as a show as successful needs it to be. If anything we probably got to that revelation much quicker than with Handmaid’s, as I’ve been struggling to find anything positive to say about how the first season of Killing Eve ends (no spoilers, obviously). Nevertheless, we’re here to celebrate the first season, which was fun, exciting, action-packed and anchored by two fantastic performances from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. Forgetting how they might easily flub this going forward, season 1 of Killing Eve easily stacks up as one of the best cat-and-mouse stories in a good long while.

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5. Forever – Amazon: Forever is a show you can’t really talk about without spoiling the entire reason it’s so good, and that’s probably why it wound up being somewhat overlooked. So many people I recommended it to brushed me off because I couldn’t adequately explain why it’s so good, and those people will rue the day. But it shouldn’t be that difficult to sell you on this show, because it hails from Alan Yang, the Emmy-winning writer of some of your favourite Master of None episodes (as well as 30 Rock and Parks & Rec scribe Matt Hubbard) and stars two of the most talented comedic actors around in Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. And while I get that Armisen might be offputting to some thanks to his unique comedic sensibilities, Rudolph is a delight and performs the entirety of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” at one point during the first season. So now you have to watch it.

4. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – Amazon: The reason this post is (embarrassingly) late is because I was (embarrassingly) late in watching Amazon’s big budget Jack Ryan reboot. Even though it came out late in the summer, I kept putting it off, probably because Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy haven’t really been brands that are relevant to me these days, and as I’ve mentioned many times on this list, there are just way too many shows doing crazy, original things for me to get excited about another 24/Homeland clone about terrorist plots and CIA drama. And yet that’s apparently exactly what I needed as a reprieve from a sea of shows trying to reinvent the medium, as I loved Jack Ryan so much that it kept jumping up on this list with every episode I got through, as it’s smart, expertly produced comfort food that you’ll love if you liked those aforementioned shows, featuring a good terrorist plot full of twists, great action and a performance from John Kransinski that transcents those Jim Halpert labels he’s been trying to shake (mainly by showing off all the upper body work he did to prepare for the role, because let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there are a lot of gratuitous topless scenes in this). With Homeland coming to an end in 2019 and 24 in the history books, probably for good, Jack Ryan is a very worthy replacement.

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3. Homecoming – Amazon: If Mrs. Maisel, Jim Halpert fighting terrorists and my vague but heavy praise for Forever isn’t enough to sell you an Amazon Prime subscription (where’s my money Jeff Bezos? Or should I say Mackenzie now?), let me tell you about a weird, unique, tension-filled show called Homecoming. Hailing from Sam Esmail (the creator of Mr. Robot) and starring Julia Roberts in her small screen debut, Homecoming is filled to the brim with tension as, over two timelines, it unravels the mystery of what happened to the pharmaceutical program for returning army veterans run by Roberts’ character. This is a show that doesn’t hide its pretense or use for tactics that will probably only appeal to the nerdiest of viewers like me (including Esmail’s affinity for odd cinematography choices, or scene-chewing performances from a supporting cast which includes Bobby Cannavale and Shea Whigham), but unlike in Mr. Robot (no offense to fans of that show), I find it all much better here, and pays off in a fantastic way when the big reveal finally happens. Homecoming is a bizarre show that, much like a lot of what Amazon winds up putting out, is hard to sell, so maybe you should just take my word for it. Or maybe I can sell you on its half-hour episode run times?

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2. Succession – HBO: A lot of what you can probably gather from my TV choices these days (at least what I might put forth in a list like this) is that I’m very much interested in meaningful, auteur-driven shows that have something to say. Especially ones with great performances. Homecoming, for example, has a lot to say about capitalism and the military-industrial complex. Killing Eve, much like some of my favourite new shows from last year (Mrs. Maisel, GLOW, Handmaid’s Tale) do not hide their feminist flags. Succession fits nicely into that mold as a show about a lot of things, but, as concisely and bluntly as I can put it, the destructive nature of the Baby Boomer generation on both younger folks and the system at large (more literally, about a media conglomerate and the family at its head thrust into a power vacuum when its patriarch, played by Brian Cox, has a stroke but eventually refuses to step aside and let his children take over) and yet I was shocked at how much I wound up loving it, as it doesn’t have any flashy names attached, its episodes are all standard hours and HBO aired it in the dead of summer. But seemingly by design, it manages to subvert every single one of your expectations by being unexpectedly poignant and funny and the perfect amount of twisty.  On a chart of shows this probably falls perfectly between House of CardsThe Crown, This Is Us, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Veep. I know that probably doesn’t make any sense, but Succession is a show that’s hard to label and that might be why it was such a hard sell for me. And yet here it is, #2 on the list, with the only reason it’s not in the top spot being a weird ending that I felt missed the mark in order to set up subsequent seasons. But otherwise it’s so unexpectedly good and so entertaining that I can’t praise it enough.

1. Barry – HBO: After droning on about how much I appreciated this year’s bounty of new shows that are topical, it might seem peculiar to put a show like Barry in the top spot. After all, nothing about this show is grounded in reality, nor does it have anything really pertinent to say about current events. Instead, it’s unabashedly a character study, about the ennui of a hitman (Bill Hader) so good at his job that he joins an acting class in an effort to change his life. But his old one just won’t let go, as his handler (Stephen Root) keeps pushing him into new jobs that keep escalating and interfering with his new life This show is am abject fantasy, with a main character who lacks the ability to feel empathy and very clearly a bad guy, akin to a Dexter or Breaking Bad. And yet it somehow manages to make you care about Barry better than Dexter ever did, and more impressively even than in Breaking Bad. Barry is a surprising and impressive show, and there’s no better example of what makes it great than its apotheosis in the penultimate episode of the season, where after a particularly difficult kill, Barry is driven to a very emotional moment in the midst of a scene he puts on with his fellow student and love interest (Sarah Goldberg), perhaps the first time Barry is able to communicate how he truly feels. It’s a moment which perfectly juxtaposes the real shit going on in Barry’s life with the absurdly low stakes of the acting class,and the way it’s capable of balancing those things is what makes Barry such a great show, such a unique show.

Better Call Saul S04E10 Recap: ‘Winner’ [Season Finale]

Juxtaposition.

I’ve probably sounded like a major rube uttering that word in most of these reviews reviews this season, but it bears repeating; as much as Better Call Saul is a show about people with good intentions beaten down to the point where they feel compelled to turn to the life of evil they seem accustomed to when we see them in Breaking Bad, it’s also a show about varying scales of such descents into depravity.

This show has always been about propping up the bad things that Jimmy McGill does for comparison against the bad things that are happening in the world of New Mexico’s drug cartels that he will eventually be introduced to. For we know Jimmy to have that aura of a slimeball within him, resorting to doing bad things when life pushes him down one too many times. But bending the law and, as was the topic of discussion in his arc in last night’s finale, “Winner”, feigning sincerity, is still a far stretch away from the moral bankruptcy of his eventual employers. So it’s not enough to merely explain how the mild-mannered, fast-talking, sometimes two-timing brother of a respected lawyer can go from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, it also has to be explained how things on the other side of the spectrum get so crazy and dire that they need to drag a Saul Goodman into things.

Last night’s finale ends with Jimmy quite literally becoming Saul, after four years of fans wondering when and how that was going to happen. And the funny thing is that it happens so subtly, with little fanfare. After successfully appealing the bar’s decision not to give him his law license back by pretending to be moved by a letter his brother wrote him before his death, Jimmy nonchalantly tells the clerk who gives him the good news that he wants the form needed to change the name under which he’ll be practicing law. When a confused Kim asks him what’s going on, he merely responds “S’all good, man,” much to her dismay, just moments after shedding legitimate tears at what turns out to be his phony sincerity.

It probably isn’t the big, crazy moment that some might have envisioned. Jimmy isn’t forced into becoming Saul because of a deal gone bad or a threat on his life or anything like that. Life merely chips away at him enough that he decides to shed his persona and the name attached to it and become something else in order to flourish. In his eyes, being in the shadow of his brother Chuck has never given him an advantage (even though, as we saw in the cold open, Chuck gladly stood by his side when he first got his license and even carried him home after he had one too many to drink at his karaoke celebration later that night). Obviously the point is that Jimmy isn’t 100% in the right here. Chuck was a dick, and he probably didn’t care for Jimmy as much as you’d expect a brother to, but Jimmy was a fuck up regardless of Chuck (just as Chuck’s problems weren’t sourced to Jimmy). In “Winner”, Jimmy uses his brother’s name one last time and chooses to fully divest himself from it and go his own way. Like I said, not a big, crazy moment, just another inch forward on a long road. Still, the show manages to stick the landing on this moment with grace, as it always does, rendering yet another gut punch to an unassuming Kim and to the audience.

Things aren’t so subtle, however, at the other end of of the spectrum, as Mike races to find a recently escaped Werner before Gus does, in hopes of saving him from certain death. Mike does his thing, and it’s wildly entertaining. But unbeknownst to him, he’s being followed by Lalo, who is a welcome wrench thrown into this show’s works. He doesn’t have the kind of grace that the writers have had us grown accustomed to with Mike. He’s sloppy, unpredictable and crazy. When Mike first notices him following his car, he drives into a parking lot and breaks the ticket machine. It distracts Lalo just enough, but like I said, he’s crazy, so he plows through the car in front of him and the barrier in order to make his escape. He then returns to the money wire store where the hunt for Werner first began, and instead of appealing to the clerk the way Mike did, he simply crawls into the vents, comes crashing through the ceiling and takes what he wants. He proceeds to deliver the nail in Werner’s coffin when he calls the resort Werner is staying at, waiting for his wife, and pries some information out of him regarding the meth lab. It’s not much, but it’s a leak that very much convinced Gus that his agreement with Werner cannot be salvaged.

And because Mike has come to know and like Werner, he offers to be the one to kill him, a development that’s paramount to where this show is headed. We know that Mike’s killed before, but we’ve never seen him do it, and certainly not yet for Gus. There is a tangible difference between the stoic, grumpy man who wants to do right by the family his son left behind, and the cold-blooded fixer we came to love on Breaking Bad. Being forced to murder his friend in cold blood (no less to fix what could be perceived as his own mistake or lapse in judgment, for getting too close to someone on the job) makes up a lot of that territory.

Killing Werner is a huge, character-defining moment for Mike, and paired with a smaller moment with larger implications for Jimmy as he takes the official steps to become Saul, it spells massive change for Better Call Saul in its inevitable fifth season. The way these two move in parallel is very important to all of that. And what’s so interesting about it is that Mike and Saul only shared one scene together this entire season, and it very much felt like a breakup. I’d need to rewatch the season before saying for certain if Mike’s refusal to help Jimmy steal his Bavarian Boy had any tangible impact on either of their paths, but it’ll be interesting when they meet again, Jimmy now practicing as Criminal Lawyer Saul Goodman, Mike now fully in Gus’s grasp as his killer/fixer. Maybe it’ll even be in the fallout of the whole mess with murder.

And let’s take another moment to highlight how awesome Tony Dalton has been as Lalo Salamanca, making a huge impact in his first few episodes of the show, and truly upping the ante of the craziness that will eventually fill out the environment which creates Walter White and enables everything that he does. Lalo brings a certain flair to the show that some might say was missing. At the very least, he’s an unpredictable, combustible element that makes everything around him more dangerous likely to burst into flames. I can’t even imagine the impact he’ll have next season.

Thus, two, now three very different aspects of the show begin their convergence. Jimmy is now officially Saul, Mike is a newly-minted killer, and the cold war between Gus and the Salamancas will only continue to flare up in unique, unexpected ways. Season 4 of Better Call Saul has been about revving up that convergence, and it did so in a way that never really felt boring or improperly paced, as the stakes consistently rose and as its main characters found their way to that point of no return so brilliantly depicted in the season finale. With “Winner”, and with season 4 as a whole, Better Call Saul continues to prove why it’s one of if not the best show on TV, and it gets 9.5 watermelon pickles out o 10.


Notes & Quotes:

  • I’m so happy this show found a way to get Chuck freaking McGill to sing some ABBA at karaoke.
  • To show how much Jimmy has changed, think about how he goes from singing karaoke with his brother to desecrating his grave for personal gain from basically one scene to the next.
  • Also boasting about his anonymous donation reminded me of that great episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
  • My only worry about the show going forward is all the characters it seems to be leaving in its wake. Nacho and Howard are basically non-factors at this point. What does Kim have left to do now that she’s helped usher in a new era of Goodman?
  • I just want to point out one final time that Lalo is the best.
  • “We can get by on one nipple, am I right?” – Jimmy

 

Why “Achievement in Popular Film” Might Be Necessary: Looking Back At 15 Years of The Oscars Veering Away From What People Actually Watch

Last week, the Oscars announced a series of changes to the upcoming 2019 telecast, one of which in particular set the internet ablaze with criticism. At the 91st Academy Awards, a new category will stand alongside Best Picture, as “Achievement in Popular Film” seeks to steer the Oscars away from the criticism that the Academy doesn’t recognize movies that people watch anymore. The real reason seems to be that ABC, the network that airs the show every year, is concerned about sagging ratings (and I’m sure it helps that their parent company, Disney, usually release the year’s most popular films). The criticism has been fierce from many sides, varying from uncertainty over how the Academy will handle such a category, with so few details yet provided, to ambivalence over the idea of recognizing movies that are already “honoured” with hundreds of millions at the box office, and straight up anger and derisiveness over the idea of the Academy creating a conciliatory, possibly second-class award to stand in the shadow of Best Picture, especially in a year where there is already a fierce fan campaign to get Black Panther in the race, with many derisively (and, to be honest, pretty offensively) comparing the announcement to segregation.

While there are many good points among the naysayers, I’d like to at least wait and see what the parameters of the category are, if not to see what effect it has on the actual telecast. I also reject the idea that this is a rash decision from a “panicked organization”. Because if you look back at the last 15 years of Oscar history and try and step into the mind of a voting member of the Academy, it becomes clear not only that there is often no real consensus over what they might want to reward as popular film, but also that this is a change many years in the making.

The article that follows will take a look into the patterns in and around Best Picture since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King reigned supreme in 2004 that may have led to this decision. At the same time, I have also prepared a separate article looking back at the last ten years and predicting who may have taken home this award ever since 2008, the year where The Dark Knight’s snub led to the Academy expanding Best Picture to up to ten films. But for now, let’s go back all the way to 2004:

Ever since the 76th Academy Awards, when The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King swept every category it was nominated in and took its spot among the highest earners to ever win Best Picture, the Academy has steadily regressed to a place where it values art over popularity and anything else. Despite the fact that, in the last couple of decades, studios have found creative and interesting ways to intersect art with the kind of populist qualities that drive audiences out to movie theaters,the idea of what an Oscar-caliber film even is has gotten much smaller in space and much more closely tied to art and message, rather than being that year’s crowning achievement in film.

I’m not trying to make any sort of judgment about whether or not this is right, or whether any of the Best Picture winners since Return of the King are unworthy (other than probably Crash; fuck that movie), or even that the Oscars should at all be concerned with awarding movies that make more money, but the facts paint an interesting picture:

In 2004, Return of the King became the last film to both win Best Picture, and come in first overall in the yearly box office, with a $377M tally domestically. In fact, of the 14 movies that have since won Best Picture, only five have even made $100M, what has long been an industry benchmark for success, and only two of those films (Argo and The Departed) reached this milestone before any awards hype would have boosted their tallies. On top of that, those two films and Million Dollar Baby are the only ones to have anything close to a big budget (The Departed comes in at $90M, the other two in the $40M range), with the rest all hovering around $15M-$20M, and all the way down to the $2M microbudget of Moonlight. And while Oscar does add to most films’ box office, it none of these 15 films managed to become smash hit blockbusters like Return of the King, even with the boost. The five films that reached that $100M milestone all hovered around 15th place in their respective years top box office, while the rest varied wildly, mostly unphased by Oscar, bottoming out in 2009 with The Hurt Locker, which only made $17M in theaters.

Like I said, box office success doesn’t really reflect the quality of a movie. Not only does it vary wildly based on the resources of the film’s distributor, the movie business has changed a lot in recent years. But the dichotomy between what makes an Oscar movie now and what made an Oscar movie back then and all the way back through the 90s is worth taking a look at, and it’s real, as proven by the expansion of Best Picture to up to 10 films. Prior to this seemingly defining moment, box office success and Best Picture often intersected, as the Oscars regularly awarded top 10 performing films. In fact, on two other occasions, like with Return of the King, the box office crown and Oscar were shared by the same film (Titanic and Forrest Gump). Beyond just the winners, plenty of popular films were regularly in contention for Best Picture and other major awards.

So, what changed so drastically in the last 15 years? Well, like I already mentioned, you could first and foremost point to some drastic changes in the movie industry since the rise of the internet. With streaming cheap and accessible, and no shortage of content, it’s become much harder to coax people out to their homes and into theaters. That’s led to a content explosion, with studios producing more, often cheaper content on both the small and big screens, and it’s led the big six studios to focusing their money on a handful of tentpoles. In the 90s, the top movies made somewhere between $200M and $325M domestically. Anything more was an anomaly. Since 2015, there has been no less than three $400M+ movies every year, a figure that’s become even crazier this year, with three Disney movies pushing up against $700M, and that’s before factoring in foreign markets which can push the top movies past $1.5B and beyond, especially thanks to emerging markets like China which didn’t even exist back then.

Now, those numbers mean a lot of things. It means that with a the risk of a $150M+ budget is worth it for the big studios if it means a billion dollars in worldwide revenue. It means that their funds are tied in a few big budget movies, effectively eliminating the mid-budget films that dominated the box office in the 90s and challenging creators (of which there are many more of now) to make more out of less, leading to a yearly success story like Get Out last year or A Quiet Place in 2018, excellent low budget movies from driven, talented auteurs seemingly capable of making success out of nothing and bringing in insane multipliers on their microbudgets, feats which go unappreciated by studios focused on a much bigger picture. The problem is that for every Get Out or A Quiet Place, there’s 20 or 40 movies that don’t make back twenty times their budget, effectively making this microbudget gamble thing a wash, unless you’re A24 or Blumhouse, successful indie studios that peddle mostly in genre films that don’t compete for Oscars anyway.

I sort of get it. If one movie out of twenty is going to be a smash hit on a microbudget these days, why would a big studio risk $50M on a Forrest Gump type of movie with similar odds? Pass over three or four Forrest Gumps and you get one Star Wars or Marvel movie that’s nearly a guaranteed hit with the same multiple and international appeal. It unfortunately means that the mid-budget movie is dead, but I get it.

In other words, that means that the mid-budget movies that dominated the box office no longer exist, that studios realized they can make a killing spending exorbitant amounts of money and making astronomical returns on tentpoles consisting mostly of existing IP, therefore forcing creatives with original stories to tell to work on much smaller budgets than the top directors prior to the early aughts. With certain exceptions (like your Scorseses, Spielbergs and Tarantinos working with the remaining goodwill they built in those years, or the odd case of Ben Affleck and Argo), it’s probably the big reason that auteurship and Oscar-caliber films have transferred over to smaller budgets.

At the surface, this isn’t a big issue. Hollywood still makes their money and creative types face challenging but rewarding scenarios of either making more with smaller budgets or creating art in the studio ecosystem of a tentpole. And at the end of the day, the consumer is getting more for their buck thanks to streaming, so long as they’re willing to wait and skip the increasingly expensive and unpleasant proposition of going to a movie theater. The one wrench in the works, as it turns out, is Disney, the one big studio that doesn’t dabble in smaller budget, awards-oriented fare (at least until the Fox deal goes through and they own Searchlight). As mentioned, they also happen to air the Oscars, and there’s more than likely a correlation between the decrease in budget of Oscar-type films and decrease in ratings for the Oscar telecast.

And I get this side of it too. People don’t want to watch an overbloated, pretentious awards show when they haven’t even had a chance to see the movies that are being rewarded, and won’t get to until months later when they hit Netflix. At best they might care aobut the people in them, but the idea of a movie star isn’t even what it used to be (that’s a whole other article). From this perspective, the changes kind of make sense, and if I’m being frank, most of the people complaining are going to watch the Oscars regardless of how they feel about “Achievement in Popular Film” and what that might mean. The Academy isn’t trying to get them to watch, they’re trying to get the people who, by February of next year, will have only seen a handful of movies that will most certainly include Black Panther, The Avengers and maybe A Quiet Place and a couple of other surprises.

But I also get the other side of the coin. The Oscars might not mean anything to the vast majority of the people they’re trying to reach, but it’s important to ensure they still mean something, period. Simply having the equivalent to a beauty pageant in the middle of your self-important industry show won’t guarantee increased ratings and might only serve to alienate the group that actually cares. That doesn’t mean that a new category is the end of the world, but it has to be handled careful. If it is, there’s a chance that a category like this could have a positive effect on the industry, one that returns at least a little bit of glory to the type of movie that used to compete for Oscars but doesn’t anymore. Because it’s not just the fact that Oscar-type movies have gotten smaller in scale. There are good, big-scale movies that simply don’t get recognized anymore.

I discuss this in further detail in the prediction post, but there are plenty of movies since the category expansion that were big in scale but wound up snubbed. Movies like The Dark Knight, Gravity, Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road are both big and scale and really good, yet weren’t able to break the trend, and that’s probably a side-effect to all of the above. The big movies got a lot bigger, the small movies shrunk really quickly and Oscar chose the latter path, ignoring the exceptions that should have been recognized because they were just square pegs trying to fit into round holes. If this category was created ten years ago and rewarded, at the very least, those four movies, then it’s totally justifiable. The best version of Achievement in Popular Film is a category that’s all about the intersection between art and popularity. A category that recognizes movies that maybe don’t fully tip over the scale in terms of quality (however you might measure that), but are important to the industry. The Dark Knight showed us that comic book movies can be good and meaningful. Avatar literally changed the way movie theaters do business. Gravity and Mad Max made crazy leaps in special effects and were big budget, populist auteur films in an age where that kind of stuff shouldn’t exist anymore. Hell, as you’ll see in the other post, I’d even accept a scenario in which a movie like Argo can win both categories, as the rare mid-budget throwback movie that sort of feels like the best of both words.

The problem is that, so far, the Academy hasn’t bothered to reassure us that this category will be something like this, and not simply an excuse to parade around the likes of Kevin Feige and Kathleen Kennedy because they were the producers that made the most money in a given year. Or, for that matter, if the voting members rebel and simply make this a conciliatory second place Best Picture Oscar for the most popular nominee. Maybe I’m being too optimistic about this change, but part of me is disinterested in the overreactionary nature of critics this past week when we don’t yet know what the change will look like. And even if this winds up being bad, then what’s the big deal? At worst, they’ll shutter the category in a few years and go back to the old format or try something else.

It’s no different, really, then that category expansion ten years ago. The Academy already noticed the trends mentioned above and they decided to recognize up to five more films. the change paid immediate dividends, with movies like District 9 and Up receiving Best Picture nods at a time where it was almost inconceivable for science fiction and animation to be up there. Even some smaller movies like An Education probably benefited from this, ensuring that both sides of the coin got something out of it. I’m not sure if this change affected any of the winners, and it certainly didn’t help the movies I mentioned above, but with so many more films being made, it was a positive change. Now it’s time to make another one, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to recognizing movies that mass audiences actually like.

If I’m being honest, this probably wouldn’t have been the first thing I would have changed if I was in charge of the Academy. There is a laundry list out there of potential categories that would be more interesting and that would better serve the industry. “Breakout Performance” would make a lot of sense, to recognize younger talent. The fact that there are no Oscars for the stunt workers that risk their lives to entertain us is absolutely outrageous at this point. And if you’re going to reward more kinds of films, why not go all the way and reward the best comedy, best science fiction, best musical, best horror? Popular Film is not something I would have thought of, but depending on how it’s handled, it could be an interesting tool for voters to play with as a broad, unspecific category.

Nevertheless, barring a crazy turnaround, they’re going to do this for the 2018 Oscar race. And while this year’s likely winner is fairly obvious, I’m curious to both define what “Achievement in Popular Film” might mean, as well as looking at who would have likely won the award in recent years. You can check that out by clicking here. Otherwise, feel free to yell at me about how wrong I am in the comments below or on Twitter.

From The Dark Knight to Black Panther: Predicting A Decade of Oscar’s Proposed “Achievement in Popular Film” Category

By now, you’ve probably already taken a side in this whole “Achievement in Popular Film” fiasco. I won’t bore you with the details of how I feel (unless you want to click here and read a long, rambling essay with my thoughts and some cursory recent Oscar history), so instead, let’s just launch into the point of this second article; accepting that these changes are going to happen, I thought it might be interesting to look back at the last few years of Academy Awards and see who might have been in contention for this statue, had it existed back then.

The problem, of course, is that the Academy hasn’t yet defined what Achievement in Popular Film actually means. As I said in my other piece, the ideal scenario would be that this winds up being some sort of cross section between art and popularity. In a more unfortunate case, it will either be a secondary conciliatory Oscar for some snubbed popular movie, or merely an excuse to parade out the year’s most successful Disney producers. In any case, in the article below, I made a sincere attempt to look back at the last ten years (ever since the Academy expanded Best Picture to up to ten films in order to deal with decreasing relevance of the movies it was rewarding, and certain snubs like the one for The Dark Knight). And the results were kind of all over the place and super interesting, to the point where it actually kind of got me excited to see what the first couple of years of Popular Film might look like in the immediate future.

Here are the parameters I worked with, in the absence of any from the Academy itself:

  • Box office performance: I’m setting the bar for popularity at $100M box office, as that’s a pretty standard benchmark for a film’s success. What’s more, the movie will have had to make this money by more or less the end of the year in order to avoid the inevitable bump that an Oscar run would provide. I made some exceptions for movies that would have most certainly released earlier if an award like this was on the table, but generally speaking this means that a lot of Best Picture nominees wound up on the cutting room floor.
  • No animation: Animated features are eligible for Best Picture (and have broken through on three occasions), however considering they already have their own category and the fact that there’s at least half a dozen animated films that break $100M a year, it doesn’t seem like it’s within the spirit of the category. Otherwise, there are no genre limitations.
  • The movies have to be good: I know that this is incredibly subjective, especially as the years go by, but I ignored movies that weren’t considered great, but still made a lot of money, like Suicide Squad. This is probably unfair, but I’m not giving another Oscar to some sorta Suicide Squad.
  • Like the Academy already mentioned, films nominated for Best Picture are still eligible for this award.

That’s about it. Without the Academy defining what “popular film” is supposed to mean, I don’t want to pull in the reins too tightly. And, as you’ll see, it’s created some interesting results. Let’s start with the current year before going back to 2008.

2018 – Predicted Winner: Black Panther
Potential Spoiler:
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Best Picture Winner: N/A
Other Nominees (So Far): Avengers: Infinity War, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ocean’s Eight, A Quiet Place, Ready Player One
Still To Come: Crazy Rich Asians, Mile 22, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Widows, Creed II, Robin Hood, Mary Poppins Returns, Welcome to Marwen, Aquaman

It would be kind of poetic if, after pressuring the Academy to create this category and after everyone presumed that it was made for Black Panther, Disney didn’t actually take it home. It seems like a given, but it kind of depends on what winds up defining the category and if any block of voting members decides that this definition doesn’t line up with Black Panther. At the risk of getting a lot of hate thrown my way, I actually don’t think that Black Panther is an Oscar-caliber film, much like I didn’t think Wonder Woman was last year. At least not in terms of how the Academy has defined that in recent years, siding more towards quality and art rather than industry importance. Black These are movies that mean a lot to people for a variety of reasons, but at the end of the day, neither is even the best superhero movie of their given year, yet alone worthy of being the first to break through to Best Picture. This category could be the Academy recognizing this divide, and while it may not sit well with some people, I think it’s probably the right move to recognize these kinds of movies and their relative importance without admonishing the smaller scale art films that have taken over Best Picture. With that in mind, Black Panther seems to be the obvious winner. But I wouldn’t count out Infinity War, which made virtually the same amount of money domestically and was beloved by moviegoers. Then again, if cultural impact is paramount, then Crazy Rich Asians might stand a shot if it makes some money, or they could pull a Globes and turn this into the farce that comedy/musical is at the Golden Globes. And wouldn’t it be funny if, after all this fuss and muss, the Achievement in Popular Film award goes to a goddamn Mamma Mia movie?

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2008 – Predicted Winner: The Dark Knight
Potential Spoiler:
Mamma Mia!
Best Picture Winner:
Slumdog Millionaire
Other Nominees: Iron Man, Twilight, Quantum of Solace, Sex and the City, Tropic Thunder, Step Brothers

Speaking of hilarious poetry, let’s go back to the year that was the precursor to this mess, when the outrage over The Dark Knight’s snub led to the expansion of Best Picture. If instead the Academy created Achievement in Popular Film to accommodate it, the same way they’re doing for Black Panther, then it seems pretty obvious that The Dark Knight would walk away with this award and Christopher Nolan fans wouldn’t spend the next decade lamenting the fact that their favourite director never got the recognition he deserved. Or… just like they might this year, they give it to freaking Mamma Mia.

2009 – Predicted Winner: Avatar
Potential Spoiler:
Inglourious Basterds
Best Picture Winner: The Hurt Locker
Other Nominees:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hangover, Star Trek, The Blindside, Sherlock Holmes, Taken, District 9, Watchmen

2009 seems like another obvious year. Avatar was not the best movie of 2009 (that was Inglourious Basterds), but it was most certainly the most influential. It ushered in the current era of 3D and forced theaters to buy all new equipment. It set new box office records domestically and worldwide, records director James Cameron already held. But it was toppled by The Hurt Locker for Best Picture because it was a mainstream action/sci-fi movie with a derivative, forgettable story and mediocre acting. . After The Dark Knight muddled the line between art and mainstream appeal, the Academy quickly put its foot down and said that it was disinterested in that debate, instead rewarding one of the least-watched Best Picture winners of all time and likely perpetuating the stereotype that the Oscars are for art films no one cares about. If Popular Film existed in 2009, there’s no way Avatar doesn’t come out the winner. Unless… the Academy treats it as Best Picture #2 and gives it to Inglourious Basterds, the film they’re afraid of giving Best Picture to despite eight nominations, a Supporting Actor-winning performance from Christoph Waltz rivaling the bar set by Heath Ledger a year earlier, and a Best Original Screenplay snub so egregious that they gave Tarantino the nod a couple years later for Django Unchained when 2009 Hurt Locker winner Mark Boal should have won for his superior film, Zero Dark Thirty. So, do you give it to Avatar, the benchmark-destroying film, or Inglourious Basterds, the Tarantino masterpiece too gauche to be lauded as the year’s best film, but incredibly popular? What’s more, does anyone remember The Hurt Locker if this category exists?

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2010 – Predicted Winner: True Grit
Potential Spoiler:
Inception
Best Picture Winner:
The King’s Speech
Other Nominees: Other Potential Nominees:
Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows Part 1, The Karate Kid, Tron Legacy, Shutter Island, The Other Guys, The Expendables

2010 is when things start to get weird and the necessary for this category dwindles for a few years. I may be blinded by hindsight, but there’s not a single populist film in this pool that really stands out. The year’s top action/adventure performers are all sort of bland and forgettable and haven’t held up in the years since they came out. And it would have been a travesty to reward half a Harry Potter film (more on that when we get to 2011). I would have killed for a The Other Guys win, as a precursor to Adam McKay’s dramatic turn in recent years, but I highly doubt the Academy would have given this award to any comedy, yet alone one starring Will Ferrell, and Shutter Island is an underrated Scorsese/Leo team-up that was otherwise ignored at this year’s Oscars and would have an equally difficult time in this category. Barring a wild misinterpretation of what this category is supposed to mean, that leaves us with only two possible winners, both 2010 Best Picture nominees. Either this goes to True Grit, or Inception, and at the end of the day Oscar is much more likely to pick a Coen over a Nolan.

2011 –  Predicted Winner: The Help
Potential Spoiler:
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows 2
Best Picture Winner:
The Artist
Other Nominees:
Fast Five, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Thor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Bridesmaids

The further I get into my own head about this damn category, the more it looks like it’s going to wind up being Best Picture Jr. instead of rewarding the year’s most popular good movies. A lot of what I’ve said suggests that 2011’s statue should go to the last Harry Potter film. Even though it’s a Part 2, a trend I absolutely loathed about this era of blockbusters, it would have been the perfect time to reward the legacy of a really important and uber popular film franchise, similar to how they celebrated Lord of The Rings eight years earlier. Especially considering, shockingly, that the Harry Potter franchise never won a single Oscar. Then again, if we accept the other, more cynical reason this category came to exist in 2018, the year of the Panther, then doesn’t rewarding The Help make just as much sense? Even so, 2011 was a good year for blockbusters, as you can see above, so it’s just as possible that they go a different root with this and try to reestablish the award as truly populist, or even give it to Bridesmaids, the first true comedy contender in recent years. All that being said, I think it’s just easier to give it to The Help, a great movie that a lot of people loved at the time and, as a Best Picture nominee that year, a fairly uncontroversial choice.

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2012 – Predicted Winner: The Avengers
Potential Spoiler:
Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln
Best Picture Winner: Argo
Other Nominees:
The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Hunger Games, Ted, Prometheus

2012 is probably the apex of the crossover between Popular Film and Best Picture, yet also the year where a truly populist film is the most obvious winner. All but two films nominated for Best Picture made well over $100 million, a whopping five of them all reached that threshold before our arbitrary early January cutoff, and each of those five are wildly different and good in their own ways. A master debater would point to 2012 as an easy takedown for anyone arguing that Oscar doesn’t reward movies that people watch. But for the Popular Film category, that creates a massive problem. This is a year where they might want to give this out as a secondary best picture reward to, say, Life of Pi, a movie which could have easily usurped Argo for best picture, or Django Unchained as a conciliatory award to Tarantino. Even Argo would be a fine winner and the first film that could win both categories, either justifying its existence or further unnerving those who’ve already chosen to hate it no matter what. And if it wasn’t for the fact that 2012 is also the year The Avengers came out, I’m sure we’d all be fine with any of those choices. However you might interpret this category, if Marvel pulls off what they did with this movie in 2012 and don’t get rewarded for it with a category named specifically after the thing that their movies are, then there’s a problem.

2013 – Predicted Winner: Gravity
Potential Spoiler:
American Hustle
Best Picture Winner:
12 years A Slave
Other Nominees:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, The Heat, The Great Gatsby

2013 is probably the weakest year on this list. It doesn’t really have any big blockbuster movies that stand out, and most of its Best Picture nominees didn’t make their money before the cutoff, leaving us with American Hustle, which, quite frankly, I had to bend the box office rule to sneak in, and the obvious winner, Gravity, which was in equal contention for Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave. In fact, it won four more Oscars than 12 Years and even gave us a rare Best Picture/Best Director split, with Alphonso Cuaron taking the second most coveted statue of the show. Gravity was a great film and surprisingly popular for an Oscar contender, and in retrospect, the fact that it didn’t win Best Picture was probably the most telling early sign that the Academy was starting to firmly move away from rewarding popularity. Giving Gravity this reward is an easy compromise.

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2014 – Predicted Winner: American Sniper
Potential Spoiler:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Best Picture Winner: Birdman
Other Nominees:
Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Interstellar, Neighbors, The Equalizer, Gone Girl

If this was 20 years earlier, American Sniper would not only be the winner in this category, but it would have easily won Best Picture and several other awards. But in 2014, the Academy’s priorities are rapidly changing, and a movie like American Sniper is both unaligned with Hollywood’s politics and represents something they’ve left behind as the Academy moves further away from populist movies. I originally considered disqualifying American Sniper from contention because it only made its money in January, but it’s kind of too crazy a story to ignore. This is a based-on-a-true-story movie about the struggles of an Iraq war vet that, depending on what side of the political spectrum you might fall on, was either a badass that killed a bunch of terrorists (fuck yeah America!), or a complicated, ill person handed a sniper rifle by a military and society that enables and encourages his ilk to do bad things and then gaslights them by calling them heroes yet treating them like the homeless (deep breath), struggling to reintegrate with society upon his return from a harrowing, unnecessary war.  This is a story that appealed to middle America and pandered to certain people on the left, leading it to an unlikely spot at the top of the 2014 box office, an unlikely feat considering the year that Marvel had and some other great action movies. While it came out late and was likely boosted by all its Oscar nominations, I decided to throw it in here because it’s important in all of this context of what this category should be (and could have easily gone wide in like November and been eligible anyway). This, along with Argo, are the 90s style of serious mid-budget blockbusters that the Academy should want to get back to and a completely kosher choice for this award, if that’s not the kind of thing you want to reward in Best Picture. At the same time, it’s not like the Academy ignored American Sniper; it got six nominations. It was snubbed in all but one technical category not because of the kind of film it is, but because of who make it and his and its politics. Clint Eastwood, despite being a legend both in front of and behind the camera who hasn’t lost much of a step at his age, was by this point firmly an old, conservative asshole barely two years removed from when he assailed the character of the sitting president and mocked him at the RNC by talking to an empty chair. Hollywood can forget a lot of bad things, but character attacks on Barack Obama is not one of those things. So depending on what kind of cynicism is your shit, either they give him this award out of spite since it’s no Best Picture, or they nominate him and give it to Captain America because that’s what the country really stands for.

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2015 – Predicted Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Potential Spoiler:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Picture Winner:
Spotlight
Other Nominees:
Jurassic World, Furious 7, Cinderella, Spectre, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Trainwreck, Spy, The Martian

Spotlight is a good movie and I don’t blame the Academy for giving it Best Picture, but the fact that a film like Mad Max can come out of an Oscar ceremony with six statues and one of them isn’t Best Picture is exactly the problem with the Oscars these days, and why this category exists. Some might argue that being technically good (all six of Mad Max’s Oscars were below the line, although George Miller should have contended for Directing and Charlize Theron should have been nominated for Best Actress) doesn’t mean that you deserve the top awards, but Mad Max, like, for example, Avatar, should be an obvious exemption, perfectly blending art with popularity and a stunning, industry-changing achievement in film that deserves to be recognized. It’s the obvious winner here as a consolation prize. That being said, 2015 is also the year Disney brought Star Wars back in the grandest possible way, destroying box office records (including some set that same year by Jurassic World), and could possibly stake an equal claim to this award.

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2016 – Predicted Winner: Rogue One
Potential Spoiler:
Captain America: Civil War
Best Picture Winner:
Moonlight
Other Nominees:
The Jungle Book, Deadpool, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Doctor Strange

2016 is probably the year that made Disney realize they could probably push the Academy into creating a category that could easily go to one of their movies every year. Star Wars and Marvel are assure that they will always have the top box office spot. They even managed to secure four of the top five slots, a feat they might be able to accomplish again this year. With no studio producing prestige films (at least not until the Fox acquisition is complete), this is the only way Disney can assure a bigger Oscar presence, and in 2016, there is no way Achievement in Popular Film doesn’t go to a Disney movie. Outside of La La Land gaming the system by going wide earlier and sneaking a victory here (and likely avoiding the envelope fiasco with Moonlight), they have virtually no competition among popular films. Rogue One was great and different and probably the easy winner. Civil War further elevated what Marvel was capable of doing. Even The Jungle Book had enough prestige and quality to possibly take it. With the Academy swinging so far in the opposite direction for Best Picture with the microbudget Moonlight, this is an easy year for Disney.

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2017 – Predicted Winner: Get Out
Potential Spoiler:
Wonder Woman
Best Picture Winner:
The Shape of Water
Other Nominees:
Beauty and the Beast, Logan, Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Kong: Skull Island, Baby Driver

Then again, things could swing wildly back in the other direction with 2017. Get Out shocked everyone by making $175M on a $4M budget and eventually taking home the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Jordan Peele. It’s unlikely rise to prominence and its relevance in 2017 would make it the perfect winner here, even in a rebellious sort of way when in so many of the years listed above, an populist action movie seemed like such an obvious choice. But 2017 was a pretty stacked year for popular film and it might have made the decision a little less obvious. Instead of giving this to Get Out as what might be perceived as a consolation prize, Wonder Woman, perceived by many as a Best Picture snub, would have been a fine winner. Logan might be one of the best superhero movies of all time and sneaked into the Adapted Screenplay race, an unlikely feat for this kind of movie. The Last Jedi was the top grossing film of the year, Dunkirk was a reliable Chris Nolan Movie, Jumanji was a shockingly good sequel and family film… and the list goes on.

It’s kind of funny, there are barely any years with any clear winners. I don’t know if that’s because the Academy hasn’t defined the award yet, or because popularity can mean different things, even with a benchmark for performance. What I’ve learned looking at all these races is that, depending on how strictly the Academy winds up defining this, and how derisively the voting members decide to vote, this is a category that can go any number of ways, sometimes depending on the year. A lot of people may not like it, but considering this is new territory for the Oscars, I think it kind of makes it exciting. If Best Picture is going to continue to be art and art only, if they’re never going to return to how it was before 2004, and if they can avoid turning this into a Best Picture Consolation Prize, then down to see what this category might wind up looking like. That should be the least amount of benefit of the doubt the Academy is given here, even if the idea is sort of all-over the place and (so far) half baked.

‘Under The Silver Lake’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

The word “homage” can often illicit negative reactions when it’s used to describe a movie or a filmmaker. Even masters of the style, such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, can often be accused of slipping over into something less celebratory when they employ it in their work. Yet I can think of no more appropriate word to describe David Robert Mitchell’s third feature film, Under The Silver Lake (screened last week at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival). At the risk of sounding pretentious, it even feels like an homage to an homage, as it is a movie blending different genres and even different eras of  filmmaking, and chalk-full of references to as well as actual footage of existing work. Maybe it’s just as tacky to call Mitchell’s film a love lever, but that’s honestly what it feels like he’s going for, and, for the most part, it’s a style that mostly works.

Under The Silver Lake is a movie about a perennial slacker named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who doesn’t seem to have a clear line of work, constantly living within a few days of eviction and homelessness yet more concerned about scoring with every girl that crosses his path. The film’s plot kicks off when he meets Sarah (Riley Keough), a gorgeous Manic Pixie Dream Girl that catches his eye while he’s checking out the action in the pool area of his building between hook ups with another girl (played by Riki Lindhome but interestingly never named). His first interaction with Sarah ends too soon, but his quest to woo her is cut short when he discovers that her apartment has been emptied. Sam is further dismayed when he fears Sarah to be dead, launching him into a sweeping mystery as an increasingly ridiculous set of conspiracy theories unfold before him.

The film is officially described as a “neo-noir black comedy crime thriller”, and it probably deserves all of those qualifiers and more. Under The Silver Lake is about a lot of things on paper, as throughout its 140 minute run time Sam is tasked with unraveling a number of increasingly elaborate mysteries and taken on various side quests. Sam runs the gamut of Mitchell’s version of hipster LA, attending parties in the weirdest settings with the most ridiculous of entertainment, like a balloon dancer and a band that calls itself “Jesus and the Brides of Frankenstein” and movie screenings in cemeteries. Everyone he comes across is in every new location he visits, and everything is purposely interconnected. This is a movie that is made to feel small, close-knit, even though the supposed message it presents is grand and sweeping.

And that’s on purpose, as Mitchell sells us this homage full of homages with an eventual message that feels deep and personal and the main character and why he sets out on this quest. Honestly, without spoiling anything, it’s probably one of the only things about the movie that didn’t work for me, as it comes out of nowhere after most of the movie is spent completely unconcerned with who Sam really is or what he cares about. The end of the film, as it pertains to Sam’s arc and journey, it meant to convey that he’s learned something deep and meaningful about himself and why he would go to such lengths to find out what happened to some girl he met, why he would care more about her than himself, but it comes off as flat since this otherwise isn’t a character-driven story. I’m not sure if that ending was a last-ditched effort in the writing stage to salvage a sort of meaningless plot, or if it’s purposely meant as some sort of meta-narrative that went over my head, but I would have been just as happy if this was just a movie about a lazy dude going on a meaningless journey full of dead ends to solve a mystery that doesn’t really matter simply because it’s more interesting than facing his responsibilities. Instead, it’s something else, and it’s sort of tacky.

Anyway, that whole thing sort of had me leaving the theater on a sour note, but having had some time to thing about the movie as a while, I otherwise really enjoyed it. It’s fun, loose, rousingly funny and entertaining from beginning to end. For me, it plays its references and homages perfectly. While they may be too much for some, I thought the way they’re used so heavily and as such a breakneck pace really added something unique to the film. Because Under The Silver Lake manages to balance being a lot of things, thematically, in part by wearing its references and influences on its sleeve, with reckless abandon. It lays a lot of different roots of influence. The most overt as the classic pre-60s films that they literally watch at various points in the film. There’s a lot of Hitchcock in there too. The comparisons you’ll likely see the most are to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I think there’s a lot of early Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino in there too, since every post 1995 indie movie is in some way influenced by some combination of Mallrats/Clerks/Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction. It’s certainly influenced by grunge and college rock (the soundtrack features multiple R.E.M. song, after all). And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m pretty keen of describing Under The Silver Lake as the anti-Wes Anderson film. There’s an attention to detail in Mitchell’s work, because the story demands it, but at the same time, it manages to be all over the place. It’s a movie about patterns that don’t seem to fit together but form a larger mosaic. It purposely borrows from other movies and filmmakers, and their idiosyncrasies, in order to make a point about pop culture as a whole. It’s a movie about a lot of things, but also kind of nothing at all at its core. In a sense, I couldn’t really tell you why this movie exists or why I liked it so much. It just sort of works, and it just manages to be incredibly entertaining.

Under The Silver Lake gets 8.5 movie references out of 10.

 

The Best Shows of the First Half of 2018: Barry, GLOW, Atlanta, and More!

 

TV – there’s so much of it these days! How do you parse the hundreds of scripted shows on at any particular time and figure out what’s worth watching? Well, you have psychos like me, who watch way too much television and try to parlay what’s actually good and worth watching. If the exhaustive list of my favourite shows of 2018 so far is any indication, it’s not a job I’m particularly good at. But seeing as we’ve passed the midway point of 2018, and we’re only a couple of days removed from this year’s Emmy nominations, I thought it would be fun to check in on what I’ve been watching this year that may be worth your time. Some, like Barry, The Americans and Atlanta, you’ve probably seen on similar lists, and some shows like Killing Eve or The Terror I unfortunately haven’t gotten around to watching, but I hope you’ll also find some off-the-beaten path shows on here you might not expect to find

So without further adieu, where are my unsolicited thoughts on nearly 20 shows that have aired in the first half of 2018, presented in the best of orders, alphabetical!


AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D – SEASON 5 – ABC

Phil Coulson and his Agents of SHIELD had a hell of year. They traveled to a dystopian future where the planet has been destroyed, and what remains floats in space under the control of Kree warlords running genetic experiments on survivors in order to traffic Inhumans. The first half of the season was a huge departure from what the show had done in the past, and yet another welcome change for one of TV’s most dynamic superhero dramas. And if that wasn’t enough, the second half of the season transformed General Talbot, a beloved character played by Adrian Pasdar, until the comics supervillain Graviton. Unfortunately, the show didn’t tie into the events of Avengers: Infinity War, despite some generic teases, and ABC put us through the ringer before they finally renewed the show for a shortened sixth season, but that’s not enough to detract from how delightful Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to be.

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THE AMERICANS – SEASON 6 – FX

If the plodding, overlong season 5 of The Americans is what it took to deliver one of the best final seasons in recent memory, including a pitch-perfect finale, then opinions on season 5 need to be retroactively adjusted. With season 6, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields deliver 10 episodes that not only bring the tale of The Jennings (and all the characters around them, notably their lowly FBI agent neighbor Stan Beeman) arc to a satisfying conclusion, but they do it in a way that (without spoiling anything) no one could have possibly anticipated. Philip and Elizabeth, the villains in their own story from the very beginning, don’t get the kind of comeuppance that media has trained us to expect them to get, in a finale that could easily garner two of the top spots in the best TV moments of 2018 (that parking garage scene! With or Without You!).

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ATLANTA – SEASON 2 – FX

What can be said about Atlanta that hasn’t been said already? Donald Glover’s opus (one of many, if we’re being honest) is a unique, creatively rich experience that transcends the traditional confines of what most expect TV to be, even in 2018, when it can be pretty much anything. Everyone points to “Teddy Perkins” at its fulcrum, but almost every episode this season has something to offer worthy of those same accolades. It would be easy to name them all, but my favourites (and each for very different reasons), would probably be “Barbershop”, “Woods”, “North of the Border” and “FUBU”.

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BARRY – SEASON 1 – HBO

I’ve already spoken at length about all the things that made the first season of Barry special. It’s black comedy that can be gut-bustingly funny when it needs to be and uncomfortable or melodramatic in its more serious moments. Bill Hader is a revelation in the titular role, and everyone around him, notably the great Henry Winkler, are perfect in supporting roles. And maybe most importantly, the story goes places you wouldn’t expect it to, to the point where I’m having trouble conceiving what season 2 might look like. And that’s an exciting feeling to have for a show these days.

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE – SEASON 5 – FOX

You probably don’t need a full diatribe to understand why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a special show that will wind up in the pantheon of single-cam comedies. It’s regularly hilarious, its cast is perfectly balanced between television vets, established comedians and relative unknowns (at least prior to the show), and it has a tendency to be able to get serious when it needs to. It also continues to get better with every passing season. And this past spring, it managed to rally the internet around its cancellation and subsequent resurrection at NBC with the kind of love you simply don’t see for a TV show anymore. B99 is television comfort food and I hope it never goes away.

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COUNTERPART – SEASON 1 – STARZ

Competing with Barry for one of 2018’s best new shows is this sci fi drama about parallel earths and the spy shit that goes on between them. Counterpart feels like it’s drawn straight from a Cold War mystery novel. Its world(s) feel lived in and distict, interesting in the ways they subtly deviate from our own, its characters fully fledged (including a set of doppelgangers played expertly by J.K. Simmons, in dual roles so different from one another that may actually convince you that he has a twin brother who’s just as good at acting as he is). I want to see so much more in the world of Counterpart, and yet it is a show that’s really good at holding back until it absolutely needs to, leading to some very satisfying moments peppered throughout season 1.

GLOW – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

Back on my old site, I proclaimed GLOW the best new show of 2017. It was a decision I was relatively comfortable with, but one I had to mull, as putting a sitcom about women’s wrestling in the 80s ahead of things like Mindhunter, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and The Handmaid’s Tale in such a stacked year for frashmen shows, especially dramas, felt kind of odd. But I don’t regret it, because GLOW is such a feelgood, uplifting show that perfectly encapsulates its time period and projects it against some of the issues we face in society today, especially women’s rights. Season 2, which recently came out on Netflix, only reinforces my views on the show. It’s just as good, if not better, than the first season, and it’s transformative and different from the first season in the best possible way.

THE GOOD PLACE – SEASON 2 – NBC

This might be cheating, because The Good Place only aired five episodes in 2018, but those episodes were among the best of a second season most of us had no idea what to expect of, and introduced us to Maya Rudolph’s Judge Gen. Since we’re a couple days removed from the second season’s inevitable Emmy snubs, it seemed only fair to give it a shoutout here.

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THE HANDMAID’S TALE – SEASON 2 – HULU

A lot of people have struggled with the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t hold anything back. It’s a tormenting, depressing, dark, drab show that you don’t feel good about while watching. But it’s an important show, serving as a somber warning about the kind of society we could be headed towards, and it’s expertly acted and made. The sort of existential conversation around this show is whether or not this is the kind of thing people want out of a television viewing experience, as being told that a show is important is a tough pill to swallow in a medium that’s mostly seen as entertaining, but, like, we don’t have a trouble with the idea of the importance of a movie (contrasted with whatever building The Rock is jumping out of this quarter), so why can’t we accept the importance of a TV show?

HOMELAND – SEASON 7 – SHOWTIME

This is probably the only place you’ll see Homeland on such a list. It seems as if critics and viewers have long abandoned Showtime’s once seminal drama, and that’s a real shame, because I truly believe that, with season 7, Claire Danes and co. delivered the Homeland season since its first. Season 7 tells a very pertinent story about the overreach of government, about fake news and media manipulation, about the danger of falling prey to conspiracy theories. It even ropes in the Russians in a very tangible and scary way, all while skirting the obvious places it could have gone in this post-Trump world. Season 7 of Homeland it the most relevant its ever been, and a more realistic and grounded version of 24, a show that’s often been drawn in comparison to Homeland but never previously embraced the way it had this year. Nu-Homeland is hyper-relevant, its storytelling and action is tight and gratifying, and the performances are as good as they’ve ever been. I urge people who were once fans of Homeland to jump on board this train, because season 7 is probably the best season of television in 2018 that you’re not watching.

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LEGION – SEASON 2 – FX

Legion’s best quality is that it’s willing to go places most shows won’t ever want to come near. It’s TV’s high brow superhero drama, its most unique and interesting show about mental illness, and probably the least linear thing you’ll see on mainstream TV this year. But you already knew that after season 1. If anything changes with season 2, it’s probably that the storytelling is more coherent and the action is better, with “fight” scenes that are stylized and weird (ranging from cartoons fighting among the clouds to dance battles of the mind). Almost every episode of season 2 has mesmerizing, entrancing scenes unlike anything else on TV.

THE LOOMING TOWER – MINISERIES – HULU

I kind of don’t know why The Looming Tower exists. It’s a throwback miniseries that feels like it’s using standards abandoned by TV filmmakers years ago, telling a long-form story about the events leading up to 9/11 that don’t seem to be sure about whether they want to tell the story about what led to 9/11, or about the quirks of the people involved. The miniseries has a stacked cast led by Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard, both of whom act their asses off and bring life to a story that would be hard to tell without the baseline pizzazz that they try and offer. The Looming Tower isn’t perfect, but it’s probably the best narrative take on the most important event of the past 30 years that I’ve yet to see, managing to be entertaining and interesting despite its difficult subject matter.

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LUKE CAGE – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

After a string of disappointments from the ongoing partnership between Netflix and Marvel Studios, I truly felt as if they finally delivered something that, from beginning to end, felt coherent, worthwhile and not terribly overlong with Luke Cage season 2 (maybe for the first time since the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones). While most will probably continue to insist that these Marvel Netflix shows probably shouldn’t be 13 episodes long, this was the first time in a while that I didn’t find myself checking how many episodes I have left or complaining about how long they they were. This was the first time I wanted more from one of these shows, and that’s saying a lot. Could it have been 10 episodes instead of 13? Maybe, but it still didn’t feel as if it dragged. What’s more, they manage to stick the landing better than any of these shows, an ending which transforms the titular character, give him more depth than ever before and sets a completely different, interesting path forward. I suspect I need to do a rewatch of all these shows, but Luke Cage S2 might be gunning for the top spot in my ranking of Marvel Netflix seasons.

SILICON VALLEY – SEASON 5 – HBO

The writers on Silicon Valley took fan complains to heart and finally gave us a season of the show where the characters don’t fail upwards. Seeing a modicum of success in season 5 reinvigorated the HBO sitcom, allowing the show to go different places and do some different things. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s still one of the funniest shows on TV with one of the best ensemble casts.

SUPERSTORE – SEASON 3 – NBC

Speaking of one of the funniest shows on TV with one of the best ensemble casts, Superstore continues its quiet run as a reliable sitcom about the inner workings and relationships at a department store. I don’t have much to say about this one, but it perennially deserves a shoutout.

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WESTWORLD – SEASON 2 – HBO

While I can certainly acknowledge that season 2 of Westworld had more than its fair share of issues with storytelling and pacing, I also can’t deny that it’s a show that’s a compelling, wildly entertaining visual feast. I think the backlash for the second season largely stems from the creators obvious and probably misguided attempts to subvert fan expectations and likely purposely mislead them after they so quickly figured out the “puzzle box” of the first season. And that’s fair. But there also isn’t any other show on television that can give me a downright perfect bottle episode like “Kiksuya”, the Akecheta background episode, or “Akane no Mai”, the long-awaited foray into Shogunworld. There is no other show on television that can simultaneously mistify and entertain, no other show that goes this hard on its sci-fi premises of artificial intelligence and the singularity. Season 2 of Westworld wasn’t perfect, but its peaks, and its potential are among the things that will keep me coming back and keep me hoping that it can get better.

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THE X-FILES – (MOST OF) SEASON 11 – FOX

Just hear me out.

The likely final season of The X-Files ended in a terrible way that I’d extinguish from my memory if I could. It showed me that there is no saying this once revered Mythology. Seeing Chris Carter continuously besmirch his own oeuvre the way he has with these revival seasons has left me battered and broken. But there’s a silver lining. And there’s merit to the continuation of The X-Files, within its procedural Monster-of-the-Week episodes. The clunky season 10 gave us a pantheon-worthy episode in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”, and several episodes in season 11 proved that this was no fluke, that we deserve to see Mulder and Scully occasionally get together and solve an anthology of good old-fashioned paranormal mysteries, unencumbered by a Mythology that’s beyond saying. So if you haven’t seen season 11 yet, I’d recommend you forget the Cigarette Smoking Man or Mulder and Scully’s super-son or the impending end of the world. Ignore all the bad stuff from this past season, and instead watch the half-dozen or so episodes that don’t rely on the mythology and stand on their own. My two favourites this year were “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, in which we’re introduced to a third, previously unknown member of team X-Files played by Brian Huskey as the episode explores the Mandela Effect, and “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”, where Mulder and Scully are haunted by AI restaurant staff in search for a tip, an episode presented almost entirely devoid of dialog. These episodes are good enough to overcome Chris Carter’s malice and will hopefully stand the test of time for this show. They deserve to be watched, and deserved to be mentioned on this list.