It's that time of year again. With no baseball, and home most nights, even before the lockdown, I spent a lot of time watching.
First, my annual recap. (This is killing me because these posts had hundreds of comments.)
- Canadian musicians and comedians (2006-07 and 2007-08)
- my beverage of choice (2008-09)
- famous people who died during the past year (2009-10)
- where I'd like to be (2010-11)
- vegetables (2011-12) (I was out of ideas!)
- Big Life Events in a year full of Big Life Changes (2012-13)
- cheese (I'm getting desperate!) (2013-14)
- types of travels (2014-15)
- famous people who died plus famous people who died, part 2 (2015-16),
- the picket line (2016-17),
- movies (2017-18),
and last year... I stopped this. I changed to a more conventional 1 through 5 rating system, using ☮ as a meaningful symbol. I'll change symbols every year.
This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the symbol could only be 💉. (That's Blogger's syringe emoji, by the way. Not great, but the only one that will work in this platform.)
Here are the movies and series I watched from April 2019 to May 2020, alphabetically, on a scale of five.
Five = the very best and most memorable of what I saw, flawless
Four = excellent, a real stand-out, not to be missed
Three = good, solid, worthwhile
Two = not horrible, but not worth the time
One = crap
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
I wanted to like this movie because of the title, but its meandering, absurdist tour through the human condition did nothing for me. There were some interesting moments, and I wasn't sorry I saw it, so it earned a two-spot.
I rarely like romantic comedies, but once in a while, a movie is truly romantic and amusing. The beauty of Paris, an unlikely couple, and some magical realism made this 2005 movie irresistible to me. Unfortunately its creator, Luc Besson, is a rapist. I still watched it, and I still enjoyed it.
The grim reality of poverty, exploitation, and refugees meets a supernatural revenge fantasy. Dark and moving, and very well done.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography
Chances are you've never heard of Elsa Dorfman or large-format Polaroids. Errol Morris wants to change that. A sparkling little documentary about an unusual artist who knew a lot of famous people. Really nice.
Beasts of No Nation
A brilliant and brutal movie about an incredibly brutal world. This has been on my watchlist since it came out in 2015, but I couldn't bring myself to click. Also recommended, these books: Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah and What Is The What by Dave Eggers.
In 1917, striking mine workers in Bisbee, Arizona, most of them immigrants, were rounded up, forced by gunpoint into cattle cars, and illegally deported. It's a fascinating, untold story that touches on so many aspects of US history. If you want to learn more about this, don't watch this movie. It gets 💉💉 out of respect for the filmmaker's intentions. Dreadful.
Whether Spike Lee's tale of an African-American cop infiltrating the Klan is meant to be a comedy or a drama, it is a cartoon. And just in case the heavy-handed, ham-fisted parallels to current white supremacists are lost on you, the movie ends with footage of Charlottesville and "really good people on both sides". Seeing that again was very affecting and disturbing. For that, the movie gets 💉💉. Like Bisbee '17, other than good intentions, it was just awful.
[Both Bisbee '17 and Blackkklansman were on my favourite best-of lists.]
Trauma, abuse, addiction, recovery. How we live with the past, and ourselves. Existential dread with animal puns. I couldn't believe how good this show was, how it did everything right, season after season. Allan and I plan to watch the whole show again, with no breaks between seasons. BoJack Horseman may be the best TV show, ever.
It can be a thin line between noir and parody. This would fit in the Seinfeld episode "The Trip": "Just the trees, Johnny. Just the trees."
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
A solid documentary about the fascinating life of the radical activist and civil rights leader, who lived courageously and openly gay in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. He is frequently referred to as the "architect of the 1963 March on Washington," and while that is true, it doesn't begin to represent his accomplishments.
Witness the birth of the disability rights revolution, as radical a movement as the world has ever seen. Featuring the incomparable Judy Heumann, plus Black Panthers feeding Disabled In Action members who had occupied a building in Oakland. I took special note of the one journalist who covered this revolution. A great doc. See it.
The Death of Stalin
A dark comedy about revolution and the re-writing of history. Very clever and enjoyable.
We've been watching classic noir and crime thrillers on Kanopy. This was reputed to include "the most vicious femme fatale in cinema history," raising our hopes without a big payoff. Walking that tightrope between noir and parody, this film was reasonably entertaining.
Dexter, final season
I loved this series, but Season 8 was a disappointment. I still enjoyed it -- three stars is still worth seeing -- but it was not up to the standards of the rest of the show.
Teenage misfits, road trips, crime comedy, and the constant disappointment and betrayal of growing up -- this genre-blending series did everything right. Mostly it's about our blind groping towards love and redemption. Funny, sad, suspenseful, romantic, and altogether perfect.
The Expanse S1-4
The Great Hack
This could have been an excellent documentary about Cambridge Analytical, data collection, stolen elections, and a lot of other important things. Instead, the filmmaker became infatuated with one person's egocentric melodrama. The results are a real disappointment.
Hearts Beat Loud
A daughter pursues her dream as a father lets go of his -- music edition. A small story, not overly original, but the love and joy of music permeates the film.
Elizabeth Moss transforms herself, and her incredible performance breathes life into a well-worn story of rock-and-roll excess, burn out, and a bid for redemption. An honest (and therefore harrowing) portrait of addiction and recovery, with some scary moments and some poignant ones. Really a 3.5.
Sam Elliott turns in a beautiful, understated performance as an aging movie star. Similar to "Hearts Beat Loud" (above), it's nothing you haven't seen before, but still a solid movie with good acting.
We only watched a few episodes of these vignettes about random New Yorkers, who have one thing in common: their weed guy. I was surprised to see this has lasted six seasons. Perhaps it gets more interesting later on, but for me it was just meh.
Late-1970s New York City, Al Pacino, and Nazi hunters. What's not to love? Serious genre-blending -- drama, comedy, social commentary, cutaway gags, and more than a little grindhouse. The show is over-the-top but not quite out of control. I am eagerly awaiting S2.
I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore
A very dark crime comedy, mixing humour with horror, suspense, and a dollop of social commentary. I really enjoyed it.
The Innocent Man
Only real life could be this strange. A jaw-dropping, teeth-grinding story of injustice.
Into The Inferno
Werner Herzog looks at volcanoes and the people who study them. This would have been another great Herzog doc, if not for the bizarre, extremely long detour into North Korea, which Herzog repeatedly calls a "socialist state".
Three and a half hours long and not a minute of fat. Only Scorsese could have made this movie, both sweeping and epic, and intimate and personal.
The Italian Job (1969)
Michael Caine leads a band of merry thieves who are too smart and too fast for the police. Fast, funny, and very entertaining. We love a good comedy crime caper.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
A very solid documentary about a fascinating life, made by Didion's nephew, Griffin Dunne.
Kansas City Confidential (1952)
Part of our noir/crime fest on Kanopy, this movie's maze-like plot had us laughing and scratching our heads.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Terrifying, bizarre, and incredibly suspenseful. A stunning thriller.
The Land of Steady Habits
A man leaves his prosperous suburban life -- and his wife and son -- for something less tame, then is forced to live with the consequences of his choices. In the process, he learns how to be less of a dick. Typically insightful Nicole Holofcener fare. Not her best work, but still moving and perceptive, with excellent acting.
Listen Up Philip
This film supposedly parodies narcissistic, pretentious artists. I found the characters so thoroughly unlikable that I couldn't stand to watch. Looking back at my previous movie posts, I see this is a distinct pattern.
Los Lobos: Kiko Live
We stumbled upon this documentary about one of our favourite bands. It serves as a biopic of the band and their unusual -- and beautiful -- musical choices. A joy.
Louder Than Bombs
A famous and well-respected war photojournalist dies, and her husband and sons struggle to come to terms with her memory and their new life. Unfortunately one of those sons is played by Jesse Eisenberg, but his typically poor acting doesn't ruin the film. A solid movie with a lot of insight into human behaviour.
Apparently I'm the only person who didn't love this series. Despite the beautiful production and fine acting, I never felt engaged in the stories, and quit after 2½ seasons. I'm giving it a three because it really didn't do anything wrong. It just wasn't for me.
A Marriage Story
This year's most over-rated film. I found it manipulative and contrived, and never once connected emotionally with any of the characters.
Mike Tyson Mysteries S4
We're still watching this. It's only gotten weirder -- and much more bloody! We're always waiting for more episodes. Please give us more episodes.
New Blood S1
This was a fun take on the buddy-cop / detective show, with young cops for a nice change, written by veteran Andrew Horowitz. Unfortunately it survived only one season.
Occupied S1-3 (entire series)
What would happen if a progressive government shut down the fossil fuel industry and went completely green? If that country was Norway, they would be occupied by Russia, with EU consent. That's the premise of this very solid, suspenseful Norwegian show. Complex characters with multiple motivations plus solid acting. Probably a 3.5.
October Faction S1
Monster hunting, family style. Good fun that doesn't take itself too seriously. I was sorry to hear Netflix didn't give it another season.
We've just started this series, and we're really enjoying it. Suspenseful, rich with interesting characters and crazy twisting plot lines. I hope it doesn't become another Breaking Bad for me, which foundered on its utter improbability.
A man of privilege, who is also an asshole and an addict, discovers the trauma that drives him and imprisons him in darkness. This short series is both harrowing in its view of the aftermath of trauma, and hopeful in its view of healing. It has much in common with BoJack Horseman. An excellent show, plus Benedict Cumberbatch.
Riveting suspense and supernatural creepiness more than compensate for any plot holes or illogic. A real thriller.
This film looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, and features brilliant acting, all as precise, detailed, controlled, but enigmatic as the subject of the film. I didn't connect with it emotionally, but it was so beautiful and interesting that I didn't mind. Hard to believe this is Daniel Day-Lewis' last film. With his retirement and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, two of the best actors of a generation are gone.
Prime Suspect S1-7 (entire series)
My second time through this series, this time watching with Allan. The show transcends the detective drama, with a darker, seemingly more realistic view of the police world, full of racism, homophobia, and misogyny, but also of people who care deeply about their work. A tour de force for Helen Mirren. Not to be missed -- and currently on Britbox.
This story about the value of the public library and its intersection with street life and homelessness probably rates a solid 💉💉💉for quality and production, but earns a fourth 💉 for subject matter. It shines a light on a mostly invisible story that is unfolding hundreds of times every day. Thank you, Emilio Estevez!
Purple Noon (1960)
Part of our noir/crime festival on Kanopy, Purple Noon is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's classic The Talented Mr. Ripley, directed by Rene Clement. Very sinister, very enjoyable. (The book is great, too, by the way.) Don't worry if you think you know the ending.
Quirke S1 (entire series)
Murders, family secrets, the Church, and the Irish, all shrouded in a noir feel and very low lighting. Gabriel Byrne plays the title role, and I was very sorry there was only one season.
Race: The Power of an Illusion
I've long believed race to be a social construct, not a biological fact. That's the viewpoint of this doc series, which traces the concept of race from its inception to its many uses. Very well done. We haven't finished it, but we will eventually. (See it on Kanopy, through your public library.)
Martin Scorcese and Bob Dylan -- what more can you ask of a music movie? Fun with facts and fiction. Don't miss this. Here's more about why I loved it.
An excellent film where social commentary -- about class, family, responsibility, human connection -- are woven seamlessly into a small human story. Beautifully shot in black and white.
Shameless UK S1-S7
Shameless UK S8-11 (entire series)
Even with all the cast changes, and with the structure (or perhaps formula) becoming blatant and a bit repetitive, this show was always worth watching.
A quietly powerful movie, more complex than it first appears, touching on issues of family, poverty, and our construction of our own stories. The characters are rich and complex, and the acting is amazing. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s has a magical touch with the unknown child actors. Shoplifters left me with many questions -- which is just as well, as it gives me a reason to watch it again. An outstanding movie (winner of the 2018 Palme d’Or at Cannes), highly recommended.
A dark, zany, sometimes silly comedy, but really fun.
Six Feet Under S1-3
We bailed on this during S3, mostly because of one unlikable character leading to non-credible plot lines. But it was good while we watched it, and I might go back and finish the rest.
Sneaky Pete S1-3 (entire series)
A terrible name, but a really good show about confidence games and grifters -- and humans building trust and relationships in spite of themselves. Giovanni Ribisi leads a solid cast that includes "esteemed character actress"(™) Margo Martindale. It's labeled crime drama, but that sells it short.
The Sopranos, final season
I am squarely in the "hated the ending" camp. The season would get five 💉s, and the ending one, so I've settled on the four. I disagree that the show is the best TV series of all time; I can name several better. But The Sopranos was ground-breaking and it was great, and I wish it had a better ending.
One of the many true-crime documentaries on Netflix. Interesting, full of ambiguity.
Star Trek: Discover S2
Entertaining and enjoyable. A bit heavy on the profundity and awe, but hey, that's Star Trek. I liked how this series dovetails with The Original Series, or perhaps does not.
I didn't know how Suits was going to work without Mike and Rachel, but it was addition by subtraction: getting rid of Mike opened up new avenues of stories and dynamics. This show's careful attention to human insecurities and motivations made it rise above the sometimes soap opera-ish plots. I loved it.
Super Dark Times
This started out as a teenage alienation story and ended up as horror, with all its tropes out in full display. Good performances, very creepy.
Teenage romance and alienation, an unexpected love story, the dangers of the internet, and a whack of violence -- a real genre-blending treat.
Thunder Road (2018)
Possibly the creepiest, cringingest movie I've ever seen. I often didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but either way I was cringing. Jim Cummings wrote, directed, edited, and starred in this movie, and it feels like something utterly original.
Treme S1-4 (entire series)
The people of post-Katrina New Orleans -- their music, their culture, their divisions of race and class, their unity in music, parades, and parties -- plus the disaster capitalism that profits from their loss. With a few odd exceptions, the music is amazing, and the celebration of the traditions is joyous and triumphant. From the team that brought us The Wire, so you know the writing and acting are superb.
A gripping depiction of the mass shooting by a right-wing terrorist in Norway, and its aftermath. Despite the gruesome subject matter, this is a thoughtful movie, about the suffering of the victims and their families, and the workings of the terrorist's mind. I was hoping for more about Norway's heroic and profound response to the event. A bit of that is incorporated, but in order to go beyond one family's survival story, more was needed.
This series rises far above the standard detective-procedural fare, with a depth and emotional authenticity rarely seen in these shows. Each case -- one per season -- touches a web of people and families as the past is brought to light and secrets are exposed. Nicola Walker is outstanding as the lead detective. US viewers can see it on PBS, Canadians need Britbox.
Vera S1-9 (entire series)
Vera has replaced Lewis as my favourite lead in a standard detective-procedural show. I found her poignant mix of toughness, social ineptitude, and genuine compassion very appealing. Filmed in England's gritty, post-industrial north, there are often political and social aspects to the cases.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
I had a vague recollection of this movie's climactic scene, but was not expecting such a sweaty, gritty, slow-motion version of a thriller. If and when this movie is remade, it will be brighter, faster, and no doubt bloodier, but I doubt it will be more suspenseful. Part of our crime/noir watch on Kanopy.
When Stand Up Stood Out
A terribly named but wonderful little doc about the birth of modern stand-up comedy in Boston in the 1980s. We were interested in seeing our late friend Barry Crimmins, but it's a very enjoyable backstage view and a hidden history.
When They See Us
I preferred the documentary version of this story, Ken Burns' 2012 "The Central Park Five". But it's a solid movie, worth watching, and the mini-series format gets you in a little deeper.
You Were Never Really Here
Crazy suspense and a great performance by Joaquin Phoenix overrides the contrived premise and clumsy plot. A taut thriller, just don't look any deeper.
Comedy Before Sleep
Friends S1-10 (entire series)
This was just funny enough for bedtime viewing. Fans of this sitcom may not realize that the first four or five seasons were a blatant ripoff of Seinfeld, sanitized and dumbed down. Once I got over that, it was a relaxing diversion.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show S4-7 (with last year, entire series)
I was amazed at how well this show held up. It was funny and meaningful from start to finish. Still one of the best sitcoms of all time.