Thursday, December 8, 2016

Binge watches of 2016: Ranked

This post may lead you to believe that I have far too much time on my hands. But allow me to defend myself.

While most of you normal people were watching The Voice, Dancing with Stars, Madame Secretary, This is Us, or the final episodes of The Good Wife, I was watching the series listed below.  Unlike Homer here, I never spent an entire day on the couch surrounded by pizzas and chips with my weary eyeballs glued to episode after episode of a single show.  I have, however, watched 2-4 episodes of one series per night for enough nights in a row to finish a season (or, in some cases, the entire series.)

I'm a bit of a serial obsessive by nature, given to finite periods of intense enthusiasm for one particular filmmaker, actor, author, performer or genre. I sate myself on the work of one artist at a time and then move on.  I was born to binge-watch.

And as I noted in the preceding post, 2016 was a record year of binges for me.  I completed 11 major binges in 2016 and have another in progress this week.  The list below is strictly a reflection of my own personal tastes and preferences; there are no Marvel franchise shows here, no Stranger Things, no Goliath, no Sense8.  Even so, I think I covered a lot of ground.

Here are the shows I watched in ascending order of preference:

In progress now: Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United Statues (Netflix)

I'm just three episodes in, and Stone has already thoroughly excoriated Harry Truman, laying full blame for the Cold War at his feet, while suggesting that Joseph Stalin wasn't all that bad of a guy. Yes, it's every bit as provocative and controversial as you'd imagine, but Stone also delivers a good bit of compelling evidence for his claims. This series was first broadcast in 2012 on Showtime; I'm watching it with both an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism.

11. Crisis in Six Scenes (Amazon)

More evidence that Woody Allen has just about lost his comedic touch, albeit with a couple of bright spots.  First there's the wonderful Elaine May, lobbing some obvious but inspired improvisations at Allen that he just barely manages to keep afloat. (Allen plays a former ad man; May occasionally name checks the products for which he wrote copy, including 'orthopedic ice cream' and "Earl of Sussex frozen fish balls.") Also, the final episode has every character in the entire series descending on one house, and Allen's directorial/traffic control skills are kind of dazzling as he moves the actors from room to room and scene to scene.  Allen and May play a long-married couple looking for a little excitement and finding it by sheltering a hippie revolutionary on the lam (Miley Cyrus, who seems to be enjoying herself, but isn't remotely believable).  It feels like it a mildly amusing artifact from the 1960s rather than a contemporary film that is merely set in that era.  That's something I guess, but it's not enough.

10. Downton Abbey, Seasons 1-6 (Amazon)

Oh, Crawley family and your house full of servants, I just can't quit you!  So just days after the final Downton episode was broadcast on PBS, I started revisiting the series from the beginning, show by show, all the way to the resplendently happy ending.  Watching the shows on a daily basis for few weeks really brought home to me just how ritualized and regimented the upper class British life was (that daily gong when it was time to dress for dinner, the appointed time for children to be with their parents, and so on). Also, it reminded me that, once every season, Lord Grantham did something noble and beneficent for Mrs. Patmore that reduced her to quivering tears of working-class gratitude. It's not ranked this low because I didn't enjoy the binge; it's ranked this low because it's the only one I'm embarrassed to have done.

9.  One Mississippi (Amazon)

I really wanted to like this series more, but that would require Tig Notaro to develop an acting range extending beyond "deadpan." The low-key bemusement Notaro employs in her stand-up work is less effective when she's meant to be the emotional center of an often sad and painful story. This autobiographical dramedy has her returning to her Louisiana hometown after her mother's death, and it's well conceived and well written. But Notaro, is overshadowed by the other actors, particularly the very fine John Rothman as her emotionally constipated stepfather.

8.  Transparent, Season 3 (Amazon)

After an impressive debut and a flat-out brilliant second season, Transparent foundered and flailed this year and didn't always satisfy.  The third season had less to do with issues of gender identity than with the clueless white privilege and unbridled narcissism of the entire Pfeffernan clan, but it wasn't entirely without its moments of transcendence.  I just can't anymore with Sarah's repeated journeys up her own ass or Josh's trembling lower lip and watery eyes after yet another person walks away from his stupidity and selfishness, the fine performances of Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass notwithstanding. What I did like: Shelly's triumphant one-woman show (Judith Light for the Emmy!); Rabbi Raquel's balls-out, raging takedown of the insufferable Sarah (another reason to love Kathryn Hahn!); Cherry Jones' wild irascibility all season long. Also Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman, doing everything they do in every show. The plotlines may be all over the place, but the cast remains uniformly impeccable.

7.  Catastrophe, Season 2 (Amazon)

Bawdy, tender, raucous, foul-mouthed, romantic, cynical and very funny: Catastrophe is all of that, and sometimes all of that in the very same moment.  When last we saw Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, their wedding night was about to be interrupted by the arrival of a baby they conceived in their first weekend together.  Season two opens a year or so later, with a second baby on the way and the breakneck pace of their smart-ass-bickering-leading-to-hot-sex still intact.  With dizzying comic precision, Delaney and Horgan pile layers of escalating, R-rated screwball absurdity on top of sharply honed insights into marriage, work and parenthood. The season ends on a tantalizing cliffhanger that has me eagerly awaiting Season 3.  With just six episodes, each under 30 minutes,, Catastrophe is the closest thing to instant gratification that a binge watch can deliver.

6. Bojack Horseman, all 3 seasons (Netflix)

I would never have guessed that a cartoon series about a self-loathing, alcoholic former sitcom star (who also happens to be a horse) could be this engrossing or this deep.  Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has imagined a bizarre, funhouse-mirror image of Hollywood where animals and humans work together on both sides of the camera, and inter-species romantic connections are no big deal. (Even a cat and mouse find true love together at one point.) A rapid-fire blend of puns, cheap gags, showbiz satire, and inspired absurdities are seamlessly woven into some genuinely bleak and emotionally devastating storylines. Season three includes one nearly dialogue-free episode in which Bojack struggles to return a lost baby seahorse to its family; it's no exaggeration to call that episode Chaplinesque in both its comic invention and its pathos.  I stand in awe of the mind that conceived this show and I can't wait to see where it goes in season four.

5.  The Larry Sanders Show, all 6 seasons (HBO Now)

In fairness, this wasn't quite a binge watch for me; I worked my way through the series in random, rather than chronological, order over roughly a month's time, but I got it all in.  This groundbreaking series from the '90s wasn't available anywhere for years till HBO released it to their streaming app in September.  Twenty-four years after its debut, it remains brilliantly funny. The comic triumvirate of Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn remain peerless in their command of character-driven 'cringe' comedy. Together they milk more genuine belly laughs out of neurosis, arrogance, ego and showbiz insecurity than I'd have ever thought possible.

4.  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Season 1 (Hulu)

Let us now praise Rachel Bloom, the ridiculously talented star/co-creator of this wholly original and delightfully cartoony TV romcom. Bloom plays an unhappy lawyer who ditches a partnership in New York for the California hometown of her long-ago drama camp crush, where she slyly infiltrates his social circle in an effort to win him back.  Every episode includes inspired and insanely funny musical interludes - production numbers that deftly parody everything from Beyonce's Lemonade to The Music Man and Gypsy. Blooms sings like a Broadway diva and dances like an old-time hoofer, but her sensibilities and apologetically off-color humor are solidly rooted in contemporary sensibilities. Her show is so fast-paced and funny that you might not notice how it subversively explores, then overturns, all the standard tropes of romantic comedy. Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna invest even their goofiest characters and silliest set pieces with deceptively deep emotional truths.  In short, it's lots of fun, but also more than meets the eye. I'm now watching Season Two the old-fashioned way: one weekly broadcast episode at a time.

3.  Orange is the New Black, season 4 (Netlfix)

What is it about third seasons? Like Transparent, OITNB had a rocky, unsatisfying third season, but rebounded with a harrowing fourth year where Shit. Got. Real. The back stories for Suzanne, Flaca, Maria and Lolly were revealed, each one more sad and horrible than the last. Piper got knocked down to size in the cruelest of ways. Prison management was privatized, resulting in compromises that led directly to tragedy in the final chapters. After watching 13 episodes in four days time, I felt like I'd been rolled over by a truck: devastated, heartbroken and blown away as you can only be by the greatest human drama. Just writing this makes me want to go back and watch it all again.

2. OJ: Made in America (Hulu)

A masterful, nearly 8-hour documentary that exhaustively examines race and celebrity in America through the prism of O. J. Simpson's rise and fall. Simpson's story plays like Greek tragedy. Director Ezra Edelman shapes a mountain of material and interviews into riveting drama, the television equivalent of a great book that you can't bring yourself to put down.  Interestingly enough, this five-part TV series has landed on most critics list of the year's 10 best films, and is short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.  And deservedly so. I'm going to predict, here and now, that it will win that award.

1. The Crown, season 1 (Netflix)

With an apparently limitless production budget, a cast of fantastic actors and a script by that estimable chronicler of the British monarchy, Peter Morgan, this biographical series on Elizabeth II is a monumental achievement and brilliant ten hours of television.  The Crown has something for everyone: sumptuous sets, beautiful costumes, great performances, historical detail, political intrigue, pomp, circumstance, humor and heartache.  It's a veritable banquet of both eye candy and brain candy, laced with the illicit thrill of seeing how royals behave behind closed palace doors. Let's decide right now that the 2017 Emmy roster will absolutely include Best Supporting Actor nominations for John Lithgow (Winston Churchill), Jared Harris (King George VI) and Alex Jennings (the Duke of Windsor), plus a certain nod for Eileen Atkins as the formidable dowager Queen Mary.  But save a spot, too, for Claire Foy, who totally nails Elizabeth's reserve and restraint, but with sufficient nuance to save her from being stuffy or unsympathetic. The moment when Queen Mary in her black mourning veil first kneels in obeisance before her granddaughter may be the most spine-tingling moment of drama I've seen on any screen - big or small - all year long.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

2016: An Odd Year for this Cinephile

Here we are approaching the end of another year.  And not just any year, but a strange, contentious, brutal year, filled with stunning political developments both here and abroad, deep divisions between people within our own country and deeply felt losses in the world of entertainment and sports.  At such a time, writing about movies - or even caring much about them - seems to be entirely beside the point. And, at first glance, my paltry output here would seem to reflect that notion.

I launched this blog in January with the idea that I'd write occasionally, as the mood struck me, about films I liked, and the television, music or travel I experienced in between them.

Part-Time Cinephile was the title I chose for this blog, believing it to be eminently apt.  Turns out that a title like "Once-in-a-Great-While Cinephile" might have been more accurate.  To date, I have published exactly six posts (including this one), one of which was travel advice. I've come to believe that the only reasons I've had a blog in the last few years are to publish a ten best list in January and my Oscar predictions in February.

It was not always so.  For many years, I've been a devoted and serious follower of current film fare. But this year was different.  Instead of consistently staying abreast of the 2016 film scene, I did all of the following:

1. Pursued serial obsessions with various filmmakers, after watching documentaries about them

First it was Mike Nichols.  A PBS American Masters program on his career, followed closely by the HBO documentary Becoming Mike Nichols led to considerable time spent on You Tube watching Nichols and May comedy routines, which then led to streaming a number of his films (including The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal KnowledgePrimary Colors, The Birdcage). From all the time I spent going down this particular rabbit hole, I've decided that The Graduate is still Nichols' best film and that the interplay between Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson is really just an extended Nichols/Elaine May comedy routine with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft standing in for Mike and Elaine.

Then it was Nora Ephron, a fascination jump-started by watching her son's HBO documentary Everything is Copy. There was some overlap with the period of Mike Nichols obsession, which included re-watching Heartburn and Silkwood, as well as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. I concluded by realizing that - with the notable exception of Julie and Julia - I much preferred Ephron the essayist to Ephron the filmmaker. (But I had fun anyway.)

This fall, a Netflix documentary, One Day Since Yesterday, about the troubled history of Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed, paired with a friend's coincidental recommendation to read Cybill Shepherd's autobiography segued into me finding Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love in their entirety on You Tube. The irony of these events is that while I found Shepherd's book to be surprisingly and enjoyably well-written, I was also forced to acknowledge that that most egregious defects in those two films are her nails-on-chalkboard performances in them. (I also bought the DVD of They All Laughed, but have yet to get around to watching it.  My obsessions, however intense, tend to have well-defined shelf lives.)

There are at least a couple of other fleeting obsessions that I'm forgetting, but you get the idea. With all these deep-dives going on, there was just no time to see Batman vs Superman.

2. I watched the US Presidential campaign very closely and obsessively monitored the polls as Election Day approached.

And we all know how that turned out.

3. I succumbed to the lure of binge-watching TV, like never before.

Binge-watching is nothing new at my house.  I was doing it long before the term was invented.  Back in the '80s and '90s, one Indianapolis station broadcast Labor Day Weekend marathons of Star Trek, Twilight Zone, and other series.  I have very clear recollections of hanging with a friend, brewing multiple pots of coffee and powering through God-knows-how-many Twilight Zone episodes on a particularly drizzly/rainy Labor Day.  We'd never have guessed that we were ahead of our time!

But 21st century binge-watching is a whole other thing; with an entire season of one show landing on the same day, it becomes an exercise in exquisite restraint to dole the episodes out to yourself once a week, or even once a day. I failed over and over. Season 4 of Orange is the New Black was devoured in 4 days. All ten episodes of The Crown were viewed in glorious detail during the week of Thanksgiving  -a week when I was out of town and out of Netflix range for three days.

A post on my favorite binge watches is forthcoming.

4. Eventually, I reverted to my old, usual self.

Which means that, around the end of October 2016 - just as I've done every October in recent memory - I became super-motivated to catch up on all the films that I'd managed to miss earlier in the year.  My 'to watch' list is longer now than in most previous years, but I'm confident I'll be able to put up a respectable "Ten Best" post in early January.  And we'll see where it goes from there....