Monday, December 18, 2017

My Top Ten Binge-Watches of 2017

Contrary to what this post might suggest, I actually did have a life away from the TV screen this year.

I travelled to Europe. I performed with two choral groups. I was on the planning committee for my high school reunion (which took place in September) and on the fund-raising committee for one of my choral groups.  Hell, I lost over 30 pounds this year, and you can't do that by just sitting on your butt in front of the TV!

But the fact that I have 10 favorite binge-watches to write about clearly indicates that I binged more than 10 series this year.  Then again, there was a lot to choose from - and I  still didn't even get around to watching any of the following: Dear White People, She's Gotta Have It, Godless, The OA, Stranger Things, Thirteen Reasons Why, Wormwood, I Love Dick.  The ones I got to, but didn't like so much?  I'll just leave that to your imagination.

Here are the series that kept me glued to the screen and the couch for extended periods of time this year, in ascending order of preference:

10. National Treasure (Hulu)

This four-part British miniseries could not be more timely - a moody, complex drama about a beloved comedy star (Robbie Coltrane) whose life falls apart after women from his past accuse him of sexual assault. It's not without distracting flaws, however. There are far too many artsy-fartsy flourishes (tolling bells on the soundtrack or actors' faces obscured by shadows or washed in blue light at the most intense moments), and the have-it-both-ways finale is, frankly, infuriating. But a quartet of superb actors in the lead roles carry the day. In addition to Coltrane, there's Julie Walters as his long-suffering spouse, Andrea Riseborough as the estranged daughter who doubts his innocence, and Tim McInnerny as the former comedy partner determined to preserve the duo's reputation and legacy.

MVP: Walters, who is the quiet soul of the series. Her transformation from supportive wife to a fed-up woman seeking her own peace is rendered with exceptional delicacy.

9. Transparent, Season 4 (Amazon)

Lots of family secrets were spilled in this year's installment of Transparent. Unfortunately, they'd already been revealed to the audience via flashbacks over the previous two seasons - only the characters themselves had to catch up.  Anti-climactic and repetitive as it was, Season 4 still managed some engrossing drama from the family's trip to Israel and its thematic meditations on the meanings of homeland and boundaries.  Sadly, the sexual harassment allegations against Jeffrey Tambor have cast an uncertain shadow over the future of the series, but showrunner Jill Soloway and her cast continued their tradition of fine work in this fourth season.

Best Character Development:  Josh (Jay Duplass) finally came to terms with his past and forgave his mother - long overdue growth for an especially frustrating, emotionally stunted character.  Sarah remains, however, The Worst Pfeffernan, so let's hope there's some maturity and redemption ahead for her if/when Season 5 comes along. (I was relieved to see Amy Landecker admit in an interview this year that even she is fed up with Sarah's narcissism.)

8. Master of None, Season 2 (Netflix)

The sophomore season of Aziz Anzari's series was ambitious but uneven.  Ansari clearly watched a lot of Italian films during the show's hiatus, but he mostly missed the point of them.  The season opener, an homage to DeSica's Bicycle Thieves, is almost offensive in equating Dev's lost cell phone to the stolen bicycle that prevents a man in post-war Rome from being able to support his family.  And his putative romance with a Italian woman is too precious by half.  But the "Religion" and "Thanksgiving" episodes are shining examples of what Ansari does best: affectionate, forgiving depictions of the differences between young adults and their parents on matters of belief and behavior that invariably end on a hopeful note.

Best Episode:  "Religion," which depicts his mother's deep sadness over her son's failure to follow the tenets of Islam. It's at once specific to Muslims and universal enough to touch everyone who's had a falling out with their parents over religion. This Catholic girl got teary-eyed over the parallel between Dev's story and my own life - both of us had disappointed our mothers by refusing to accept their lovingly offered legacy of a belief system to help us through the tough times in our lives. In the end Dev finally opens and reads the Quaran his mother gave him when he went off to college. For my part, I returned to the Catholic Church a few years back, and have never regretted it.

7. Feud: Bette and Joan (FX, Amazon)

Worth watching mainly for Jessica Lange's fearless portrayal of Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon's relatively restrained take on Bette Davis.  Plus the behind-the-scenes dirt on the tumultuous making of What Every Happened to Baby Jane ? is wickedly delicious fun.  However, I take exception to the thickness with which Ryan Murphy lays on the whole "tragedy of the discarded aging actress" shtick, particularly with regard to Crawford  Maybe the reason Joan Crawford had trouble finding decent roles (and friends) later in life wasn't because her youth and looks were gone. Maybe it was because she was a mean, unstable drunk and a genuine pain in the ass.

Biggest Load of BS:  Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) tells an interviewer that Crawford's stunt of faking a respiratory illness to shut down production on Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was "pretty great!"  She then goes on to mourn the injustice of Joan being discarded by the studios in middle-age. My strong suspicion is that the real Joan Blondell would have seen this for the highly unprofessional tantrum that it was.  Also, see my comments above.

6. Project Runway, Season 16 (Lifetime)

I didn't even know Project Runway was still on the air till I signed up for Sling TV and found it alive and kicking on the Lifetime Channel. I discovered it just in time to watch part 1 of the finale live, and soon caught up on the entire season.  It remains the most satisfying and fun of television's competitions shows. (The high-adrenaline stress levels of Amazing Race have been always been too much for me, and watching Top Chef only led me to excessive nighttime snacking, frustrated by my inability to taste the winning concoctions.)  With Project Runway, however, I can fully experience how stunning and (usually) deserving the winning creations are. Plus I revel in the quirky eccentricities of the participants - which this year included a pair of highly dramatic identical twin sisters and a finalist who repeatedly cranked out cropped tops over drawstring pants that inexplicably earned the judges' love week after week. (He didn't win, though.)

Best Moment:  The Season 16 winner, Kentaro, plays a piece of music for Tim Gunn that he has composed to accompany his runway show.
GUNN:  That's beautiful! What inspired that?
KENTARO:  I found a dead cat on the street and I buried it.  When I put my ear to the ground where I buried the cat, this is what the earth sounded like.
Need I tell you that Gunn's reaction shot is absolutely priceless?

5. Bojack Horseman, Season 4

There must have been the usual Hollywood satire, bad animal puns, and general silliness in this season of Bojack Horseman. But all I can remember now is the bold, devastating way it dug into the title character's long-suppressed family trauma.  Yes, this is still a cartoon series about an alcoholic former sitcom star who is also a horse.  But it's also a painfully accurate depiction of family dysfunction and how it gets passed down to each generation.  I can't explain that to you, but trust me, it feels miraculous. And as sad as it sounds, there are just enough goofy riffs on pop culture in each episode to keep you from tuning out in despair.

Best Episode You Haven't Heard About:  It wasn't all about the Horseman family in season 4; in the ninth episode, "Ruthie," we also got a glimpse into the wounded soul of Bojack's former agent, Princess Caroline (brilliantly voiced by Amy Sedaris). The episode opens many years in the future with her great-great-granddaughter telling classmates the story of how Caroline was able to bounce back from the worst day of her life.  It's loaded with witticisms so finely honed that you may not catch them all without a repeat viewing. (A sample: "I take a licking and keep on ticking - like a lollipop with Tourette's!") But the final, surprise twist in the story will break your heart, 

4. The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)

Hulu released The Handmaid's Tale in once-a-week episodes rather than dropping all ten parts on a single day.  But I went back and watched the entire series again over the course of a couple of days - and if you thought the series was scary in weekly, one-hour installments, you have no idea how terrifying it can be for four hours at a pop. Bingeing the series only intensifies the feeling of queasy dread from watching day-to-day life under an inescapable totalitarian regime.  There were a couple of dud episodes in the middle where the writers felt the need to give us backstories on the male characters, but where the series was true to Margaret Atwood's novel, it succeeded brilliantly.  The cinematography and production design combined for some memorably chilling visuals. Elizabeth Moss and Ann Dowd were the standouts in a universally fine cast, both giving performances of carefully modulated restraint that made their emotional outburst moments all the more powerful.

Worst Idea:  Hulu greenlighting The Handmaid's Tale for a second season.  Season One ends on the same ambiguous note as Atwood's novel, and would have been perfect if they'd left it there.  Whenever the series has veered too far from its source material, it's been noticeably weaker.  I don't have high hopes for the next season - this is entirely too hard an act to follow.

3. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)

This ambitious comedy from the creators of The Gilmore Girls is a triumph of both personality and place.  It conjurs up 1950s Manhattan in glorious detail, with an apparently bottomless production budget and a soundtrack heavy on charming, period-appropriate novelty tunes.  And it heralds the birth of a star, both within the story and within its cast.  Rachel Brosnahan breezes into the role of Midge Maisel - a pampered Jewish housewife who unwittingly becomes a notorious stand-up comic  like she's been waiting for it her whole life. Drunk on Kosher wine after her husband leaves her for his secretary, Midge stumbles into a Greenwich Village nightclub on open-mike night and wows the crowd with an bawdy, impromptu comic monologue on her predicament.  Brosnahan - a heretofore serious dramatic actress with no stand-up experience - is stunning in the role, channeling the energy and timing of the great screwball comediennes while bringing a wholly original resilience and nerve of her own.  In her hands, Mrs. Maisel is, hands down, the television character I wanted to spend the most time with this year. In a field of deadly serious streaming channel dramas, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a blessedly breezy, merry-go-round ride of a show.

Best Real Estate:  The Maisels' Upper West side "classic six" apartment is the home of my dreams.  

2. The Crown, Season 2 (Netflix)

This season of The Crown covers the years of 1957-1963, and let's just say that the material lacks the glamour and pageantry of Season One - no coronations, state funerals or great loves derailed by the Church of England here.  Even so, its overarching theme of a monarchy adapting itself to the modern age is mostly well-developed and enlightening, despite one speciously awful episode involving a visit from the Kennedys.  (That episode alone kept The Crown from achieving the top position on my list.)

There's a lot of Prince Phillip's backstory this year, giving Matt Smith a chance to shine. (And also proving that no matter how a big a jerk The Crown makes Phillip out to be, the real-life Duke of Edinburgh is so much worse - just read these stories! Yikes!) There's also some startlingly sexy stuff between Princess Margaret and her bad-boy husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, played with devilish confidence by Matthew Goode.

Best Episode: In "Vergangenheit", Alex Jenning's Duke of Windsor resurfaces to ask the Crown for a government post in which he can serve his country. Unfortunately, the Queen has just obtained the classified documents which prove he colluded with Hitler in a plot to regain his throne. The episode briefly resurrects the sort of goofy frivolity that made the Duke and Duchess a reliable source of comic relief in Season 1. (The highlight is a party for their pug, Trooper, with the servants lined up to sing "Happy Birthday."). But it climaxes with Elizabeth's lacerating take-down of her uncle in which she denies him permission to return to England. One of many exemplary scenes this season for Claire Foy, it's an especially shocking moment in light of Season 1's sympathetic treatment of the Duke - as final and dismissive as if the Queen had lowered an ax on his head. The episode ends with a photo montage of the real-life Duke and Duchess smiling and yucking it up with the Fuhrer, just in case you had any doubts about its historical accuracy. Really powerful, really damning stuff.  On the bright side, we also see the beginning of Elizabeth's friendship with American evangelist Billy Graham, a surprising, touching (and also historically accurate) insight into the Queen's devotion to her Christian faith.

1. Alias Grace (Netflix)

I devoured this entire 5 1/2 hour miniseries in one day, because I literally could. Not. STOP watching it.

It certainly was a great year for author Margaret Atwood on streaming television..  Although The Handmaid's Tale got all the glamour and glory, this is the superior Atwood adaptation (just as the novel on which it is based is significantly better than The Handmaid's Tale.)  It circles quietly around the question of whether its title character is guilty of murdering her employer and his mistress and resolves in an entirely surprising way.  Although it is set in the late 19th century, it addresses issues which have come to be every bit as relevant to modern audiences as those in The Handmaid's Tale (the immigrant experience, reproductive rights) but in lighter, less obvious tones.

The series preserves Atwood's first-person narrative structure by allowing Grace (Sarah Gadon) to tell her story to a doctor (Edward Holcroft) over several days and meetings, parceling out the details with an expert storyteller's control.  Gadon plays Grace as deceptively shy and reserved, but she controls the narrative, giving the doctor just enough to tantalize and captivate him, keeping some of the truths and the darkest parts for herself (and the viewers, via her voiceovers in the brief scenes between the doctor's visits.)

Few film or television adaptations of novels are as satisfying as their source material - or at least not satisfying in the same way.  But the series Alias Grace (which was written by Atwood herself, along with director Sarah Polley) represents a new, high bar in literary adaptation: true to its source, with a heightening and intensifying of the themes that make it relevant to a contemporary audience.  It is not to be missed.

The Margaret Atwood cameo:  She's a snooty, hypocritical churchgoer in Episode Four. Blink and you'll miss her.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

My Chicago International Film Festival Diary - Final Entry

My final trip to the Chicago International Film Festival started with some minor drama - suburban trains were running late due to track construction, I had lost my admission ticket to the afternoon's screening - but all was eventually resolved.  I bypassed the energizing walk along the river and took a cab, which deposited me at the front of the AMC 21 Theater in record time, and the friendly, efficient CIFF volunteer staff replaced my ticket with little fanfare.

The inconveniences were well worth the trip.  The final film on my agenda, In the Fade, may be the best of the four I saw at the festival this year.

I know Diane Kruger has been a steady presence in films and television for the last fifteen years or so. But before yesterday, if you'd asked me what she'd done, the only role I could have brought to mind was Bridget von Hammesmark, the doomed German actress in Inglorious Basterds. That all changes now; Kruger gives a stunning, ferocious performance here as a grieving, traumatized woman whose Turkish immigrant husband and young son are killed by white supremacist bombers.  She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year and - depending on how this film is received when it opens in the U.S. in December - she could be an Oscar nominee. (She certainly should be.)

The handful of reviews published so far for In the Fade (from other festivals where it has appeared this year) are almost universally laudatory towards Kruger, but dismissive of the film as a whole, calling it formulaic and predictable.  I can't agree, and I don't share those critics' jaded reaction to the extended courtroom scenes in the middle of the film.  I found the rhetoric employed by the bombers' defense attorney to be unnervingly evocative of the debased political discourse we've seen in our own country as late, while the prosecuting attorney's passionate plea for common sense and decency felt especially cathartic. That timely relevance made for some pretty riveting viewing.

Through those courtroom, scenes, Kruger is a powder keg of barely controlled fury and horror - you can't take your eyes off her. The actress navigates all the stages of grief, despair, trauma, vengefulness, and resignation with impressive emotional stamina.  Her character is equal parts broken-hearted and bad-ass - a tricky kind of duplicity to pull off, but Kruger dives deep to find the character's shattered soul and makes every step of her journey heartbreakingly transparent.

The denouement here is shocking and depressing as hell (and I won't give it away), but the trip there is gripping and powerful.  I give the credit equally to Kruger and her director, Faith Akin, whose earlier work I haven't seen but am determined to seek out now.

In the Fade is Germany's official submission for the 2018 foreign-language Oscar.  I still think BPM is film to beat for the trophy, but I full expect to see this one on the final list of nominees come January.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

My Chicago International Film Festival Diary, Part 2

The difference between attending the festival on a weekend and attending on a weekday is all in the audience.  Weekends bring a mixed crowd of young-to-middle-aged filmgoers.  On a late Tuesday morning, the audience is dominated by affluent older women. While waiting on line for the first matinee, I am surrounded by: precisely, expensively bobbed silver haircuts; capes and jackets that appear to be a Gold Coast boutique's riff on Chico's outerwear; emphatically delivered opinions on books ("A Gentlemen in Moscow" is, apparently, required reading) and Vanessa Redgrave (who "is absolutely beautiful and does nothing about it," and is "at least 83!'). Editorial comment: Redgrave turned 80 this year - but it does seem like she's been around forever!

Anyway, the first film of the day is Barrage, a tense family drama in which Isabelle Huppert and Lolita Chammah (Huppert's real-life daughter) play a long-estranged mother and daughter competing for the affections of Chammah's young daughter (Themis Pauwels).

Barrage is Luxembourg's official submission for the Oscars' Foreign Language film trophy, and I suspect that is because: 1) Luxembourg is a small country with a small film industry and not much else to submit; or 2) the presence of Huppert mere et fille gives the film an aura of prestige that it wouldn't have earned otherwise.

It's not that the film is bad, exactly.  It's well -acted and engrossing, but not especially revelatory.  Chammah shows up after years away to reclaim the daughter she left with her controlling mother.  The two slowly bond on a trip to a family chalet in the woods, where Chammah decides to discard the pills she keeps to 'keep dark thoughts away.' (Huppert is a supporting player here with a relatively small role.)

There's a muddled, muted feeling to the proceedings - the stakes are never too high, the consequences never too dire - and the dialogue among Chammah, Huppert and Pauwels is suggestive and alllusive, rather than explicit, about long-simmering family conflicts.  All of which is admirable to a point, and not unusual for a European film. But sometimes you really long for something about these people and their anger to be made startlingly clear. Maybe that's the result of my American conditioning or maybe it's a valid criticism; I'm still trying to work that out.

There's also a bizarre dream sequence awkwardly inserted late in the film, of which director Laura Schroeder admitted, in the post-screening Q&A, that she didn't really know whose point of view is represented (an odd comment from a writer/director).  Still Schroeder was so earnest and sweet, especially when admitting that she had stayed for the final screening of her film because she loved Chicago too much to leave earlier, that I find it difficult to be hard on her.   I wish her well, but I don't expect to see Barrage on the Oscar shortlist.

The other film I saw was God's Own Country which marks the promising debut of director/screenwriter Francis Lee.  It's been widely touted as a British Brokeback Mountain, a comparison which I guess was inevitable for a film about two young men who fall in love while working outside with sheep.  In truth, it's a far different story - more about how a good relationship forces its young, unfocused protagonist to grow up and deal with the responsibilities of his life than about furtive, forbidden passion. And without giving too much away, it's far more hopeful than the earlier film.

Johnny (Jason O'Connor) is a frustrated and lonely young man, working the family farm alone as a result of his father's debilitating stroke - and handling his duties none too well. His life is a blur of drunken nights, furtive assignations with other closeted young men, and stand-offs with a father who has no patience with his son's lazy carelessness.

Enter a Romanian migrant worker brought in to to help Johnny on the farm. Alec Sacarenu is handsome with soulful, chocolate brown eyes and his character, Gheorge, is as wise, gentle and patient as Johnny is adolescent and mercurial.  The two fall into a physical relationship while out and away in the hills; upon their return, the relationship deepens. There are further plot developments which force Johnny to come to grips with his life and his desires.  I'm not about to deliver spoilers here, but let's just say it all plays out to a satisfactory conclusion, although not without obstacles to be overcome along the way.

Nothing surprising there, but the journey benefits from Lee's handling of atmosphere and his eye for lovingly rendered details of the rural life and landscape.  Cinematographer Joshua James Richards creates beautiful shots of moody, gray Yorkshire skies that enforce Johnny's sense of bleakness and loneliness. The cast also includes a quiet, beautiful performance by an almost unrecognizable Gemma Jones as Johnny's steadfast mother.

My experience of the film festival isn't just about the films, it's also about being in Chicago.  I'm in the city infrequently these days; to my horror, I've become one of those suburbanites who rarely wanders into Chicago and limits her visits mostly to well-traveled venues.  Still, on a crisp, sunny October morning, there is no better sight than that from the Riverwalk. I strolled all the way from Wells Street to the east side of Michigan Avenue on Tuesday morning.  The Riverwalk was quiet - a few joggers, a scattering of tourists with cameras, the cafes and bars not yet open for business - and the magnificence of the architecture along the river was splendid to see against a brilliantly blue sky. It set the tone for my day and made me happy.  The films I saw were just the icing on the cake.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My Chicago International Film Festival Diary (Part 1)

I kept a long-standing promise to myself this year, and actually scheduled a week off work around the Chicago International Film Festival.  So far, I have four films on my agenda with the option to spontaneously head into the city for anything else that strikes my fancy.  Here's my first report.

I headed to the River East AMC theater for the first time on Sunday - a cool, cloudy day following a Saturday deluge of heavy rain.  The Chicago River had spilled over its banks and splashed into the outdoor cafes along the city's Riverwalk, which were closed and ghostly quiet that morning.  

The audience was also surprisingly sparse at the late morning screening of BPM (also known as 120 Battements Par Minute in France). Director Robin Campillo's drama about AIDS in early '90s Paris took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year, and it's not hard to see why. The film is stirring and heartbreaking in equal measures, with very strong performances and expressionistic visual imagery that is at once sad, profound and beautiful.

The film opens at a meeting of ActUp Paris,the Gallic counterpoint of the USA's radical anti-AIDS activist group.  A earnest young man looks directly into the camera and outlines the rules of order for the group's weekly meetings; it's soon reveled that he's talking to a group of new members, but the scene also helps the audience comprehend the many fast-paced, debate-filled meeting scenes that follow. 

This same character is seen throughout the film on the edges of the group's actions (protest marches, disruptions of speeches and public events to throw fake blood or the ashes of dead AIDS victims on 'all talk/no action' scientists and politicians). He never seems to really participate, but rather looks on his fellow activists with wonder and obvious admiration.  He is clearly the stand-in for Campillo, who directs BPM with a cool, documentarian's touch. It's full of righteously angry characters given to fiery debates, yet the film itself never feels angry or polemical.  It does, however, have energy and a well-calibrated rhythmic intensity as it cycles through scenes of Act Up meetings, dance clubs, and intimate encounters between the two lovers at the story's center.  These particular types of scenes recur at predictable intervals, and yet the shape and focus of those scenes evolves as the stakes become more desperate. 

The stand-out in the cast is Nahuel Perez Biscayart, who portrays one of the most spirited members of Act Up  - and whose illness progresses most quickly.  All the young actors are good, but it's Biscayart whose presence and energy light up every scene he's in.  

Most of the audience sat through the entire closing credits crawl before leaving the theater, which for me is proof of BPM's emotional power; you can't get up and walk away from it easily.  This is France's submission for next year's Best Foreign-Language film Oscar. I'm going out on a limb and predicting that it will not only make the nomination's shortlist, but that it will actually win.

By the time BPM concluded, the sun had come out in Chicago.  I had nearly two hours to kill before another Metra train would head back to the northwest suburbs, so I took my time strolling down Michigan Avenue and State Street, popping into stores along the way.  It was maddening.  As is usual for a Sunday, the streets and stores were filled with tourists. Only these weren't the usual folks who drive in from Indiana or Wisconsin for the weekend; today's tourist trade was largely European or Asian and they were clamoring to scoop up clearance-priced designer handbags at Macy's, bargain-priced gewgaws at Nordstrom Rack, chocolate at Dylan's Candy Bar, makeup at Sephora.... you name it. Their near-manic quest to scoop up American consumer goods was startling.

Later, as I struggled to cross the DuSable Bridge, squeezing myself between out-of-towners snapping selfies in which the Trump building would loom ominously behind them, I had an uncharitable thought. "These damn tourists...." the thought began, and spiraled downward from there.

When I had finally settled in with a bowl of tomato basil soup at the Corner Bakery on Wacker Drive - blessedly uncrowded in mid-afternoon and largely tourist-free - I was able to see the irony in my irritation. Surely someone in Prague... and in Rome... and Verona... and Venice... had felt the same away about ME this past summer!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

On the Road: Venice, the City That Wishes You'd Stay Home (or does it?)

This is the second in a series of "off topic" posts inspired by my recent choir trip to Europe. However, I promise to tie this to at least one movie!

Venice has become the persnickety old maiden aunt of Italian tourism - one with a parlor full of valuable antiques that she's trying to save for the "good" company, all the while railing and swatting away at the ruffians who crowd in, dripping melted gelato and pizza grease, scattering litter and snapping selfies. She throws modest shawls over the spaghetti-strapped shoulders of young women entering her churches and demands that you don't dawdle too long on her picturesque bridges. And no one pays any attention to her warnings.

Venice regularly tops lists of cities that want tourists to stay away, and their pleas are not working. The city averages 60,000 day-tripping visitors a day.  That's a whopping lot of people packed onto a relatively small set of tiny, bridge-linked islands. It's also sinking into the Adriatic Sea at a rate of 2 millimeters per year, one presumes under the massive weight of all those tourists.

Nevertheless, the Venetians battle valiantly to make tourists respect their city for the centuries-old showpiece of history, commerce, architecture and art that it is - and not treat it like the Italian pavilion at Epcot.  They've passed ordinances banning picnicking and the sale of fast food in heavily visited areas.  There is even a law forbidding you to stand too long on any bridge, so as not to bring the pedestrian traffic to a halt.  I can assure you, not one of these ordinances is being enforced. I personally witnessed a  couple scarfing a huge, shared bag of potato chips while sitting directly under the "No Picnicking" sign in St. Mark's Square, and I had a hell of a difficult time getting past the selfie-snappers blocking all but a narrow passageway in the middle of the Accademia Bridge.

It was a very hot, very tourist-packed July day when our group arrived in Venice.  But my first experience of the fabled "La Serenissima" was very different.

In February 2000, I tagged along on a friend's ski club trip to Austria.  I had no intention of skiing  the Alps - I could barely manage the smallest green hills in Michigan and Wisconsin- but I totally wanted to be part of the optional day trips.  One of those was to Venice. We left Innsbruck on a bus at 5:30 in the morning and got back around 11:30 that night.  I never once regretted the lost sleep.

When we arrived just across the bay from Venice around nine that morning, the city was enveloped in fog. As we piled into a motorboat to taxi over to St. Mark's Square, the fog began to lift - and all those famous, beautiful, 15th century buildings of Venice slowly emerged from the mist.  It was indescribably beautiful, like entering a dream world.  The air was chilly and damp, and the day was gray, but it hardly mattered.  I was in a daze all day: wandering the labyrinthine streets, taking a long gondola ride that passed under every famous, fabled bridge on the Grand Canal. There were virtually no other tourists in the city that day, and the streets seemed to belong just to us and the locals.  Just as we were getting on the boat that would take us back to our bus that evening, the fog rolled back in behind us, covering Venice in mist once more.  I have never had a more magical day as a traveler.

It was a blazing hot July day when I returned to Venice along with my choral group, and there were massive hordes of tourists everywhere. The views were still beautiful, if a bit harder to take in. After a trip to the Murano glass factory and a guided visit to St. Mark's Square, we were free to wander on our own.  And I had a plan.

The infamous Peggy Guggenheim had long captured my imagination.  The niece of Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the famous museum in NYC, Peggy was a lover of abstract art - and abstract artists - in every sense of the word.  She had money and a discerning eye, and she amassed a brilliant personal collection of works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Dali, Pollock and many others in her villa on the Grand Canal.  She was bold and unconventional. She had two husbands, two children, and many lovers, but was most devoted to her dogs. (The Venetians called her "L'Americana con i cani" - the American woman with the dogs) and she was buried among them in the courtyard of her villa. After she died, her home was opened to the public as a museum where her collection was showcased.  And, for years, I had been dying to get a look at it.

So I went off my own in search of Peggy's treasures (no other abstract art lovers in the group!).  It was an easy trip at first - although I had a map in hand, I could find my way to the Accademia Bridge by following signs posted at the end of every block.  But once over the bridge, I was lost.  I'm convinced that Ms. Guggenheim didn't really want anyone to visit her former home, because she made it so hard to find!  I wandered the surrounding neighborhood for nearly a half-hour before figuring out that I needed to wander down a tiny, narrow "street" that was barely wide enough to let two people pass each other, then into a small piazza, and then into another tiny "street". The Collection lay behind wrought iron gates just off that ... let's call it an alley, which is what it really was.

Was it worth the stressful trip? Yes! Absolutely!  My only regret is that my confusion in getting there reduced the amount of time I could spend admiring the impressive collection of masterworks. I was also interested to see the bold, imaginative (and somewhat disturbing) work of Guggenheim's daughter, Pegeen, to which an entire room is devoted. Here's the infamous statue that sits outside the villa, facing the Canal: "Angel of the City" sculpted by Marino Marini. If you look close, you'll see that this little guy is, umm, really excited to be looking out on to the Grand Canal.

Because I had taken almost all our allotted free time to visit the Collection, I had missed lunch and was ravenous by the time I ran into a group of fellow choristers headed to a famous gelato spot. This wound up being my lunch:

This is the specialty of the house at Gelateria Nico on the Grand Canal: a small brick of chocolate hazelnut gelato dunked in a tall glass of whipped cream. This is about as brilliant as dessert gets, and I wolfed it down in mere minutes.

Our entire group concluded the day with a gondola ride and dinner.  Our gondolier was young and handsome, friendly and mildly flirty with the group of middle-aged women he steered around the canals.  He claimed not to be a singing gondolier, but with a little encouragement he favored us with a few bars of a pop ballad and proved to have a lovely, rich baritone voice.  He was such a good sport and so nice that I had to wonder if all this talk of tourist-hating Venetians might be a bit overblown.  I reflected on a day in which I'd encountered no attitude or impatience from anyone in a service role. In fact, when I'd stopped for a bottle of water at a pizza place earlier, the woman who served me was effusively friendly and offered me an enthusiastic "grazie!" (Maybe because I ordered "acqua, per favore," using Italian rather than my own language?)  Perhaps that persnickety old Zia Serenissima is softening and getting used to the ruffians in the parlor after all.

Movie tie-in: Where do I even start?

My whole love affair with Venice started long before I ever set foot in the city - at the movies.  How many times have you seen that famous landscape?  Think of Summertime, A Room with a View, Don't Look Now, The Talented Mr. Ripley...  The list goes on and on.

Not to mention the fascinating documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.

But I'm going to pick Lasse Hallstrom's Casanova, a thoroughly silly and highly enjoyable romp starring the late Heath Ledger in the title role, Sienna Miller as his love interest, and whole ensemble of wonderful actors (Jermey Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin among them) having a merry time in a most romantic setting.

It's hard to make a movie in Venice that doesn't capture its beauty, but Casanova is one I recall giving the sunniest, most beautiful views of a city that is all about beauty.  And it's far and away the most fun film on this list.  Rent it and enjoy yourself.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

On the Road: Reflections on Prague - Then and Now

Sometimes, this blog is about movies... and sometimes it's about the life in between them.  As regular readers know, that life in-between occasionally involves travel.  Here is the first in a series of observations from my recent trip to Europe - a performance trip made by my community choir.

But I promise - I'll find a movie association for every one of these post!

I first visited the Czech Republic in 2001; my memories of that trip are spotty and impressionistic now, but the overriding, lingering impression I retain is of a country not yet entirely comfortable with tourists - especially American tourists.

In Prague, you could sense the aspiration to attain (or, more correctly, regain) status as a world-class cosmopolitan city, but there was still ample evidence of the austerity and deprivations of the Soviet era. I recall our cab driver pointing proudly to an abstract sculpture on the site where a statue of Joseph Stalin had once stood. "Stalin, bye-bye!" he crowed exultantly and waved. The hotel to which he delivered us was spartan but clean and comfortable, and gave the distinct feeling of having been converted to lodgings from some other kind of establishment.  The tiny baths in our rooms were obviously converted closets that one had to step up and into from the room where we slept.  The hotel dining room resembled a high school 'cafe-torium' and the breakfast buffet food was portioned out in plastic bowls and cups arrayed neatly on humble trays.

We took a dinner cruise on the Vlatva River.  A trio of men played Sinatra tunes and I think some people danced.  The buffet featured a desultory array of dishes and ample supplies of fresh apples, bananas and pears.  A hostess explained to us that the fresh fruit was still seen as a great treat, having been so hard to come by during the years of Soviet occupation.

One Saturday night while we ate dinner in quiet pub, I watched a television variety show hosted by a pair of middle-aged women: one an aging, ditzy blonde and the other a sturdy, sardonic character actress. Imagine a sketch-and-music show co-hosted by Goldie Hawn and Margo Martindale and you'll have some idea of it.  They sang a opening song about being buddies, performed a comedy sketch in which they played witches.  I didn't - and still don't - understand a single word of Czech, but I could follow the comic beats in everything they did.

The formula for a television variety series may have been universal, but our face-to-face interactions with Czech service people were far less intuitive. English wasn't widely spoken there at that time; if a Czech person knew a second language, it was more likely to be German. So maybe it was the language barrier - or maybe it was the vehemence with which the teetotalers in our group refused the complimentary shots of becherovka proffered at every meal - but we managed to piss off a whole series of waitresses, clerks and ticket agents.  Their surly glares felt personal at the time, but in retrospect, they probably weren't. This, after all, is a country that uses Franz Kafka as the iconic face on its tourist trinkets.  Even our tour guide at Prague Castle was dour and gloomy, muttering his dissatisfaction with Vaclav Havel's government as he led us into the courtyard. I joked to my friends that the Czech tourist industry needed a little instruction on guest relations from the folks at Disney , but privately I felt rather embarrassed at having, however unintentionally, offended our hosts.

Still, the city was as incredibly beautiful as I had heard - a mixture of perfectly preserved 18th century Baroque buildings and gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, all trimmed with endlessly interesting decorative details: murals, statues, religious icons, wrought iron frills and flourishes.  Here's an example (and no, this is not where we stayed - then OR now):

I also recall a perfectly delicious dessert we consumed at a cafĂ© in Old Town Square: a crepe filled with fruit and ice cream, drizzled with chocolate and topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.  In retrospect, it doesn't seem a spectacular concoction. But it was the whole experience: the late afternoon sunshine, the cheerful bustle of tourists beneath the famed Astronomical Clock , the sweetness of the dessert and the smiling disposition of the first friendly waitress we'd encountered in Prague - that made it so memorable.

Flash forward now to 2017:

My first impression of Prague when we arrive on a Friday morning is that tourist-driven consumerism had definitely taken hold of the city. Our hotel on Wenceslas Square was sleek and modern with good-sized rooms and an Andy Warhol portrait of Franz Kafka behind the front desk.  The Marks and Spencer store I remembered from my previous visit as the lone, isolated outpost of Western consumerism has been joined by H&M, Sephora and many other merchants easily recognizable to American mall shoppers. The square was unusually quiet for a Friday  - most Prague denizens being out of town on a national four-day holiday weekend - but by the weekend, the streets were fairly clogged with tourists from all over the world. Also, there were numerous buskers and tourist-trinket-scammers, the likes of which I don't recall seeing at all in 2001.

The city is infinitely more welcoming to English speakers than in 2001 . Every sign and menu is in English as well as Czech, and everyone from the impeccably dressed young woman who sells me garnet earrings to the waiter who brings us salads and peach iced tea for our first lunch, speaks the language more or less fluently.  If servers are not quite universally warm and effusive, they are unfailingly polite. No glares, no surliness. (Then again, there is almost no one in our group who will turn down a shot of becherovka - a potent liquor, redolent with cinnamon and cloves, that goes down smooth and allegedly aids digestion.)

With the group, I revisited Prague Castle, and this time our friendly guide, Pavel, has only lovely things to say about Vaclav Havel, which was a kind of relief.  Like so many tour guides, Pavel brandishes a red umbrella high above his head so we can find and follow him in the crush of the many tour groups jostling for space and good photo set-ups.  His only fault is that he cannot walk slowly - his red umbrella bobs so far of ahead of us that we sometimes can barely keep him in sight.

We discover the delights of becherovka and Pilsner beer, while we learn to avoid Czech wine.  We learn that a dish called "Moravian Sparrow" is, in fact, roast pork in a delicious onion and garlic gravy. We sit in a friendly pub one afternoon and pick our way through a sort of Czech charcuterie plate of various cheeses, pork, ham and pickles. But sadly, we never get a chance to sample trdelnik, the ubiquitous dessert of ice cream served in a cone made of fried, sugar-dusted dough.  Maybe I'll be back in another 16 years to try it....

And of course, this being a choir performance trip, we sang - first in St. Nicholas Church on Old Town Square, then on the following night at San Salvator Catholic church just off the Charles Bridge. Our audiences are mostly comprised of appreciative tourists, many of whom film us on their phones. (So now we are the stars of vacation videos all over the world!) Also, just one word: ACOUSTICS!!! We never get this kind of sound at home - it's a real joy to hear our voices reverberating through these spectacular spaces.

We took a dinner cruise one night on the Vlatva, just as my friends and I had done before - and not much had changed.  This time, the music was provided by a duo - one man on clarinet, the other on banjo - which gave the sensation that our river cruise was taking place over the endlessly rolling credits of a Woody Allen movie. There was again fresh fruit on the buffet - grapes and apple wedges - but also a large of array of tasty meat, fish and vegetable dishes. We happily spread out on the top deck in the evening air, drinking wine and watching the gorgeous cityscape of Prague roll by. This one delightful evening was exactly as I had remembered it sixteen years earlier.

Movie Tie-In:

All those gorgeously preserved 18th century buildings made a perfect backdrop for the 1984 film version of Amadeus.  Czech-born director Milos Forman used Prague as a very convincing stand-in for Vienna in the exterior shots, and filmed some interior theatre scenes there as well.

In fact, the real Mozart had a connection to Prague: his opera Don Giovannni premiered there in 1787, where it received a rapturous reception.  The theater where it was performed still stands today, a commemorative plaque on the door and a statue of the Commandant character just outside (both of which I stupidly failed to photograph.)  A slightly altered version of Don Giovanni was performed in Vienna the following year to slightly more reserved applause.

In the interest of dramatic license, playwright/screenwriter Peter Shaffer totally fudges this information in Amadeus, where Salieri informs us that the opera opened and closed in the same week in Vienna, a failure and a flop. So now you know the REAL story.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscars 2017: So, We're Doing This Again...

It's Oscar time again. Pardon my asterisks, but I am completely out of f***ks to give.

It's not that 2016 wasn't a fantastic year for films (It was!) or that the really great ones aren't up for any Oscars (Many of them are!).  It's just that ... I'm SO DONE with 2016 and I'm tired of celebrating anything to do with it.  Outside of the cinema, 2016 was a thoroughly crap year that I don't want to revisit - even through film clips and ESPECIALLY not through a weepy "In Memoriam" montage. (Frankly, just the experience of living through 2016 felt like being trapped in an "In Memoriam" montage that just kept rolling and getting sadder and sadder.)

Also, I'm REALLY TIRED of talking about La La Land. And I loved La La Land!  It was at the top of my list of the best films of 2016. But it doesn't merit the level of bickering and controversy it's generated. Seriously, everyone needs to chill out and rent The Young Girls of Rochefort this weekend. (Get a clue, people - it's not based just on Hollywood musicals!) Meanwhile, I will keep trying to get the melody of "City of Stars" out of my head, where it's been stuck for over three months now.

But... I'm a film blogger who writes about the Oscars every year, so I'm digging deep for the motivation to give you my annual "Good, Bad, Undeserving and Overlooked" assessment of this year's nominees. (Disclaimer: as of this moment, I still have not seen Lion, Nocturnal Animals or Elle. Watch this space for late-breaking updates, as I plan to finally see at least one of those in the next 48 hours...)

Before we begin, a word about this year's host: I have only the highest hopes for Jimmy Kimmel, who seems like the perfect choice to helm this year's ceremony.

Last year, at the height of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Chris Rock's edgy hosting gig, I predicted that "we can probably expect an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing white host in 2017." I fully expected that host to be Billy Crystal; even so, I wasn't entirely off the mark. Kimmel is the easiest to take of the network late-night hosts: funny but not too edgy, naughty but not smutty, topical but without the bite or sting of pointed satire.  He occupies a comfortable, enjoyable middle ground between the exuberant ass-kissery of Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight" show and the barbed political takedowns on Stephen Colbert's "Late Show."  Kimmel's emcee chops were developed over years of hosting  the American Music Awards and the Emmys. He'll be funny, and he'll keep the show humming along nicely, without too many Trump jokes. And despite the fact that I enjoy a good laugh at the President's expense, I'm actually looking forward to that.

And now, on to the nominees. Due to my overwhelming Oscar ennui, I'm keeping it to bare-bones predictions and shout-outs this year. No long-winded essays or cries of shock and outrage - just the facts, ma'am:

Best Supporting Actress
     Will Win:  Viola Davis for Fences
     Should Win: Viola Davis for Fences
     Overlooked: Julianne Moore for Maggie's Plan (Because she was so funny! After playing so               many silently suffering women, we forgot she had such wicked comedy chops.)

Best Supporting Actor
     Will Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Should Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Overlooked: Hugh Grant for Florence Foster Jenkins (best performance of his career), Alden             Ehrenreich for Hail Caesar! (he stole the film!), Ralph Fiennes for A Bigger Splash (his                       happy dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue" alone merits the nomination)

Best Actress
     Will Win: Emma Stone for La La Land
     Should Win:  Natalie Portman for Jackie
     Overlooked: Molly Shannon for Other People (she's come a looong way since SNL), Susan                  Sarandon for The Meddler (a lovely performance in a underseen, underrated film), Amy Adams        for Arrival (because how is she not on this list?)

Best Actor 
     Will Win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
     Should Win: Denzel Washington for Fences
     Overlooked: Tom Hanks for Sully (contrary to popular belief, he does NOT play every role the              same), Joel Edgerton for Loving (every bit as great as his nominated co-star).

Best Director 
     Will Win:  Damien Chazelle for La La Land
     Should Win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight OR Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
     Overlooked: Pablo Larrain for Jackie 

Best Picture
     Will Win: La La Land
     Should Win: Does it matter? La La Land is going to win and that's fine, although I'd also be               happy to see Moonlight take the top prize.
     Overlooked: Jackie and Allied.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Kangaroo at the Vatican and Other Surprises

So here's something that actually happened on last night's episode of The Young Pope: the Pope ordered a kangaroo to be let loose in the Vatican Gardens.

Not just any kangaroo, mind you, but the one sent to him by the good people of Australia as a congratulatory gift on his ascension to the papacy.  A kangaroo that whimpered and growled quietly inside his crate until Pope Pius XIII gently summoned him forward with a whisper of "C'mon, sweetie..." and a beckoning hand gesture not unlike that shown in pictures of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.

Is it wrong that I laughed out loud for a full 30 seconds during this scene? Or that I broke out in fresh peals of laughter all over again every time we saw someone walking or sitting in the gardens, thinking "Now'd be a GREAT time for that kangaroo to show up and kick those cardinals in the head with his giant kangaroo feet!"

HBO's advertising for its miniseries, The Young Pope, suggests scintillating prestige television drama. But the actual show suggests that writer-director Paolo Sorrentino dropped acid, then decided to make a mash-up of Angels and Demons and The Devils, but without the sex or Tom Hanks.  It's gorgeous, but not salacious, shocking not because it's dishing up prurient details, but because it ricochets from straight-faced seriousness to Cloud Cuckooland without warning. The titular young pope doesn't swear or screw around (although he does enjoy cigarettes), but he demands a Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and makes it clear that a regular Diet Coke simply won't do.  He gives his first address from his balcony at night and in silhouette so that no one can see his face and bellows like Ned Beatty in the "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature" scene from Network. Also, that kangaroo thing.

Another thing that actually happened in last night's episode: Diane Keaton - playing Sister Mary, the nun who raised Lenny in an orphanage and is summoned to Rome to be his personal assistant - gets a late-night visit in her room by the pope.  She opens the door, not wearing a prim, nun-like nightgown buttoned up to her neck as you might expect, but a flimsy robe over a T-shirt that announces in bold letters, "I'M A VIRGIN. THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT." (And, in case you're wondering, she retains that status when the scene is over. Like I said, nothing freaky going on here.)

Jude Law plays the former Lenny Belardo, now Pius XIII with a little bit of slippery charm and a whole lot of sociopathic menace. It's as if his Dickie Greenleaf character from The Talented Mr. Ripley was resurrected and swathed in papal robes, only now he's scarier. He's actually uncomfortable to watch; every minute feels like Pius XIII is about half an inch away from a full psychotic break.  I guess that's evidence that Law is great in the role, but ... yikes!

On the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to find a mini-series so visually sumptuous. Cuckoo-bird though he may be, Sorrentino has an unerring eye for shot composition and the dramatic use of color. The shots of St. Peter's Basilica are unbelievable - in some cases, literally so.  Those close-ups and overhead shots of the Pieta would be impossible in reality, since the Michaelangelo sculpture is kept behind bulletproof glass.  Are these CGI shots? (Because if so, they're much better than the God-awful-obvious CGI kangaroo.)

Sorrentino made the acclaimed 2013 film, The Great Beauty - a rambling, gorgeous meditation on modern Italy that opens with one of the greatest party scenes in movie history. Then he made the 2015 film Youth (also playing on HBO this month) which was also gorgeous and seemed to be about something, but finally had no discernible point whatsoever.  With just a couple episodes down, it's still too early to tell if The Young Pope has a viable through-line, or whether it, too, will be an accumulation of visually arresting absurdities with little ultimate meaning.

But I've decided that I'm in for the whole ride. The Young Pope won't be to everyone's taste, but for me, it's already headed towards my personal pantheon of exuberantly nutty Over-the-Topness - a collection which includes Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, those Cate Blanchett biopics of Elizabeth I, the opening scenes of Heaven's Gate and pretty much all of Ken Russell's career.

And I really hope the kangaroo is back next week.

Monday, January 16, 2017

These Might Be the Best Films of 2016

It' s that time of year again: the doldrums of mid-January, in which I finally get around to naming the best films of the previous year, mere weeks after the real critics have published their lists and moved on.

My list, as always, is preceded by a self-deprecating preamble where I explain that I saw only a fraction of the 2016 films that serious and/or professional critics took time to view. (A grand total of 77, as of this weekend.) Also, I remind you that the list of films I see is shaped both by my personal tastes and the rigors of my work schedule; as such, it generally excludes anything excessively violent, anything produced by the Marvel franchise, or anything that was in-and-out of theaters in two weeks or less, especially if those two weeks coincided with a looming work deadline.

On the other hand,  the fact that I'm not obligated to see the many, many crap movies released in a given year means that the ones I do see are carefully curated to ensure maximum viewing value.  So the list you're about to read might, in fact, be the best films of 2016. You've already seen almost all of these on 'real' critics' lists. There won't be many surprises here.

A couple of quick notes about eligibility:

To be on my "Best" list, the film must have been released in the Chicago area for the first time sometime during the 2016 calendar year, whether in theaters or via home streaming.  By this criteria, the following 2015 films were under consideration for this year's list: 45 Years, Anomolisa, The Revenant Son of Saul. (SPOILER: None of them made it.)  It also means that some films showing up on other "Best of 2016" lists will be considered for my 2017 list: Silence, Hidden Figures, Toni Erdmann, 20th Century Women, Neruda, PatersonThings to Come.

The other criterion for eligibility is, of course, that I had to actually see the film.  I ran out of time, opportunities, or (in a couple of cases) inclination to see all of the following: Loving, Elle, Arrival, Green Room, Nocturnal Animals, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden.

The good news?  There was a whole lot of great film to be enjoyed in 2016 - so much so that I decided to do a "Fifteen Best" list this year, rather than the traditional "Ten Best."

In ascending order of preference, those films are:

15. Everybody Wants Some! (Richard Linklater)

Linklater's easygoing campus comedy takes place over a late August weekend in 1980, following the members of a Texas college baseball team as they settle into a ramshackle shared house, party, chase girls, smoke weed and play ball.  It's atmospheric and meandering, rather than heavily plotted, but it captures the mood and spirit of the times damn near perfectly (as I can well attest, having been a college senior myself at that time). To my great shame, I have never seen Linklater's Dazed and Confused, so I can't make an intelligent comparison to his well-loved high school comedy.  But I greatly enjoyed this one on its own terms.

14. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)

When I first saw The Lobster in the theater, I was so overwhelmed by its bleakness and cruelty that I almost wished I'd never seen it.  But I couldn't get it out of my head. I've since watched it two more times via home streaming; the smaller screen (and access to a fast-forward button for one particular sequence of animal abuse) made the bleakness more bearable and enhanced the subtle brilliance of the deadpan, jet-black humor.  In this oddball dystopian tale, single people are rounded up and taken to a remote hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into a animal of their choosing. If you (like me) are a single person, you'll especially appreciate how Lanthimos finds the absurdities in society's disapproving take on the unattached and cranks them to a lunatic nth degree.

13. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)

A superbly crafted World War II romantic thriller that feels old-fashioned in all the right ways. It channels Casablanca and a little of Alfred Hitchcock, yet never feels entirely derivative.  The less you know about the plot and its twists going in, the better; it sweeps you up and away into its narrative with classic storytelling and gorgeous cinematography.  Rush to see this while you can still find it on a big screen. It's glowing, glamorous opening scenes set in wartime Casablanca won't be nearly as dazzling on your TV.

12. Little Sister (Zach Clark)

A bittersweet comedy of family heartache and healing with a few surprises.  A badly burn-scarred Iraqi war veteran returns home; his sister (a former Goth teenager turned Catholic nun) comes to visit and helps to bring him back to life.  Set in 2008 against the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the film's political themes are underdeveloped, but its unsentimental depiction of family quirks and conflicts is perfectly tuned. I especially liked that the young sister's religious devotion was depicted respectfully and without comment. As in his 2013 film, White Reindeer (which also made my "year's best" list), writer/director Zach Clark skillfully blends genuinely moving moments of human connection into the most outrageous scenes.

11. Hail Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen's love letter to early '50s studio filmmaking takes scattershot aim at a whole lot of targets (Communists, musicals, Biblical epics, studio meddling in the morals and private lives of its contracted actors) and culminates in a heartfelt, if barbed, appreciation of the magic that comes from it all.  Alden Ehrenreich steals the film as the young cowboy actor being uneasily shoehorned into a sophisticated comedy. An extended sequence of him on a date with an up-and-coming actress is a particularly sweet digression from the hi-jinks.

10. 13th (Ava DuVernay)

DuVernay's powerful, damning documentary examines a little-remembered qualifying clause in the 13th amendment and how it's been used to keep institutional racism alive.  She lays out a carefully assembled, multi-faceted case. (Hell, she even gets Newt Gingrich to make some of her points on camera.) An important film for anyone to see - and a particularly enlightening one for anyone who doesn't fully understand or believe in white privilege.

9.  Little Men (Ira Sachs)

Writer/director Ira Sachs continues to make intensely moving personal drama about New Yorkers at the mercy of their city's ever less affordable real estate market. (See also his 2014 film Love is Strange.) The close friendship between two  boys - one is a dressmaker's son, the other is the son of the dressmaker's landlord - is severely tested when the dressmaker's rent is raised higher than she can possibly afford.  It's gentle and sad, and not a single character is portrayed in black-and-white terms. Sachs, the most generous and sensitive of filmmakers, shows us neither villains nor tragic heroes - only flawed, decent humans struggling to make the best of a bad situation. Heartbreaking and sweet in just the right proportions, with the tiniest bit of satire just to keep things from sinking into bathos.

8.  Sing Street (John Carney)

No one captures the infectious joy of making music quite like John Carney (who previously brought us Once and Begin Again). In his best film yet, Carney focuses on aspiring young musicians in mid-1980's Ireland who write songs inspired by Duran Duran and meet after school to play and shoot videos.  It's a feel-good film with a healthy, leavening dose of reality, effectively capturing the excitement of a cultural moment as well as the economic desperation that led many young people to leave Ireland for England. There's a nicely played romance in the mix and, of course, lots of very enjoyable music.

7.  Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)

The story template is familiar: a long-absent recovering addict returns to the family fold for Thanksgiving, where's she's handled with everything from kid-gloves kindness to indifference to outright hostility.  What distinguishes this film is its uncanny way of putting us inside Krisha's head as she navigates a minefield of family conflict with ever-increasing anxiety.  Director Trey Edward Shults cast his real aunt Krisha in the title role, and himself and his relatives as her family members; they bring an unsettling naturalism to the proceedings.

6.  A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)

Like Guadagnino's previous film, I am Love, this is a decadent and sumptuous watch. It verges on being travel magazine porn with scenes of characters languishing around a pool and savoring freshly made cheeses and freshly stirred daquiris in an exotic island setting. I'm not immune to the charms of ogling beautiful people enjoying beautiful things; I'd watch this over and over just to see Ralph Fiennes' exuberant dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue"  on a lazy, sunny afternoon. But Guadagnino adds subtle layers to his remake of the equally decadent French film La Piscine by setting it on Panetelleria Island - off the coast of Sicily and within sight of Tunisia, smack in the path of refugees heading toward Europe.  Those refugees play a minor role around the edges of the gorgeous, privileged life depicted here, but their desperation casts a shadow over the beautiful people's story as it edges towards tragedy. As you would expect, Tilda Swinton - playing a rock star whose recent throat surgery has rendered her speechless - gives a stunning performance, even without words.

5. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

A no-fuss depiction of heroic action, with Tom Hanks rather brilliantly portraying Captain "Sully" Sullerson as a man who simply did what needed to be done in the moment. The highly fictionalized drama that Eastwood makes out of the investigations follwing the celebrated "Miracle on the Hudson," sometimes seems a bit forced.  But his minute-by-minute recreation of the crash and subsequent rescue is a breathtaking piece of cinema, the kind which literally keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you know how it's going to come out.

4. OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

This has the unusual distinction of making both this list and the number 2 spot on my "Best Binge Watches of 2016," since it was also shown on television.  As I said on that other list, it's "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."

3. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

Among the many things this film does to brilliant effect is to capture the fragmented mental state of a woman struggling to process her own trauma while taking care of business for her family and her country.  That's not to trivialize the horror or the historical impact of JFK's assassination itself, because Jackie certainly makes those things clear; in fact, it concurrently captures the fragmented and frightened state of the entire nation with equal brilliance. Natalie Portman's canny, finely calibrated performance gets at both the steeliness and the vulnerability beneath the First Lady's flawlessly composed patrician exterior. Larrain approaches a frequently depicted historical event from a fresh and original perspective and gives it renewed relevancy. (Some passages in which Mrs. Kennedy ponders the nature of truth and whether it is contained in the written words of a news story feels all too relevant to our current times.)That's no small achievement.

And then ... we skip to first place, which is a TIE, because... don't make me choose...

1. TIE - Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Two very different films: both are equally masterful, and both seem like the films we most needed in the tumultuous, contentious year just past.

Moonlight is a beautiful, poetic, emotionally shattering coming-of-age drama of a young, gay, black man growing up in the projects of South Florida.  It's a linear narrative, but one that communicates most powerfully through images and wordless sequences (the motion of water beneath and around the boy as he learns to swim, the sensation of his free hand digging into beach sand as he embraces and kisses another boy for the first time.)  These scenes have an intimacy and emotional resonance that nearly breaks your heart.

There's a welcome subtlety and an unforced impact to the revelations in Moonlight, particularly when its young protagonist realizes that the neighborhood man who's become a badly needed father figure to him is also the dealer supplying his crack-addled mother.  The moment is heart-stopping, yet we're left to let the process the significance of that for ourselves.

Given our current political climate, it's no stretch to worry that stories like Moonlight might be suppressed in the near future, but that's not the only reason to celebrate it. It is a stunning cinematic achievement in its own right - and would be so at any time.

La La Land is a bit of an escape, yet I would argue it is no less emotionally resonant and no less needed.  The recent backlash against its heralding as the second coming of the Hollywood musical was both predictable and misguided.  Make no mistake, La La Land makes many conscious references to the great musicals of the Vincent Minelli/Stanley Donen heyday, but let's not kid ourselves - that heyday is never truly coming back. It was a product of its own time, one that this film looks back on with admiration and longing but was never going to fully re-create. Besides, La La Land owes as much, if not more, to the bittersweet and modest charms of Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort as to the MGM masterworks.

I never minded that the song-and-dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were serviceable, but hardly dazzling; that's entirely in keeping with the Demy influence. (Although, truth be told, I did wish that someone had coached Stone on the proper technique for belting before she recorded her eleventh hour solo number. There's a bit more involved than just yelling the lyrics.)

Damien Chazelle infuses La La Land with a spectacular visual beauty that underscores its themes of yearnings for love, for times and art forms that are passing away, for success and artistic fulfillment. That the film builds to a bittersweet climax in no way dashes the hopefulness that drives its narrative.  And hope is something badly needed now.