“Them That Follow”–Faith, Interrupted

Them That Follow  (2019) is an odd  American indie thriller about an Appalachian, Pentecostal, Charismatic snake-handling Christian cult.  A close-knit community with extremely strong beliefs, it exists on the far-fringe of mainstream society. This is the backdrop for a love story between the Pentecostal pastor’s daughter and a boy in the community who no longer is fervent in his faith.

Mara Childs (newcomer Alice Englert) is a dutiful  daughter, raised to believe that her faith unites the community in a holy bond protecting them from others outside their religion.  Her father, the pastor Lemuel (Walter Goggins of “Justified”) is relieved  that his daughter, in her late teens, has agreed–albeit reluctantly– to marry Garrett, one of the parishioners he’s most fond of.  However, Mara really loves  Augie Slaughter (newcomer Thomas Mann) who has distanced himself from the church, much to his mother’s dismay  (Olivia Colman as Hope Slaughter).

By handling poisonous snakes,  worshippers demonstrate their faith in putting their lives in God’s hands.  If you avoid being bitten or survive the venom  all of your sins may be forgiven.. After a minor dies during a snake- handling church meeting, police warn Lemuel he is under investigation for reckless endangerment of a minor, and perhaps for murder. 

For the first half of the film, Mara does not question her father or her own faith, until she becomes engaged to Garrett, who doesn’t understand her disinterest in him. By the second half  Mara finds herself in an existential crisis, in which she must choose between her faith  and her love for Augie.  

Them That Follow  moves slowly with some irrelevant scenes during the first half of the drama,  but once the story moves to family dynamics and the sacrifices individuals have to make in order to save their souls, it becomes dramatic and tense.   A faith that had once been human and natural, now morphs into something twisted and grotesque like the snakes in the church’s vestibule.  We see the conflict between the security offered by the religious community and the courage needed to move beyond that community. 

The ending is unexpected.  While flawed, Them That Follow held this viewer’s attention until the end.  Any opportunity to watch Olivia Colman is worth taking and the other members of the cast provide nuanced performances.  This is not for everyone.  But it is  a glimpse into a controversial, quirky slice of Americana which is disturbing.

Available on Netflix DVD.

Note:  Them That Follow  was filmed in Youngstown and Salem, Ohio as a substitute for the more southern Appalachia region. In 2013 there were roughly 125 snake-handling churches in central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio, as well in Edmonton and British Columbia.  Pentecostal Holiness churches base their  snake handling services  on a very literal interpretation of a biblical passage from the gospel of Mark 16:17-18:  “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

“The Hater”–Social Media Run Amok

The Hater, a Polish thriller, captivates with its young nerd culture gone awry on social media. The movie is intelligent,  never simplifying the internecine competition between the elite college professional and those who yearn for that life.  The Hater reveals a  cold, ruthless world of postmodern haves and have-nots.  The online emotional vengeance and despair are palpable as the young computer hacker,Tomasz, wreaks havoc on those he most wants to replace.  Channeling his sociopathic, obsessive behavior into a place designed to enhance it: Facebook. 

Tomasz’s zeal stems partly from humiliation at being found to be plagiarizing in law school and also partly from his benefactor’s family’s condescension towards him. Tomasz masterminds a smear campaign against those who have considered him socially inferior, using racism, xenophobia, and homophobia as not just tools of division but ways to get ahead at the expense of others. 

Weaponizing social media as a troll farm to recruit others with a similar sense of grievance against the world, Tomasz takes on institutional complacency and smugness.  He wonders if  their situation will always remain the same. In a disturbing but  original way,  The Hater pounds at the technological anxiety that increasingly seems to infuse societies worldwide.  A very nihilistic perspective on the internet’s tentacles into our lives.  Well done!

Note:  The Tribeca Film Festival winner for Best International Narrative Feature Award 2020. Now available on Netflix streaming.

“The Goldfinch”–Art and Loss

Goldfinch (2020), based upon Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, tells the story of  a young boy, Theo ( the astonishing Oakes Fegley), who is walking through galleries with his beloved mother at the  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They gaze at a Dutch Master painting of a chained bird, the Goldfinch,  when a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo’s mother dies and he escapes the rubble, clutching the 17th-century masterpiece and a dying man’s insistence that he take his ring.  The little boy’s life will change dramatically over the course of the film.

With his mother dead and his father a deadbeat, Theo is thrown into two worlds: The first in an  Upper East Side Barbour family led by a matriarch (Nicole Kidman), followed by the Las Vegas gambling underworld of his dad and Theo’s teenage friend Boris.  Both worlds have an irrevocable impact on Theo’s life. Random and unforeseen events, even tragedies, shape Theo into someone he  wouldn’t otherwise be.  

As one would expect from a novel with several plots to propel the characters’ arcs into surprising dramatic turning points,   Goldfinch, for the most part,  manages to hold the viewer’s interest.   Some scenes in the first half are a bit slow, but the second half of the film turns into a crime thriller.

The adult Theo (Ansel Elgort from “Baby Driver”), who is the narrator, does not rise to the heartbreaking performance of the young Oakes Fegley.   And Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, –Theo’s refuge and loving father figure– are as good as they always are, subtle and understated.   

This is a movie with deeply flawed characters.  Viewers who can appreciate the destructive elements  of lies, secrets, and betrayal will understand that this is a story about the loss and grief of a young child, and the young adult’s journey towards healing, with the promise of love and forgiveness.  This film kept me watching until the end.

Note: I believe the  critics judged this movie a little too harshly.  I did not read the book so I was not influenced by a comparison with Tartt’s novel.  However, the two media are radically different and I have never felt that the psychological interior lives portrayed in a novel can be presented visually on the screen in the same way that the abstraction of the narrative is created in the mind of the reader. 

“Lila & Eve”–Loss Without Justice

Lila & Eve, a 2015 sleeper female vigilante thriller ,  stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) as Lila and Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”) as Eve, The opening scene shows Lila’s 18-year-old son, Stephon (Aml Ameen), in a pool of blood from a drive-by shooting. A grief-fueled fragile mother is determined to fix her life: to bring the murderers of her son to justice so she can move on in nurturing her fourteen-year- old son.

Unsure how to go on with the effort of living, partly numbed by anti-anxiety drugs, Lila joins a  support group for moms who have lost children to gang violence.   Another grieving single mother, Eve, rejects the unbearable powerlessness of being told to move on as the appropriate way to respond to  grief.  And soon Lila admires Eve’s strength and anger at the apathy of the local police assigned to cases like theirs, which remain unsolved.  Their loss has no recourse or consequences for the murderer.  Neither Lila nor Eve wants to request justice like supplicants.  Soon both form a bond to exact justice for their children’s  unnecessary deaths.

It is the cops’ dismissiveness of Stephon’s death as just another casualty in the drug-turf wars that sets the plot into motion..  Lila is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and seeking empathy from  Eve is preferable to being told that she is fortunate to still have another child.  The newly aligned couple go on a rampage, as Eve cajoles Lila to go further to seek revenge.  Lila & Eve moves from hopelessness and despair midstream in this film to rage, and eventually regret, giving the drama its powerful hook that pulls the viewer in. 

Viola Davis never disappoints,  giving another impressive performance alongside  high-caliber acting by Jennifer Lopez. The two actors play perfectly as  counterparts in a dance of doom, danger, and death.

Understated yet gut-wrenching and heart-pumping,  Lila & Eve is a character study of the lacerating effects a tragic death has on the living.  Davis plumbs the depths of  anguish and psychological trauma in an electrifying performance that transforms this story  into something far beyond a typical revenge thriller. 

I was not sure what to expect from Lila & Eve but was pleasantly surprised by this relatively unknown, little-seen indie film.  Lila & Eve offers a powerful   portrait  of a mother’s pain and her need to relieve it.

Note: Available on Netflix Streaming and DVD.

“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”–Obscene Power

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is an explosive and deeply disturbing four-part Netflix Original documentary, that spotlights a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. In Filthy Rich we watch this wealthy predator cultivate links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  In 2019 Epstein was finally convicted of  sex trafficking and associated crimes after similar charges ended in a widely-criticized plea deal. 

Released this year but filmed before his death on August 10, Filthy Rich underscores the desperation of young girls, often from abusive homes with little recourse for feeding or housing themselves. We see how these girls succumb to the promise of a better life promised by  Epstein and his socialite ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. These now young women  remain traumatized by the assault and abuse dating back  close to 30 years.   Several survivors give harrowing and courageous accounts of depravity, aborted attempts to escape,  and determination to move on.    Epstein’s real-estate portfolio –New York, New Mexico, the US Virgin Islands, London– provided  seclusion from the public eye.  Epstein’s homes were not easily penetrated from the outside. But surveillance systems enabled  video entrapment from the inside.

Several of the survivors display an  incredible lack of awareness and common sense.  They recruit their younger sisters and friends in a sex trafficking pyramid scheme involving payments for bringing in other minors. We witness a  couple of particularly memorable survivors eventually realize and come to understand the immoral power of the rich, who arrogantly believe they can buy other human beings with impunity.  And they did…for almost thirty years.  And still do.

An outrageous plea bargain, together with powerful friends Epstein could blackmail, and corrupt law enforcement protected Epstein from serious criminal sentencing. The first trial in 2005 was half-heartedly undertaken by Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump but resigned within days of Epstein’s arrest in July.)

The FBI is reportedly still investigating Ghislaine Maxwell who ‘facilitated’ Epstein’s depravity, but her current location remains unknown. Even after Epstein was found dead in prison, (purportedly from an apparent suicide), the investigation and prosecution continue.  Prince Andrew, pictured alongside an underage girl and Epstein, has so far refused to appear as a witness before US federal prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against Epstein’s co-conspirators. 

The attorney in charge, Geoffrey Berman, appears prominently in Filthy Rich, as do employees who worked for Epstein at his US Virgin Islands estate.  Also highlighted are the Florida police and FBI officials who were both overruled for their pursuit of this pedophile.  The courage of the women who came forward may, perhaps, not be stamped out this time.

Note:  Available to stream now on Netflix. 

See the Business Insider for a detailed description of Epstein’s playbook for sexual predation using offshore real estate and lavish accommodations to entice young girls to his mansions.  Also CNN footage of survivors’ accounts.

“The Hunting Ground” (2015)–Preying on Our Daughters and Sons

Many college students who have been raped on campus face retaliation and harassment as they fight for justice.  In The Hunting Ground,  the students (mostly female but some male) give a painful, absorbing account of not only their sexual assault but also  the systemic indifference of the college administrations  to whom the victims seek redress.  This callousness is  as devastating and traumatic as the rampant sexual assaults themselves.

In this 103-minute documentary,  college rape is seen from the point of view of the raped student as well as  the faculty and administrators who were called upon to take action. One rapist agreed to be interviewed.  

While college rapists are a small fraction (about 8 %) of students on campus, they are often repeat offenders who continue to rape with impunity, committing 90% of the rapes.  Several women interviewed were raped by the same student.  These repeat rapists are empowered with the knowledge that the college will turn a blind eye.

The documentary follows two former University of North Carolina students who were the first rape victims to use Title IX to fight back.  (Title IX  bans gender discrimination at colleges.)  The failure to comply can result in the withdrawal of federal funding upon which  colleges depend.   To fight for justice and vindication for the indifference of the colleges, the students organize other rape survivors to  file  Title IX complaints.  The use of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases has become a model for rape victims across the country.

 The Hunting Ground goes right for the gut.  Although the palpable trauma of rape survivors is powerful–with barely contained tears, choking, and trembling–it is the in-depth reporting of the inevitable cover-up by college administrators that is sickening and gut-wrenching.    Parents trust  colleges to safeguard their daughters and sons.  There is an implicit covenant to do so.  Why else would parents willingly send their children away?   The brazen breach of that covenant  is more than shameful. Administrators deny culpability.  Former deans and professors who come forward are  retaliated against for standing with the survivors. The police give their side of the story which demonstrates their impotence.   Why are so many covering up the rapes? Money.   Mostly it is about the reputation of the college and the alumni and fraternity donations and the sports team frenzy that brings in millions of dollars. After all, college presidents are hired to raise money. Safeguarding the lives of  our children is secondary.   One hundred thousand rapes per year will occur if university policy and culture don’t change.

The student accounts — delivered in sorrow and rage, but also with a naiveté of the very young and inexperienced– make this imperfect, sometimes plodding documentary a must-watch for its activism and advocacy.

Note: The Obama administration made the issue of campus assault a priority. In 2014, the White House released guidelines strengthening victims’ rights on how campus rapes are to be treated,  Shamefully Secretary Betsy DeVos in May  instituted administrative changes that would make it more difficult for victims to file charges against rapists. Biden is on record to reverse  the new rules which are an obvious effort by the Trump administration to “shame and silence” survivors of sexual assault

David Edelstein, writing for New York magazine, advised parents to watch The Hunting Ground before sending their children to college.  See “College-Rape Documentary The Hunting Ground Plays Like a Horror Movie” February 23, 2015.

The White Ribbon [Das Weisse Band]

            [Guest reviewer  Barbara Artson, author of the novel Odessa, Odessa ]

Director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) opens in total darkness. We see nothing but hear only the elderly voice of a narrator:  

“I don’t know if the story that I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay, and after so many years it remains obscure today, and I must leave it in darkness.”

And so the schoolteacher narrator, now an old man, begins his rendering in a series of flashbacks, depicting the mystifying and horrific happenings that transpired in his youth .  There is indeed something rotten in this pre-industrial, ruthless Lutheran culture in a small, agrarian German village shortly before the start of World War I.  .

We encounter the Pastor, his wife and children glumly seated at their dining room table.  They are arbitrarily sent to bed without dinner, but not before being forced to beg their brutal authoritarian father for forgiveness.  A special punishment, ten strokes of the cane, will be meted out and   after their penalty “purifies” them, the pastor informs them that their mother will attach a white ribbon for them to wear, only to be removed when they have proven their trustworthiness. 

Haneke’s films are not easy to watch, nor are they easy to understand. They confront the observer with aging, infirmity, and death (Amour), sexual perversity (The Piano Teacher), a critique of the media and the ways in which we avoid self-reflection (Cache), and hypocrisy (The White Ribbon). Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

The children,  some twenty or twenty-five years later, will return as the Fascists and Nazis of World War II.   They might have asked the forgiveness of their callous, fathers, fathers who perpetrated psychic mortification and corporal violence,  but the seeds of repressed hatred will break through.  

 Heneke maintains that his film is not an explanation for the roots of Nazi terrorism, but the schoolteacher’s claim that his tale “may clarify some of the things that happened in this country,” asserts otherwise.  It seems plausible that Haneke, who grew up with the shame that plagued many of his generation, wrote under the spell of unconscious survivor’s guilt. 

The film, nevertheless, can also speak to us, who, are left in darkness. And weep.

Note: Available on Netflix.


“For Sama”—A Letter to My Daughter

For Sama is the most searing  documentary about war that I have ever seen.  Nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best International Film, For Sama presents some of the most unflinching war coverage and remarkable and courageous footage.   A love letter to her infant daughter Sama,  born in Aleppo,   For Sama is a Syrian mother’s  first-person account of the bombing of her beloved homeland over a period of five years.  Aleppo, at the time, was one of the last strongholds resisting the Assad dictatorship.

Waad Al-Khateab is the Syrian producer, cinematographer and  hero of this documentary. She and her equally heroic husband—a surgeon—stayed in Aleppo through the worst of the battles, although their gut reaction was to flee the war zone with baby Sama. It is a young family’s love story set in the terrors of hell. While her doctor-husband saves countless civilian lives, Waad documents the heart-wrenching horrors that civilians—young and old— experience.   

It is difficult to  pretend there is no place in the world where human beings are being routinely slaughtered after seeing For Sama.  A testament to human resilience and sacrifice for the sake of a community, For Sama is highly recommended in order to understand what really happens in war as we bear witness to pain and unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental.

I challenge anyone to watch this film and not be deeply moved. 

Note:  This film is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.  There are intensely disturbing images of severely wounded civilians, especially young children.

“Clemency”–No Mercy or Absolution

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  That’s the question raised in Clemency, the winner of the Sundance drama award last year. 

So much more than a “death-row drama” ,  Clemency shifts the lens to the impact of  bureaucratized human cruelty:  a scathing portrait of the toll the process of administering an execution has on prison staff. We see how they are not executioners but bureaucratic cogs in a horrible machine of death.

Sixty-something Bernadine (the remarkable African American actor Alfre Woodard in an Academy Award-worthy performance) prides herself  on  her professionalism in presiding over a dozen lethal injection executions. But the compartmentalization of her professional and emotional life is beginning to unspool.  The first half of Clemency focuses on a perfectly impassive blankness and rigidity that masks Bernadine’s emotional self.

She’s experienced something no human should– a dozen times.  The unnerving and opposing forces wrestling inside Bernadine’s mind begin to be magnified as we witness her heartbreaking need for redemption, etched on her face as if her feelings are surfacing for the first time. Something has broken in Bernadine.   And her  marriage to empathetic schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is lost.  She can no longer process her world separate from being a warden.

Clemency‘s central plot includes a death-row inmate’s perspective–Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge in a career-defining performance)–who has been in prison for fifteen years:  accused and convicted of killing a police officer during a robbery.  As his appeals for clemency filed by his deeply committed lawyer (Richard Schiff) have been denied,  Anthony Woods is also complicated and emotionally shut down.    Both Bernadine and Anthony Woods are  maddeningly emotionless  and flawed.   Bernadine’s womanhood and blackness are inextricable from her sense of professionalism, but she cannot be reduced to either.   And Anthony Woods,  a young black man, never rages about possible injustice. The viewer wonders:  Who needs the clemency more?  The warden or the prisoner?  Maybe it’s both.

A lot of performances get praised for subtlety that are merely wooden or impassive. Alfre Woodward is a phenomenon to behold!  With the subtlest of facial movements, she conveys not only what she is feeling but how it feels to be feeling what she has to feel.  In a camera close-up lasting over three minutes, her face held this viewer in a way both unforgettable and unimaginable.   Alfre Woodard is the reason to see Clemency.  She simply possesses the space, the screen, every scene…and your heart.

The Report—An Exposé for Us All

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT)—is the focus of The Report, a provocative Amazon political thriller.  A Senate staff researcher, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is assigned by Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) to investigate  detainees held by the CIA in “black sites”.  A shameful chapter of American history unfolds , where torture was re-introduced as a legitimate tool in pursuit of national security. 

The Report  employs flashbacks of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are frightening and harrowing. Flashing back to 2001 immediately after 9/11, the anxiety and deep fear of another terrorist attack incites George Tenet to ramp up the Counterterrorist Center at the encouragement of President George W. Bush.  Tenet hires two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, to design torture methods without calling it torture.    The CIA’s intention is to elicit information to capture possible terrorists.   Although both men are psychologists, their educational background, professional training and experience have nothing to do with military interrogation.  Not surprisingly, little useful information was collected.

Nonetheless, the CIA was impressed with the  “menu” of twenty enhanced techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “stress positions,” stuffing prisoners into small boxes,  and slamming them into walls.

After political maneuvers, attempts at cover-up and threats of countersuits by the CIA,  the Senate intelligence committee releases part of its report in 2015,.  As expected, the Department of Justice tried to table the report.  This time portions of the more comprehensive investigation, totaling 6 million pages, become public.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman,  concludes that “under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”

Adam Driver and Annette Bening, under the direction of Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Identity”), deliver truly outstanding performances with gripping pacing rivaling the best action thrillers.

Note:   John Rizzo, CIA acting general counsel at the time of Jones’ report, described in his book Company Man, that the techniques were “sadistic and terrifying.”

On October 13, 2015 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen with regard to the EIT methods they designed,  claiming their  conduct constituted torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and war crimes.  A settlement was reached before trial in August 2017.

None of the major government officials were ever indicted and the subcontracting psychologists who earned $81 million for EIT development and consulting were indemnified by the US government. Some reviews have considered The Report polemical and politically one-sided, but transcripts of the investigation available online speak for themselves.

Happy New Year 2020: The Year of the [Metal] Rat

Happy Chinese New Year 2020!

The Buddha taught rats first, among the animals in the Buddhist pantheon, and rats rank first on the Chinese zodiac. Though people who follow Western animal symbolism do not consider the rat either adorable or auspicious, nevertheless the characteristics of the rat are considered spirited, witty, alert, flexible, and that of a survivor.  The Chinese New Year will begin on January 25, 2020  with the final celebration on  February 11.

The Metal Rat Year is going to be a strong, prosperous, and lucky year for those who conduct financial research and follow through on investments. For investors in  real estate, or venturing on their own to  start a business or to invest money in a long-term project,  major decisions on money matters will affect the entire twelve-year cycle of the zodiac–until 2032.

On the political front, those who fight against corruption will be accused of duplicity and hypocrisy.  Political unrest will continue   and revolutionary disruption of the establishment will gain momentum.  Increased tensions and misunderstanding between allies will occur.

To avoid escalating conflict by unscrupulous populist governments who  overlook or ignore the common interest of society, moderation, patience and compromise must be recognized and practiced.   In addition, all nations must implement strict and disciplinary measures to ameliorate climate change.  Jealousy of those who have polluted the plant will rise.

For more information on the Chinese zodiac and to read your horoscope for 2020, please go to:  https://www.thechinesezodiac.org/horoscope-2020/

My Top 15 Movies and TV Series for 2019

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  Another difficult year to make my listicle.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World  (January 13 review)

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—The Golden Rule (March 17 review)

What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  

3) In Order of Disappearance—Plowing Through Suspense (April 21 review)

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plowsIn Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country. 

4)  Which Way Home—Is There One?  (June 17 review)

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

5) Always Be My Maybe—Rom-Com at Its Best  (June 22 review)

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other. 

6)  The Farewell—Family Matters (August 5 review)

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

7) Late Night—Women Do It Right  (November 5 review)

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) The Hate U Give—T.H.U.G. (June 9 review)

Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)

The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

10)  Joker—No Laughing Matter (October 7 review)

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

11)   Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo— Cinema Verite  (February 19 review)

Three Netflix series — NarcosNarcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

12) Chernobyl—An Ignominious Reaction (July 16 review)

 Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

13) La Casa de Papel—”Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids  (September 2 review)

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”  (September 11 review)

Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

15) Queen of the South—Reigning Supreme (October 20 review)

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.