“Behind Her Eyes”–For All To See

Behind Her Eyes, based on Sarah Pinborough’s best-selling novel of the same name,  tells the story of Adele and her husband David, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in drug addiction. The couple live an ostensibly perfect life in an exclusive London suburb.

The beautiful Adele Ferguson (Eve Hewson) was recently a patient in a mental institution where her husband was the presiding psychiatrist.  Upon release she  marries the handsome doctor. While a patient, Adele becomes best friends with a gay working-class Glasgow junkie, Rob (Robert Aramayo) who seems to be energized in her presence and she in his.  Together they play a dangerous series of mind games whose consequences are only hinted at throughout most episodes.

Enter Louise Barnsley (the excellent Simona Brown),   a beautiful young Black single mom living with her seven-year-old son, Adam (an adorable Tyler Howitt who reminds this viewer of the little boy in “Jerry Maguire”). On a rare night out, Louise meets a charming stranger who turns out to be David (Tom Bateman), the new psychiatrist hired at the upscale mental-health clinic where Louise is a part-time secretary.

Accidentally, Louise literally bumps into Adele and becomes friends.  What follows is a nurturing Adele, skilled in the art of lucid dreaming, teaching Louise how to take control of her night terrors.

And so the menage-a-trois begins–with a husband and wife both drawn to Louise and she to them.  The suspense and psychology of having conflicted feelings towards someone because of a sexual relationship with her partner is difficult to navigate and empathize under any circumstances, but Behind Her Eyes manages to pull in the viewer’s investment in understanding, especially Louise and Adele. …until it doesn’t.

In the fifth episode,  Behind Her Eyes inexplicably  swerves into sci-fi and fantasy, with dreamland sequences of bright-blue skies, ponds, floating Tinker-bell fairies, and gingerbread houses and tea parties.  Are we falling down a rabbit hole here?  Why  waste  a psychological thriller with so much possibility? 

There are many fans of this limited series. Sadly, I’m not one of them. Nevertheless,  it did have real potential.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

“The Mauritanian”–Guantanamo Diary

Based upon the NYT best-selling memoir, Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, we see the endurance of a young Mauritanian, Mohamedou Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim, The Prophet).  He is being held in Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.  The legal drama The Mauritanian demonstrates the lawyer’s duty to represent a client, regardless of  doubt in his innocence, and whether winning at all costs is what a justice system should condone.  

Attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster in her Golden Globe winning performance) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) are committed to defending the young Muslim who has been imprisoned without charge in what is soon revealed to be notorious conditions (with echoes of Abu Ghraib in several scenes). The military prosecutor,  Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), has lost a friend to the 9/11 tragedy and wishes to pursue the death sentence for Slahi. A church-going straight-shooter Marine, Couch is determined that the law will prevail and that the government is honorable in its prosecution.  After a crisis in conscience, unfortunately, Couch is crushed –by his commander in charge and by his own values for what constitutes habeas corpus, justice and human rights.  In  uncovering shocking truths about incarceration, prison conditions and illegal methods for  obtaining Slahi’s confession, Couch faces an unnerving dilemma as Hollander and Duncan fight a massive government cover-up, stonewalling, and obstruction to acquiring the facts and documentation necessary for a fair trial.    

The young Algerian actor, Tahar Rahim, delivers an intensely gut-wrenching performance of a man tortured and humiliated, threatened with ominous treatment of his mother and brothers, and betrayal by his friends.  Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim are superb in all the client-attorney conversations in the prison interrogation cell.   The two actors are extraordinarily well-matched and understated in conveying the horror they both need to accept as truth.    

Finally, after going to trial, there is a surprising turn of events.  Definitely worth watching for a better understanding of the existence and ostensible justification for Guantanamo Bay.  A painful reminder that Gitmo still prevails, twenty years after 9/11, with detainees who have never been charged.        

Note:  The out-takes of the actual Slahi, Hollander, Couch and Duncan are particularly moving!  The Mauritanian may raise more questions than it answers and is not for the squeamish.    
 

“The Father”–A Patriarch’s Decline

The Father is  a devastating, disquieting journey into the horrors of dementia, both for the afflicted and for those who are close to the afflicted.    Artfully helmed by French playwright Florian Zeller in his directorial debut, Zeller invites the viewer into a breathtaking and  wrenching look at advancing dementia through both the individual frightened by what is happening and to the no-less-terrified family and caregivers. Watching a loved one die is always harrowing, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so.  Given the increase in movies about an aging population susceptible to dementia and Alzheimer’s, The Father nonetheless breaks new ground.   

The main character, Anthony (the astonishing Anthony Hopkins),   is the  unreliable narrator, forcing the audience to see what he sees and try to make sense of that world. In a superb feat of writing, directing, and acting, The Father hurls the audience into the main character’s head with    time and space revealing a more constricting and often confusing perspective.  In doing so, The Father  conveys the full tragedy and vertiginous confusion of dementia. Anthony slowly unravels into  someone almost unrecognizable to himself and to his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). 

Without any spoilers, we see  the brilliant way The Father  communicates Anthony’s increasing inability to differentiate  his loved ones from strangers. The viewer feels as trapped in this small, shifting space as Anthony does. The present invades the past to the point where it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart. To that end, the timeline is critical: a missing watch, changes in apartment decor and furnishings symbolizing Anthony’s chronological undoing. Are his daughter and nurse playing cruel games on him?  The conflicting scenes offer a puzzle with no easy solution.  That, essentially, is the prison of Anthony’s mind.  And Anthony’s confusion is, in itself,  disorientating for the viewer.

First and foremost, Anthony Hopkins, –in his career-best performance,– is truly astonishing as a shattered, aging, and fragile  soul slowly surrendering to his mind as an enemy inside his body.  To play a man who’s begun to lose his mental faculties, Hopkins methodically peels away everything until there’s nothing left but frailty,  distress, and despair. 

Olivia Colman is the keystone to Hopkins, giving a sympathetic and equally heart-wrenching performance as the daughter undeserving of her father’s hurtful responses. Colman is also tasked with the unenviable role of the concerned daughter trying to balance parental love with her own  needs, without seeming cold and egotistical.  She never fails to deliver.

Fantastic work from both actors is sustained throughout the film, with sensitively interpreted, nuanced roles by the seasoned supporting cast, especially Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots.

One day, everyone you know and love will die, the immutable truth we all carry  with us.  The inevitability of decay becomes a little harder to turn away from with every passing year. Rarely is the nature of death and dignity explored as terrifyingly andtenderly as it is in The Father.

With a profound sadness at its core , The Father is emotionally charged and upsetting, particularly in one of the last scenes.  You’ll think about The Father long after itends.

Note:  Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman have been nominated for Academy Awards this year for their performances.

“I Care a Lot”–Caregiver or Caretaker?

In this Netflix original movie, I Care a Lot, the highly successful court-appointed guardian, Marla Grayson (the astonishing Rosamund Pike of “Gone Girl” fame), masterminds a scheme to being appointed guardian of  wealthy elderly patients by the state court.   Marla is charged with  caring for the elderly who are identified by doctors as incompetent to manage their own health needs, daily living and assets.

Marla and her partner Fran (Eiza González) run a highly profitable hustle –a guardianship grift of elderly “wards of the state”.  To the judge who appoints her to be caregiver, she appears as highly professional, extraordinarily articulate, and convincing in asserting her qualifications. On first appearance, the onlooker sees a measured, seemingly trustworthy advocate for eldercare.    But underneath that veneer and polish, Marla is abusing a legal system by targeting wealthy seniors that actually aren’t incompetent,  throwing them in care facilities and assuming absolute control of their assets.  She understands this  system better than most: how she can manipulate (and sometimes) bribe doctors and the courts to her advantage,   essentially kidnapping the elderly, robbing them of  their assets, and separating them forever from their families.   She’s not a caregiver, not a caretaker.  She’s neither.  Marla’s an irresolute taker.

And then the “cherry”–Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest in an unforgettable performance)  is introduced to them by an unscrupulous physician.  A “cherry” is a very wealthy old person with no family or friends to look out for them, ready for the picking.  But,  unexpected trouble arises when Jennifer Peterson is not who she seems.  A very difficult “cherry” indeed.   The  predatory guardians, Marla and Fran, soon become the prey.

Unfortunately for Marla, Jennifer has an undisclosed and mysterious relationship with a powerful mobster (the delightfully malevolent Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones”) who will go to great lengths to protect Jennifer.  He releases her from Marla’s clutches.

It’s a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior.   Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to  conceal bad acts  because they are  trusted.

They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility.   And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.

What is most unsettling about I Care a Lot , however, is the picture it presents of eldercare:  Just park them, rob them, and then move on to the next one.  What seems like a  con game — a gangster’s operation–is taking advantage of loopholes in the law.  Watching Marla game the system to her own ends is far from comforting.  The viewer has to ask:  Is this amoral predator behavior really widespread?  Is the eldercare/guardianship system  susceptible  to people like Marla and Fran to manipulate? Do some guardians stretch the rules as far as they possibly can?

Make sure your parents and grandparents are protected at all costs!  I Care a Lot  is a cautionary tale for all of us!

Availability:  On Netflix streaming and Golden Globe-nominated for a best film.

“Soul”—The Spirit of Rebirth

Guest Blogger:  Mahshid Zamani Bozorgnia,   film critic

[Edited by Diana Y. Paul]

Soul,  an animated and  complex film from Pixar directed and created by Pete Dokter (who also created “Toy Story”, “Inside Out” and “Monsters Inc”), refers to the jazz music genre and tackles the theme of what is the spirit or soul, the distinction between passion and obsession, and what constitutes the “spark” of happiness.

There is something compulsively watchable and comforting about Pixar movies with their photo-realistic imaginary worlds. But there is much more.  There are built-in  philosophical questions of life and death and self-identity embedded in the story, which appeal to adults with the openness of a child.

The main character, Joe Gardner–an African American middle school music teacher (who, like his father, is passionate about jazz music)–deals with the choice of wanting to make a living or following his passion.  But this decision-making entails an existential life crisis.

(One finds traces of the transcendental philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with  some of his actual words adopted into the film’s dialogue.)

Joe, an ambitious pianist aspiring to accompany one of the great saxophonists, Dorothea Williams, feels that his life has been, at best,  ordinary, and more likely an epic failure.  In order to understand Emerson’s view  that “there is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful,” Joe has to rebuild himself. And what can be a better metaphor for being reborn than actually dying and coming back?

In Soul, the Great Beyond and the Great Before, –the interstitial space between life and death– are the universe’s recycling of nature and soul. Joe is not ready for the rare moment of “transcendence,” or “Great Before,” Yet, when he realizes that he either has to mentor a baby soul (called “22”) to be given “a new and unique personality” or go to the Great Beyond, he decides to stay and take the training in the “You Seminar”. During the presentation, the seminar instructor, Jerry, explains that souls are missing “the spark” and that they can only enter a body if they find that spark. Joe believes his spark is jazz and that his life can inspire other souls.  Matched with recalcitrant soul number 22, who has never found her spark and has no desire to go to earth, Joe is determined that she is his ticket to rebirth.

Together, they enter the “the zone” that 22 defines as “the place between space and physical.”  Baby soul 22 takes Joe to Moonwind, who tells them that he himself was once a lost soul: “There is not much difference between souls in the zone and  lost souls:  joy can turn into obsessions and some people cannot let go of their anxiety and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life.” However, Joe does not yet understand what Moonwind is saying.  

Soon 22 sees the spark in every element in New York City, where they both temporarily land.  From the smell of pizza to small seed pods, 22 is ready to get life on Earth, believing that she has found her spark, but Joe remains unconvinced.  After a sensational performance with Dorothea Williams, she recalls a story of a fish who was in the ocean and yet dreamed of getting to the ocean. This wonderful analogy is a turning point for Joe.

And if we believe that Emerson’s theories were mostly about the idea of America–“that its existence matters, not its past nor its future”–what better place for Joe to become a transparent eyeball and define for himself what success is than on the streets of New York City?

Availability: Disney+

Note: Certainly an important curriculum topic for college freshman.  A very mature theme about what makes life worth living—may need to proceed with caution for some youth.  Young children may not be that interested, especially in the beginning of Soul.

“Promising Young Woman” –Breaking Over and Over Again

Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell,  is a revenge thriller on a brutal topic–Don’t let the title mislead you.  Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year old former medical student, is now a barista living with her parents  In the opening scene we see a very inebriated Cassie barhopping and wandering the city streets at night.

The viewer doesn’t know why this bright and attractive woman is engaged in such risky, dangerous behavior.  To say much more about the film’s artistic and courageous story would ruin it.  But this is an extraordinary directorial debut that explores sexual aggression, objectification of women, and the denial of women’s voices.

Promising Young Woman not only portrays male antagonists, but also  “non-believers” who are women and enablers to the trauma.   This will inevitably be a controversial film because it depicts people hiding behind their smiles, popularity, and success without the underbelly of their criminal behavior being exposed or punished. 

There is no redemption in Promising Young Woman and none can be expected.  The bold ending was a surprise but satisfying in a way, and changes the entire tenor of the film and the perception of Cassie.

Carey Mulligan gives an Academy Award-worthy performance unlike any in her previous (mostly historical) films. She has to pivot from a fiery vessel of rage to a vulnerable young person hoping for change.   Caught in a web of pain, rage, and broken dreams,  Carey Mulligan’s character cannot imagine an alternative web of healing and mercy.

The supporting cast also is very strong:  Bo Burnham as Ryan Cooper, a pediatric surgeon and love interest for Cassie, Alfred Molina as a conscience-struck lawyer filled with regrets, and Allison Brie as a medical school classmate. 

Promising Young Woman is one of the darkest, most painful films I have seen in a very long time.  It may stay with you for days after viewing, clotting your thoughts and feelings on this brutal subject.

The movie delivers its sucker punch when you least expect it.  Not for everyone but for those who are intrigued by the relentless depth into human crimes and misdemeanors, don’t miss it!

Note:  This film has echoes of “13 Reasons Why”, “Lila and Eve”,  the classic “Goodbye Mr. Goodbar”, and “Killing Eve”.

Availability:  Amazon Prime Video

“News of the World”–A Gift for the Heart

News of the World is based on the Paulette Jiles’s bestseller by the same name. The story follows a sixty-something curmudgeonly widower,   Captain  Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a traveling newspaper reader. Captain Kidd  entertains and informs townspeople–some of whom are illiterate– in small communities all over  Texas:  for the price of a silver dime. The year is 1870, five years after Reconstruction, and Texans still are disgruntled by their defeat after the end of the Civil War.

In the opening scene a Black man has been lynched and a ten-year-old blonde white girl (Helena Zengel) is hiding from Union authorities looking for her.  The girl speaks only Kiowa, the language of the tribe who has raised her after killing her parents and her older sister in retaliation for the government’s land grab of their territories.  She yearns to be with her Kiowa family.

At the insistence of the Union authorities  Kidd reluctantly assumes responsibility for returning the girl to her German immigrant relatives, a task the girl resents. Kidd feels ill-equipped to accompany her there, a trip of several hundred miles, while continuing his itinerant life as a newspaper reader.  But this is no ordinary Western and Kidd and the little girl he calls Johanna have challenges in establishing communication and trust in each other.

News of the World is marketed as a Western involving a horse-and-wagon road trip in a fight for survival in inhospitable, unwelcoming regions of the Texas Panhandle.  But primarily it is a feel-good “old man and little girl” story of human decency and the need for family.  Both Tom Hanks–who is made for this role–and Helena Zengel who performs the feat of conveying all of her angst without uttering more than a few words of English, Kiowa or German–make News of the World  a gift for the heart.

Availability: Paid “theater” ticket for streaming.

“The Reagans”–Truth At Last

A four-part Showtime documentary series, The Reagans excoriates the epic failure of journalism to reveal the Reagan White House as it really was, not the fairy tale of near-sainthood of Ronald Reagan.   Ronald Reagan, Jr., the only son of the Reagans, is the primary source for details about his parents’ most private moments and their secrets behind closed doors.  One of his more frankly understated comments: “My father was a strange fellow to be president of this country.”

How the carefully curated story becomes the reality is the emphatic warning of The Reagans.  Beginning in  the 1950’s, when Reagan first testified in front of Senator McCarthy to support investigating and expelling film industry professionals as communists, we see the former Screen Actor Guild  president rewrite the facts of his own life.   From being a World War II combat veteran (which he wasn’t) to fighting for corporate interests (while the young Reagan was pro-union), Reagan and his uncannily astute  wife Nancy construct a confabulist’s story of a dream they both had for him to be president of a country that never was.  Scanning the political landscape with her bird-of-prey eyes and instincts, Nancy was a force to be ignored at a politician’s own peril.  Nancy’s stagecraft is in play when announcing her husband’s presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi –the notorious site of a Ku Klux Klan massacre.  The viewer sees Reagan’s dog whistle raise the attention of those who will be his first believers.

Sometimes jaw-droppingly shocking–based on rarely seen footage–we witness the previously unexamined tactics and strategy that laid the groundwork for the Tea Party, trickle-down economics and the Trump administration.  What was planned sixty years ago foreshadows what is going on now. The insightful  analysis of the parallel between the cult of the telegenic personality  and political campaigning since the rise of television is particularly unnerving.  Does it take a seasoned performer to be the most probable candidate for the highest office in government? 

Watch this and draw your own conclusions.

People who worship Ronald Reagan will hate The Reagans. They will see more of the man behind the curtain  than they would prefer. For those comfortably used to seeing Reagan canonized as a patron saint of moderate Republicanism, exposing  the veneer of a highly polished television image should be unsettling. For those who want to better understand how the current conservative movement was primed for performers to become POTUS, this is a disturbing documentary indeed.

My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2020

Looking for your next movie to watch?  

While we all hunker down during this sheltering-in-place, many of us crave new content to watch, some less well-known and under-the-radar.  Well, this year I watched more movies and television than ever before, so I have thirty to recommend, instead of the usual 15-20.

Here are the reviews I wrote this past year with the criteria that they were available online since movie theaters were either shut down or offered very limited screenings. Of the 52 reviews, here are my favorites.  Yet 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) For Sama–A Letter to My Daughter (February 24 review)

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. A testament to human resilience and sacrifice for the sake of a community, For Sama reveals what really happens in war as we bear witness to pain and unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental.  

2) Clemency–No Mercy or Absolution  (February 17 review)

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  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. 

3) Valhalla Murders–The House of the Dead (March 30)

A crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik. Fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past,  two detectives persevere despite the cost of unearthing unspeakable evil. 

4) Earthquake Bird–An Unpredictable Flight (March 15)

Earthquake Bird is all about guilt and the insidious nature and burden of carrying it.  This film captures the day-to-day life of guilt and jealousy, pulling back the curtain on what damage and unpredictability can do.  The Japanese setting also adds a cultural dimension, giving more complexity and suspense to the story.   This is an oddball film with a constant undercurrent of subtle tension.

5) Mr. Sunshine–Jane Austen Meets Downton Abbey (March 10)

An intricate historical romance set in 1871, when a US military ship docked in Korea, wishes to expand into Asia for the exploitation of natural resources and land. Maintaining a Jane Austen-type romantic tension over twenty-four episodes requires a meticulous attention to plot and dialogue, something the screenwriter does in  surprisingly inventive plot-points.  

6) The Good Liar–A Story Within a Story (August 31)

This theme of the easily manipulated widow, who is too lonely and engulfed by grief to see reality for what it is, usually has few surprises.  Not so for this film. Full of twists and turns that some viewers may think stretch credulity, like any good thriller the foreshadowing and clues are there if one watches carefully and asks why that scene is there.

7) Dark Waters–Still an Abyss  (August 3)

A tenacious attorney uncovers the  dark secret hidden by one of the US’s most illustrious corporations–DuPont.  “Better Living Through Chemistry–DuPont’s advertising jingle–this is not. A growing number of unexplained animal deaths is investigated.

8) The Hater–Social Media Run Amok (September 22)

This Polish thriller 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. 

9) Run–Walking is Not an Option (December 21)

Mother and daughter seem to be very close. Both main characters’  worlds begin to unravel in terrifying ways and the viewer soon realizes that whatever has just happened, the worst is yet to happen.

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

10) Marriage Story–The Bonds of Love (January 14 review)

Two people who really care about, respect, and love each other,  yearn for  a “gentle” amicable divorce resolution. They also are determined  to nurture and nourish their young son, Henry, with as little wounding as possible.  Marriage Story  eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, 

11) Last Days of Vietnam–The Best and Worst of Us (April 14 review)

Astonishing footage of the evacuation from Saigon with contemporary recollections from both Vietnamese and Americans who were there, Last Days in Vietnam films horrific scenes  to supplement the iconic image of desperate Vietnamese women, children, and elderly hanging off the roof of the US embassy fighting for their lives  to escape Saigon.

12) Hillary— Unmasked  (May 19)

Why do people find Hillary Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing? Yet Hillary is so much more than a biopic. It is a distillation of the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, sexism, the failure of journalism, and the history of partisan politics.

13) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (June 15)

The US’s most beloved neighbor is intent upon demonstrating what a neighborhood really consists of.    This  takes great effort, introspection, and role-modeling. This film manages to make you think about yourself and how you can change the world “in your own special way”.  

14) Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich–Obscene Power (June 8)

An explosive, deeply disturbing documentary spotlighting  a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. This wealthy predator cultivated links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  

15) The Hunting Ground–Preying on Our Daughters and Sons (June 1)

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.  The callousness is  as devastating and traumatic as the rampant sexual assaults themselves.

16) The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes (October 25)

A documentary covering the career of  the former  White House photographer, Pete Souza, who photographed two of the most popular US presidents of the past fifty years:  Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.  Souza humanizes his subject matter with a lens that exudes emotion.  But The Way I See It is all about the Obamas.

17) Richard Jewell–A Hidden Gem (November 30)

Almost a caricature of the lonely white male, living with his mother, we see a deeply isolated man with an excessive obsession  wounded by the indignities of ridicule and dismissal from his peers and superiors.  Even the teen boys don’t take him seriously.  An engaging and deeply moving portrayal of a bad-luck victim of chance who is mistaken for a domestic terrorist!

18) The Comey Rule–Inner Conflict (November 23)

The Comey Rule attempts to give insight into the stress intertwined within the decisions government civil servants make on a daily basis.  Regardless of  one’s political proclivities,  The Comey Rule tells a story that needs to be told. And listened to.  It is of Shakespearean proportions.  Historians will have to decide. what is fact and what is fiction.  

19) The Social Dilemma–Addiction or Threat? (November 9)

That social media can be addictive and threatening isn’t news to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn (Isn’t that most of us?).  But the most disturbing and pernicious aspect of social media is that the system is designed structurally to gather BigBrother information for profit.  That is the  business model.

20) Just Mercy–“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”  (December 28)

A powerful true story about the 1989 founding of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), 

Just Mercy reveals a justice system that “treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” Stevenson underscores the faith in the better side of human nature:  “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,”  he maintains.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

21) Godfather of Harlem–Partners in Crime  (January 19 review)

Skillfully interweaves the combative and competing forces of the  mafia with the 60’s civil rights battle.  Other subplots include a love story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and a saga of dysfunctional families compartmentalized by criminal masterminds who are also fathers and husbands.  Reminiscent at times of “The Sopranos”, with an unforgettable scene in the finale.

22) The Report–An Exposé for Us All (February 10 review)

A Senate staff researcher, Daniel Jones  is assigned by Sen. Diane Feinstein 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. 

23) LIttle Fires Everywhere–Incendiary at Its Best (April 27)

This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

24) Ozark (Season 3)–Narcos in Missouri (April 6)

What happens when the entire family goes from white-collar  respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity?  The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity.  Season 3 is  devastating: a  witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue. 

25) Humans–Dark Mirror Meets Ex Machina (August 17)

Reference is made to “Asimov blocks”, the Isaac Asimov first law of robotics: do no harm to humans.  But Humans is, first and foremost, dystopian.   Dark and brooding, Humans raises more questions than it answers about the interaction between humans and the computerized world of artificial intelligence. 

26) The Alienist:  Angel of Darkness (Season 2)–Stranger Things Happen (August 11)

Decadence and gentility reside side by side with degradation, cruelty and violence. That this Gilded Age is mere window dressing for a savage  murder mystery.  Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. 

27) Ratched–Ratcheting Up the Tension (October 12)

This quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

28) The Queen’s Gambit–A Passion for Winning (November 16)

Eight-year-old orphan, Beth Harmon,   resides at a bleak orphanage, Methuen, under a severe headmistress.  It is the mid-1950s and there are few options for an orphan, especially a little girl. Struggling with loneliness, adoption and being a social misfit, Beth finds solace through learning chess from the janitor and fights to be a champion.

29) Hinterland–The Remote Interior of the Mind (November 1) 

The dark, forboding, and gloomy landscape rivals that of the best Nordic noir raising the same question: how can there be so many murders in such a small town?  Dark and at times, sinister and ominous, the Welsh scenery parallels the characters and their secretive, bleak, often damaged lives.  There is a hinterland or backstory for each character.

30) Retribution–Karma Is a Beast (December 7) 

A horrific double murder tears apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  This film is unusual in its portrayal of family and what they will and won’t do for each other.  They all seek to protect themselves and those they are related to, even when they no longer love them.

Note:  Check out the entire year’s reviews for other movies that, while not making this list, most are excellent.  It was a difficult task to limit my list to just 30.  Also look at past year’s listicles of my favorite movies.  For My Top 15 Movies and TV Shows of 2019 see my December 31 blog post.

“Retribution”–Karma is a Beast

Retribution  miniseries (Netflix)

Retribution ( a 2016 BBC production originally titled “One of Us”) opens with a horrific double murder, which will tear apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  They are friends who live side-by-side in the isolated Scotland Highlands hamlet of Braeston.  The atmospherically remote Scottish scenery is  reminiscent of Nordic noir landscapes. 

Events soon take an even more brutal turn when a badly injured man arrives at the Douglas family’s doorstep after his car careens off the road – a man who they soon realize, after nursing his wounds,  is the killer of their adult son and daughter.  The aftermath of the double murder and the discovery of the murderer among them wreaks havoc over the course of the drama for both the Douglases and the Elliots.

Each character in Retribution has his or her own layered, dark backstory.  There are so many revelations and so many characters that the viewer ends up struggling with who is related to whom, and who has inflicted pain and who has suffered.  The characters,  vividly drawn,  are vulnerable and deeply flawed.  Almost everyone, whether a main character or a minor one, has some deep dark secret that propels them to immoral behavior.   Not one person is “normal” or even “likable”, with few exceptions.

Everyone in both families has means, motive and opportunity, resulting in a convoluted whodunit whose perpetrator is not easily guessed until the final episode.

Retribution tightens the tension for the viewer with each episode, and close attention is essential.   What backstory belongs to which character and are that character’s secrets sufficient motive for murder?  This film is unusual in its portrayal of family and what they will and won’t do for each other.  They all seek to protect themselves and those they are related to, even when they no longer love them.

Dynamite story but requiring more than the usual effort to solve the murders.

Availability:  Netflix streaming.  Subtitled captions for the deaf and hearing impaired are recommended, due to the strong Scottish brogue.

“Hinterland” —The Remote Interior of the Mind

An  original Welsh-noir murder series on Netflix (in three seasons, 13 total episodes), Hinterland  is for those who love this genre.   The main character, DCI Tom Mathias, is a deeply troubled unsympathetic detective who, together with his more mature and brilliant partner Mared Rhys, travels around a small hamlet in Wales solving at least one murder per episode.  The dark, forboding, and gloomy landscape rivals that of the best Nordic noir raising the same question: how can there be so many murders in such a small town?  Dark and at times, sinister and ominous, the Welsh scenery parallels the characters and their secretive, bleak, often damaged lives.  There is a hinterland or backstory for each character.

Police investigatory work in Hinterland often seems to go  nowhere. Where are the brilliant breakthroughs?  In this police procedural, Mathias and his supernaturally patient partner, Mared, lead the viewer to red herring after red herring, sometimes at an annoyingly slow pace. There are few malevolently brilliant  masterminds which makes the surprising endings even less expected. 

 
If you like detectives unraveling intricate master plans, only a few episodes provide that type of drama.   The suspect is never the “easy” one with means, motive, and opportunity.  Even when the perpetrator is identified early on, the motivation is superbly unraveled,  with an infrequent note of empathy for why he or she committed the murder. Broken murderers abound.   Moral lessons to be learned are often paired with  suffering that created more suffering.

The structuring of the three seasons with the “book-ending” of  episode one (in Season One) with the finale (in Season Three) is exceptional.  While each episode stands on its own for a single murder, it is beginning in Season Two that we see how the show’s screenwriters wished to tightly weave the darkest hinterland of psychological pain into the climax in Season Three’s finale.  

For those who also appreciate exceptional photography and cinematography, each episode has beautiful framing of shots through door frames and windows to underscore the need to shift perspective along side the detectives Mathias and Rhys. 

Highly recommend this sleeper!  

Availability: Netflix streaming.

The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes

The Way I See It, a documentary film released by MSNBC on October 16, 2020, narrates the career of  the former Chief Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza.  He covered  two of the most popular US presidents of the past fifty years:  Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. 

Only in his mid-twenties when he was invited to be the White House official photographer for Ronald Reagan, Souza admits he wasn’t a fan of Reagan’s politics but  came to admire Reagan’s loving relationship with Nancy. The Way I See It zooms in on the couple holding hands after the First Lady’s surgery.  Souza humanizes his subject matter with a lens that exudes emotion.  But The Way I See It is all about the Obamas.

When Souza meets President Obama for the first time at the White House, Obama chuckles:  “We’re going to have some fun.” And that is exactly what happens.  Remarkably,  Souza captures intimate and tender moments: e.g. Barack coaching daughter Sasha’s middle-school basketball team “as if they were the NBA.” But Souza also documents what are now iconic images–  Obama, Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking officials riveted to the screen as they witness the raid on Osama bin Laden; Obama shedding tears with Sandy Hook parents after the massacre;  hugging a severely handicapped soldier   after his return from the Middle East.  

The seemingly invisible camera of Souza’s captures eight years of the Obamas’ lives, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs.  Evolving into an exceptionally close relationship between photographer and the photographed, Souza profoundly and brilliantly encapsulates emotion in each of his shots.  In a lighthearted scene, the viewer is treated to  Souza being encouraged to marry his partner of eleven years, and being offered a wedding ceremony in the Rose Garden with President Obama serving as the officiant for an inducement.  Other humorous clips:  when Souza claims Obama’s actual favorite moment of his presidency  is  blocking Reggie Love’s shot on the basketball court; or an impromptu snowball fight and snow-angel matchup between Obama and his daughters. 

Souza is seen in 2017, when his tenure as White House photographer has ended, photographing birds in the woods near his home.  For an apparently self-effacing man accustomed to drawing attention to the person in front of the lens, not behind it, Souza will soon become the unanticipated center of attention for a new cohort of fans.  Appalled by Trump’s lack of empathy and his policy of refusing to allow candid photos, Souza begins an  Instagram account that evolves into a  political commentary. Souza himself seems surprised at the turn his life has taken, when he starts “throwing shade” (the name of his second book of photographs)  at Trump  by pairing the tweets from the current POTUS with contrasting photos of Obama, gaining more than 2.6 million Instagram followers, and becoming something of a cult celebrity. 

Scrupulously avoiding politics until the onset of the Trump years, Souza shows us a glimpse of what life was like in the Trump White House: candid documentation replaced by staged self-adulation. If  you’re feeling nostalgic,  maybe The Way I See It will be comforting.  Otherwise, if you remember a time when the US president behaved like an adult with integrity, not a narcissistic delinquent, bring out the kleenex.

Availability:  MSNBC and Amazon Prime.