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 plows. In 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 — Narcos, Narcos 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.