Friday, February 23, 2018

Black Panther: With Great Power Comes Great Villainy

Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in "Black Panther"
Early in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s bold and thorny new film that is the eighteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the titular hero asks his young sister, Shuri, why she’s bothering to upgrade an already elegant technological system. Shuri—played by an impish, scene-stealing Letitia Wright—responds with huffy wisdom: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” The MCU has its faults—low-stakes storytelling, visual sameness, an exponentially swelling character base—but as mega-franchises go, it’s pretty good, churning out suitably entertaining products that are typically funny, professionally made, and well-acted. What’s gratifying about Black Panther is the way it operates within the MCU’s preestablished confines (the groaning Stan Lee cameo, the post-credits scenes) while simultaneously seeking to push beyond them. In raw terms, it isn’t the MCU’s best movie—its hero is too bland, its story too busy—but it may be its most interesting. And in an era where carefully packaged formula rules the cinematic roost, an interesting superhero movie is something to savor.

It also helps dispel the myth that personal filmmaking and corporate oversight are somehow incompatible. With Black Panther, Coogler continues to tackle the themes of racial strife, familial loyalty, and youthful conflict that animated his previous features, the heartfelt docudrama Fruitvale Station and the boisterous boxing picture Creed. But he has also made—and I mean this sincerely rather than pejoratively—a comic-book movie, complete with bright colors, complex mythology, and CGI-inflected rumbles. His estimable achievement is to weave these elements into a cohesive vision. Black Panther is packed with excitement and ideas, but it never feels choppy or overstuffed.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Ranking Every Movie of 2017 (all 108 of them)

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in "Get Out"
Yesterday, we posted our list of the 10 best movies of 2017. Today, per annual tradition, I’m ranking every single theatrical release of the year (well, except for all the ones I didn’t see). To be clear, this is a stupid and arbitrary exercise; if I made the same list from scratch tomorrow, I’m sure it would look dramatically different, especially the bottom half. But I like doing it because it serves as a recordkeeping function, and it encourages people to yell at me about my taste.

Housekeeping: For each movie that I formally reviewed, the hyperlink will take you to that review. I’m also including the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores for each film, just to show whether I conform to or diverge from the so-called critical consensus. And because I’m first and foremost a public servant, if a movie is currently streaming on a popular service, I’ll note that, just in case that nudges you into watching something from the comfort of your couch.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The 10 Best Movies of 2017

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in "Phantom Thread"
As the world burns, the movies remain unfazed. Or maybe they remain properly fazed; many filmmakers, recognizing the eternal topicality of their art form, have cannily shifted their priorities to speak to today’s troubled times. That cinema can serve as a sounding board for social anxiety is nothing new, but in 2017, the reflective surface that is the movie screen bounced back particularly acute images of our reality, even if it also functioned as a temporary escape from it. Yet as I survey my favorite films of the past year, what strikes me is not consistency but variety. Movies can exist in a thrilling multiplicity of forms, and this year’s best—epic war films, slender family dramas, chilling domestic horror, a whopping three sequels—demonstrated the enduring versatility of the medium. As every day seems to bring with it new horrors, it’s no minor comfort to remember that artists will continue to tell their stories on the big screen, wielding their imagination and technique to create a sort of compass, a celestial roadmap that lights the way to our better selves.

Here are my 10 favorite movies of 2017:

(Honorable mention: Get Out; The Girl with All the Gifts; I, Tonya; It Comes at Night; Logan; Princess Cyd; Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Villainess.)

Friday, February 2, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: The Complete List

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Fargo"
In 2017, we at the Manifesto watched 108 different TV shows. That’s right: one hundred eight. We’ve since ranked and written about them all. For convenience, here are those complete rankings; click on the header links to be transported to the particular page with detailed write-ups of that group’s particular shows:

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2017

Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale"
We’ve been counting down every TV show we watched in 2017, and we’ve finally arrived at the top 10. If you’ve missed our prior posts, you can access them at the following links:
#s 108-81
#s 80-51
#s 50-31
#s 30-11

10. The Leftovers (HBO, Season 3; 2015 rank: 6 of 62). You can pick nits with The Leftovers’ third and final season. Reduced to an eight-episode order, it largely shunted aside the Murphy family whose dynamic was so richly complex in Season 2; it arguably returned to the (literal?) well one too many times with its “international assassin” gambit; and some of its metaphysical journeys this season—in particular Scott Glenn’s helpless wanderings through the Australian outback—never quite acquired the fearsome power they desired. But these imperfections seem trivial when compared with the show’s staggering greatness, the way it meditates on questions of love, family, and faith in such strange and stimulating ways. Perhaps recognizing that she was the standout of the first two years, the show pivots ever-so-slightly to focus on Carrie Coon’s Nora, and some of this season’s most memorable sequences—the Wu-Tang trampoline; the “Take on Me” smoke detector; the pigeons carrying words of hope—explore her explosive grief. But this has always been a humane and democratic show, and it still makes room for its uniformly devastated (and devastating) ensemble. It says something that I’d never especially warmed to Amy Brenneman’s Laurie, and yet Season 3’s most wrenching episode for me was “Certified”, a heartbreaking hour that examined her newfound place in the world with clarity and empathy. I might not have thought that was possible, but over three remarkable seasons, The Leftovers continuously redefined our collective notion of belief.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: #s 30-11

Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Reese Witherspoon in "Big Little Lies"
We’re ranking every show we watched in 2017. You can find the prior installments in our rankings at the following links:
#s 108-81
#s 80-51
#s 50-31

Note that, because #PeakTV is so insanely glutted with good shows, every series listed from here on out is excellent, and you should watch them all.

30. The Magicians (Syfy, Season 2). Good lord is this show fun. Season 1 of The Magicians was enjoyable, but it had to do so much heavy lifting in terms of world-building that it could sometimes feel laborious. Now, with the rules and characters firmly established, the series can relax and ease into its Buffy-inspired brand of storytelling, a blend of irreverent humor, big feelings, and intricate mythology. Despite being a show about a bunch of college students who cast spells, The Magicians isn’t childish, but it isn’t overly glum either, instead delving into its calamitous storylines—everyone always seem to be on the verge of death or disaster—with a delightfully impish sense of mischief. (It helps that two of the show’s formerly buttoned-up female characters literally lose their souls this year, allowing Stella Maeve and Olivia Taylor Dudley to really let loose.) Certain sequences—a bank heist, a negotiation with a dragon, an impromptu performance of a Les Miserables song—are downright delirious, a reminder that unbridled joy can be its own form of magic.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: #s 50-31

Rami Malek and Portia Doubleday in "Mr. Robot"
We’re ranking every show we watched in 2017. There were a lot. You can find the prior installments at the following links:
#s 108-81
#s 80-51

50. Girls (HBO, Season 6; last year: 34 of 88). And at long last—after alienating countless viewers, prompting innumerable hot takes, and possibly ravaging relationships the world over—Girls has come to its end. This was always a more delicate and less abrasive show than it appeared, and it continued that work in its final season, dismantling the characters’ bratty armor to reveal the pain and love underneath. It wasn’t as bracing as prior seasons; there wasn’t a “Panic in Central Park” this year, and my favorite character, Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, basically disappeared for the entire stretch run. (This season’s most memorable episode, the Matthew Rhys-starring “American Bitch”, was stimulating, but it was ultimately too didactic for me to fully embrace.) But Girls remained steadfastly true to its characters to the end, and certain moments—such as a heartbreaking meal that Lena Dunham and Adam Driver shared at a diner, following a day of ephemeral happiness—illustrated just how well Dunham understood her subjects, which is to say, herself.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: #s 80-51

Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson in "This Is Us"
We’re ranking every TV show we watched in 2017. If you missed Part I, you can find it here. Also, an annual reminder that this list isn’t a bell curve. Just because a show pops up in the mid-70s doesn’t mean it’s a bad show; it just means there’s an outrageous amount of good TV on right now.

80. Room 104 (HBO, Season 1). As with all anthology series, Room 104 is wildly uneven, with some installments working significantly better than others. The show’s premise—every episode takes place within the same nondescript motel room—isn’t exactly fire, but the Duplass brothers do a nice job exploiting its variety; one episode is straight-up horror, another is a slow-burn thriller, a third is a wordless dance sequence, etc. That makes Room 104 inherently challenging—each half-hour has to swiftly establish its own characters and internal logic—and it typically meets that challenge. Still, while the series is generally well-cast—players include Amy Landecker, Philip Baker Hall, and James Van Der Beek—it ultimately amounts to less than the sum of its carefully assembled parts. Any grand statement on human connection is elusive, which means Room 104 is more experiment than TV show.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: #s 108-81

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards"
#PeakTV is a blessing and a curse, a paradise of exceptional artistry and a wormhole of endless mediocrity, a blissful escape from reality and a nauseating reminder of it. Watching television used to be a frivolous activity; now, it’s a blood sport, a ruthless competition, a point of pride and a mark of shame. The sheer muchness of it is just so daunting, and it triggers debate, exasperation, and hostility. Everyone’s favorite show lies at the bottom of someone else’s DVR discard pile; everyone’s shrugged-off curiosity (“I gave up after the first two eps, pretty boring”) is someone else’s precious treasure.

The countdown that follows—to be broken out over the next five days—ranks every single TV show I watched in 2017. There were, to put it mildly, a lot. There were also not enough; every year brings with it new buzz, new whispers about a niche program that I just wasn’t able to make time for.

I could pretend that these rankings are a matter of subjective taste—that people respond differently to various genres, styles, and modes of storytelling. I could also acknowledge that rankings are ludicrous, and that every rigid numerical slotting here carries with it what you might call a dramatic margin of error. (Seriously, if you reshuffled a bunch of shows on this list up or down by 20 slots, I doubt I’d even notice.)

But who am I kidding? Let’s be honest: If I ranked something higher than you would have, it’s because I, an inveterate watcher of television, grasped hidden meaning from the show that you, a pitiful casual viewer, failed to comprehend. If I ranked something lower, it’s because I wisely located the tiresome formula and dullness that eluded you. And if this list doesn’t even include one of your favorite shows—if I just didn’t watch your beloved cartoon comedy or your thought-provoking historical drama or your under-the-radar Danish thriller—it isn’t because I simply couldn’t make room in my preposterously crowded viewing calendar; it’s because I wanted to affront you personally. I hope it hurts.

And with that point of politeness out of the way, here begins the Manifesto’s ranked list of every TV show we watched in 2017:

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Oscars 2017: Nomination prediction results

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in Oscar nominee "Phantom Thread"
Well, the Oscar nominations are out, and I hit on 81% of my predictions (56 of 69), which is the exact same percentage I got last year. I’m nothing if not consistently mediocre. Let’s run through some quick analysis of the nominees.

Call Me by Your Name
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Florida Project Darkest Hour

Analysis: I was right! And also wrong! More specifically, I was right about the number of nominees (nine rather than eight), and I correctly suspected that Phantom Thread would crack the field. But I definitely did not expect Darkest Hour to show up in place of The Florida Project; clearly, the former’s refined craftsmanship and political message resonated with voters.

Current favorite: It’s tempting to pick The Shape of Water right now, given that it led the field with 13 total nominations (one short of the record). But as we’ve seen in the past with Spotlight and Moonlight, quantity doesn’t necessarily equate to success for the top prize. Get Out, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards are all still in play. This could go down to the wire (which will be fun!).

Worst omission: War for the Planet of the Apes. Yes, I know, there was no way the Academy was going to highlight a threequel about talking monkeys, but people are sleeping on just how good this movie was.