Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 62-51: Netflix Comedies, BBC Boredom, and Louis C.K.'s Failure

Ellie Kemper in Tina Fey's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"
God, I watch a lot of television.

This is both a boast and a confession. In the current era of #PeakTV, it requires a considerable level of dedication to keep up with the overwhelming number of scripted shows that air at all times and across a dozen different platforms. It also requires a pitiful social life, a prohibitive cable bill, and a perpetual lack of sleep. For we deviants who are committed to scouring all corners of the artistic world, watching TV is less a hobby than a calling, a solemn quest to discover the next great prestige drama or quirky comedy.

It is also a losing battle. The forthcoming series of posts will chronicle my thoughts on a healthy (OK, unhealthy) number of TV shows, but what galls me are not the series I disliked but those I haven't seen. Unless you write about television for a living, it is virtually impossible to consume all of the available programming (at least, not without inventing the 37-hour-day). There is, quite literally, too much damn TV.

Which brings me to my apology: Despite having watched more TV in 2015 than is advisable for a passably functioning human, I didn't watch everything. I didn't even come close. As such, I probably missed one or more of your pet programs—not because of malice or apathy, but the unforgiving tyranny of opportunity cost. For every show I did watch—again, there were quite a few—this meant that I consciously chose not to watch something else, something critically acclaimed, something beloved. A partial, woefully incomplete list of such shows that I failed to view in 2015 include the following: Archer, Bloodline, Bojack Horseman, Broad City, Casual, The Good Wife, Humans (curse AMC for censoring British imports!), Inside Amy Schumer, Jane the Virgin, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (curse BBC America as well!), The Last Kingdom, Manhattan, Mozart in the Jungle, Review, and UnREAL.

Now for the good news: I still watched plenty. Last year, I watched (and ranked) exactly 50 television shows, an alarming number. This year, I somehow upped that number to 62. And, as is the Manifesto's annual duty, I shall now rank them all. The usual warning that accompanies such rankings applies: They're more guidelines than rules, and the list would likely shake out differently if I formed it a week ago or a week from now. (Think of it like a poll, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus five spots.) But if the Internet was made for one thing, it was to induce people into irrational fits of anger by arbitrarily comparing individual works of art against one another. So, by all means, get fired up.

But more importantly, get your queues fired up. The great thing about modern TV-watching is that viewers are no longer at the mercy of networks. You can watch most of these shows if you just make the investment in doing so. And remember, this list isn't a bell curve—most of the shows cited are good. Some of them are just plain great.

Enough with the preamble. Here begins the Manifesto's ranked list of every TV show we watched in 2015:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Oscars 2015, Prediction Results: The Revenant Leads the Way

"The Revenant" led the way with 12 Oscar nominations, including one for Leonardo DiCaprio
My modest goal in predicting this year's Oscar nominations was to exceed my success rate from last year, when I hit on 80% (55 of 69). Well, things really changed this time around, when I connected on... 80%. (Between the variable number of Best Picture nominees and the category ambiguity with Alicia Vikander, there's some fuzzy math involved, but you'll just have to take my word for it.) I can't decide if this means I'm impressively consistent or consistently mediocre.

In any event, there's plenty to unpack following yesterday's announcement. Let's take a quick category-by-category scan through the lineup and see where things stand.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Oscars 2015: The Manifesto's Official Nomination Predictions

Can Todd Haynes's "Carol" snag a Best Picture nomination? We can only hope.
With the 2015 Oscar nominations being announced in a matter of hours, the Manifesto is racing against the clock to finalize its predictions. Last year, we hit on a pedestrian 80% (55 of 69), so we're hoping to top that figure this go-round. The good news is that I've actually seen most of the movies in contention this year, which will better inform my speculation. The bad news? I've seen most of the movies in contention, meaning I can't trot out the usual "It's not my fault, I haven't seen it" excuse as a crutch. So it goes.

On to the predictions. Per usual, we're predicting the eight major categories, plus five additional below-the-line fields that I consider to be of significant importance. We'll be back on Friday with analysis of the nominations, with category-specific coverage leading up to the big show on February 28.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Revenant: In This Wilderness, It's Men vs. Nature, and Man vs. Man

Leonardo DiCaprio braves the wilderness in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "The Revenant"
The Revenant defies categorization, not because it refuses to serve as a particular type of movie, but because it is so many movies at once. Both art film and action flick, both meditative drama and survivalist thriller, both historical fiction and contemporary allegory—the latest and craziest picture from provocateur Alejandro González Iñárritu wants it all. This level of naked ambition is rare in modern cinema, and it is tempting to praise The Revenant—a two-and-a-half hour adventure film with minimal dialogue and maximal craft—for simply existing. But look past its staggering audacity, and The Revenant reveals itself as a work of true duality, even beyond its mirrored ambitions. It is, in empirical terms, both a good movie and a bad one.

Let's begin with the bad. Based on a novel by Michael Punke (Iñárritu wrote the screenplay along with Mark L. Smith), The Revenant's storyline is exceedingly slight. Set in the early nineteenth century, it follows a band of fur trappers in the American wilderness. Initially, there are roughly 30 of them, but after the native Arikara (dubbed "Ree") spring an ambush—a characteristically bloody sequence filled with loud musket-fire and zooming arrows—their numbers are reduced to about 10, though only two are of any consequence. They are Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an inveterate tracker with a half-Pawnee teenage son, and Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a brusque trapper who is as unapologetically selfish as he is culturally insensitive. After Glass is severely wounded by a bear—more on that in a bit—he and Fitzgerald are separated from their unit; not one to loiter with an invalid, Fitzgerald murders Glass's son and leaves the immobilized Glass for dead. The remainder of The Revenant focuses on Glass's agonizing efforts to survive in the forbidding wild, driven by his need to enact revenge on his son's killer.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Hateful Eight: Fun and Fury in the Old West

Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight"
The Hateful Eight is silly, self-indulgent, overlong, and obscenely ostentatious. It is also funny, bracing, suspenseful, and supremely entertaining. It is, in other words, a film by Quentin Tarantino, cinema's poet laureate of grisly violence and savory dialogue. This is the kind of happily ridiculous movie where the no-good woman spends the entire second half with her face covered in blood, and where the manly men seem to have engaged in a mustache-growing contest. As a writerly work of fiction, The Hateful Eight is difficult to take seriously. As a thrilling piece of pulp art, it is impossible to dismiss.

That is especially true for cinephiles. The world's most celebrated former video-store clerk, Tarantino can be exasperating in his nerdy superiority, his compulsion to constantly remind you of the scope of his encyclopedic knowledge of film's annals. But he possesses real love for the movies, and The Hateful Eight—which, as the opening title card gratuitously announces, is the eighth picture of his career—is his most pronounced valentine to the form yet. Shot in the fossilized format of 65-millimeter film, its languorous opening scenes—featuring painterly images of a stagecoach striving against the snow of a Wyoming blizzard (shooting took place in Colorado), and of a cloaked man with his head bowed against the cold—beautifully capture the visual majesty of the medium. (Most theaters with digital projectors are showing The Hateful Eight in a slightly truncated version, but a "traveling roadshow" is exhibiting the film in select areas in 70mm, complete with an overture, intermission, and a few extended scenes.) Tarantino's screenplays may go overboard with their insouciant humor, but in these striking early scenes (shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson), he makes clear that his craft is not a joke. To him, movies still matter.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Carol: As Society Frowns, True Love Blooms

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett star in Todd Haynes's "Carol"
Carol is the new film from Todd Haynes, though perhaps I should have preceded that factual nugget with a spoiler alert. Over the past two decades, in features such as Safe and Far from Heaven (both starring Julianne Moore) and in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (with Kate Winslet), Haynes has established himself as America's preeminent chronicler of the tragedy of feminine domesticity. He makes movies about putatively happy women who are nevertheless battered by normative prejudice and suffocated by societal constriction; his heroines, visibly content to onlookers, are secretly trapped by a lack of mobility and an absence of true freedom. Given this, you may anticipate—perhaps "dread" is the better word—that bad things will happen to the women in Carol. But while the characters here do endure their share of misfortune, what is stunning about this remarkable, enormously empathetic film is how life-affirming it is. A work of raw, pure emotion, Carol testifies to the power of human compassion, even as it also unflinchingly depicts human ugliness. It breaks your heart, and then, in startling fashion, it puts it back together again.

Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel called The Price of Salt, the movie's title is somewhat deceptive. Yes, one of the principals is named Carol, and it seems only logical to christen the film after her, given that she is played with luminescent magnetism by Cate Blanchett. Yet the movie belongs equally to Therese Belivet (an extraordinary Rooney Mara), a twentysomething woman with a pageboy haircut and wide, hazel-green eyes. When we first take stock of Therese (the year is 1952), her life seems perfectly satisfactory. She has a steady if thankless job at a Manhattan department store, she has secured the romantic attentions of a good-looking man (Jake Lacy, from The Office and Obvious Child), and she has a fairly healthy social calendar, sneaking viewings of movies with friends in a projectionist booth and occasionally grabbing beers with them at a local bar. She appears to be on the fast track to a life of security, comfort, and contentment.