This year, I’m just gonna embrace the fact that TV is now so much better than most movies, and I’m gonna lead with that.
Here are my top five TV series of 2017:
Number five: Stranger Things 2. The kids are back on their bikes and the upside down is still dangerous. Eleven has evolved from “pretty” to “bitchin’” and Steve turns out to be a pretty good baby sitter. The show was still fun, immersive, and creepy. I liked that we got to see more of the world, I liked how Eleven has tapped in to the Phoenix force, and I liked the evolution of many of the characters. Just about the only thing I didn’t like was Eleven’s jealous shunning of Max. A solid, fun show.
Number Four: The Crown. I confess that I have ambivalent feelings about the Royal Family. On the one hand, they’re the wealthiest family on the dole. But on the other hand, they play a symbolic role that people can comprehend and rally around. In any event, The Crown has been a bit of a joy to watch. I first got turned on to it because the director, Stephen Daldry, was heavily involved and, unsurprisingly, the episodes that he’s directed have been among my favourites (although the first season’s “Assassins”, directed by Benjamin Caron, and the second season’s “Lisbon”, directed by Philip Martin, are also noteworthy episodes). I’m a bit fascinated by how the show is willing the explore some of the more unseemly elements of the monarchy. Prince Phillip’s whininess, for example. And in season 2, I couldn’t help but think, “the creators of this series really don’t like Harold Macmillan, do they?” I think I rather enjoy the historical fiction — the interweaving of story amidst real events to create new ways of seeing those events.
Number Three: The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s weird. I’ve never really sought out Margaret Atwood. She’s a Canadian icon and one of our “literature greats.” Me, I’ve always been a bit put off by the way she distances herself from the sf genre, when she clearly writes sf. I’ve been a bit more receptive to her ever since she started dipping her toe into the comics world (and folks I know in the local comics community have had interactions with her). But I’ve never really read any of her classic novels, although I know the broad strokes of most of them.
Between that and the real-world shit-show that’s happening in the US these days, I’ve been reluctant to give The Handmaid’s Tale a try. But I eventually did, even though it took me a few episodes to warm up to it. And it was horrifying, because it all seemed so… possible.
Among the most uncomfortable parts were all the flashbacks, where we could see the political shift happening. It was too real. It got under my skin and gave me the chills. But. Hm. White women in Alabama were happy to vote for a child predator. When President Pence takes over, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them supporting a real-life Gilead.
Number Two: Unforgotten. This show was an unexpected gem. Unforgotten is a cop procedural starring Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar. I confess that I’ll probably watch just about anything that Nicola Walker is in (although River was an unusual disappointment.) One day the first season was on sale on iTunes, and I decided to give it a watch.
The premise that it plays with is that, in each season, they find a body that’s been missing for decades. Much of the story involves trying to find clues to the past and to reassemble a sequence of events that help them solve the murder. The case that the first season revolves around took place in the mid-70s, and all of the primary suspects are in their 60s.
That first season isn’t always completely successful. Some of the story elements are a bit ham-fisted and the primary mystery doesn’t resolve in ways that are especially satisfying. But the part that’s interesting to watch is how, as House used to say, “everybody lies.” Everyone has secrets that they keep for various reasons, and their lives are suddenly thrown off-kilter as those secrets threaten to be revealed. To really feel that, the list of suspects and associated “persons of interest” all need to be fairly well-fleshed-out characters. And they are. They’re not just walk-on figures offering up plot coupons: they’re folks with complicated lives, who’ve made good and bad choices.
The first season of Unforgotten caught my attention with that premise, and I immediately checked out out season 2, and it was even better. Season 2 retained the best parts of season one, while tightening up the central case — a murder that occurred in 1990. Again, we get the slow, tumbling apart of people’s lives as secrets are revealed. And the final episode is so, so good.
Number One: Again, this year, I’m going with The Expanse. Season 2 was a bit different from Season 1, but I still love it. I like how the show is comfortable problematizing the OPA — it’s easy to root for the underdogs, but it’s weirder to confront the nasty side of populism. Several of the characters remain stand-out: Avasarala is obviously the greatest character ever, but Naomi and Bobbi and Anderson Dawes are also great characters. And there were some stand-out moments this season, as well. Anderson Dawes “recruiting” Diogo was an amazing scene. Avasarala’s video call with her husband in the shadow of Eros hitting the planet was another. And, jesus, the scene when the belters lined up to board a ship, knowing that not all of them were gonna get to board was heart-rending.
I also really enjoyed how the crucial climax to season 2 was basically Naomi delivering a speech about following her heart. Holden is often living in an ideal world, and Naomi is just so much more in tune with the world they actually live in.
There were other shows I enjoyed a great deal. Westworld kept my attention, and played out a number of puzzles that the audience could enjoy unwrapping.
I’m sad that Dark Matter was cancelled. It was never especially good, but I enjoyed it a great deal more than, say, Killjoys. The German Netflix series, Dark, was okay, but many of its “twists” were obvious, and I’m getting tired of shows that have nothing new to say about free will versus predetermination, but which feel the need to talk about it incessantly. Also, I’d’ve rather had subtitles than dubbing.
I so wanted to like Mindhunter. I read the John Douglas book a few years back, and found it really interesting. And the interweaved bits involving BTK kept grabbing my attention. But there was a lot about the show that didn’t work, and the lead actor isn’t working for me.
Both Iron Fist and The Defenders were hot messes. At least The Defenders had some snarky quips from Jessica Jones to help save it. But otherwise: hot messes. The Punisher was better than those two, but it seems like it doesn’t know what it wants to say about gun culture.
I have mixed feelings about Longmire. I pretty much dislike the main characters in the show. I was sooo tired of Walt’s quirk about never carrying a cellphone. Dude. You’re the sheriff. You need a cell phone. And I sooo don’t get Vic/Walt ship.
But many of the secondary characters were much more interesting. Jacob Nighthorse was possibly the most interesting character of the show. And Matthias, who was initially introduced as a foil for Walt, ended up being one of the most solidly reliable characters in the series. I can’t think of many shows in which a native reservation plays such a large role in the series, so it felt like the show was able to tell a number of stories that have been long-neglected, but tell them in a way that’s richer than the “story-of-the-week” format allows.
I still enjoy Agents of SHIELD, but i might be close to firing Lucifer. I’ve put Supergirl on hold because they forced me to watch an entire season of Mon-El last season and I’m not ready to move past that. (But on the other hand, last season Alex had one of the best, and most real-seeming coming out stories on TV).
What else? The first season of Colony was surprisingly good as was the first season the The Good Place. And I’m enjoying Travelers. It’s a nice blend of “mission of the week” format with a well-constrained time travel premise.
Now on to movies. The usual disclaimers apply: I don’t really get out to the cinemas these days. I usually watch movies after they’re available for home rental. I tend to rent (or buy) stuff on my AppleTV or watch it on Netflix. Because of the way the “best” movies are often held back for Oscar season, many of my favourites often end up being from the later part of the year before. Also, for the third year in a row, I’ve missed the film festival.
I’ve complained, over the last few years, that the number of stand-out films has been low, and this year was especially barren. Hollywood is in kind of a rut of sequels, remakes and product-placement movies, and more often than not, they’re really bad. For example, after watching Kingsmen 2, I felt less intelligent than before I watched it.
Number Five: Baby Driver. A lot about this show seemed to follow the formula set out by the movie Drive. Conveniently, I really liked Drive, so that’s a plus. At times, though, it seemed like the filmmakers were asking, “what if the whole movie was a music video?” And that part seemed a bit silly to me, but I like heists and I like characters who are virtuosos at some kind of skill (like driving) and there was enough virtuoso heisty goodness to keep me engaged.
Number Four: Arrival. A nice, solid, sf film. Interestingly subdued. Possibly one of the most novel ticking bomb scenes that I’d seen in a long, long time.
Number Three: Denial. This is a film that was on my “to watch” list at the end of last year, and I caught it pretty early in the year. Bits of the film didn’t work: there were elements that were set-up like a traditional legal drama, and those bits just didn’t work because the legal strategy of the defence team was to deliberately avoid drama. So that part was a bit flat.
What I enjoyed about the film was its central tension between the need to refute holocaust denial, but also to deny the denialists a forum to score cheap political points. One of the crucial moments involves Rachel Weisz’ character, Deborah Lipstadt, being approached by holocaust survivors who are angry and confused about not being called to testify about what happened at Auschwitz, whereas her lawyer insists on not giving David Irving (Timothy Spall) an opportunity to ask survivors insultingly reductive questions in a way that would grab headlines.
I guess it was an interesting exploration of how centering a particular legal strategy could have the effect of denying a community the opportunity to speak their truth. And that conflict was the most engaging part of the movie. So many legal dramas are fundamentally about the exhilaration of the system working for people. This film seemed to be a bit more about watching the sausages being made: the legal system comes off as far more unkind and messy.
Number Two: The Girl with All the Gifts. For much of this film, I thought it was a mostly-cookie-cutter zombie flick with a twist or two. It follows a lot of the usual zombie formula, with the zombies (“hungries”) breaking through the defences and overrunning our heroes’ home base, forcing them on the run to get to safety. But some of the choices that they make later in the film genuinely surprised me, and piqued my interest. Most zombie movies are pretty derivative, and therefore much of my appreciation of this film involves the way it finds some new ideas and resolutions.
Several of the performances were also amazing. I think Glenn Close’s calm, considered coldness was a bit terrifying. And I can’t wait to see what Sennia Nanua does next: she was so talented in the role.
Number One: My favourite movie of the year is one that I don’t expect many people will get in to: the movie is called Christine and it’s a biopic about Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter/announcer who committed suicide during an on-air news report.
I don’t think I can really explain why I picked this particular movie as my number one. It’s pretty much a downer, but it’s fundamentally a story about somebody increasingly failing to cope with stuff that life is throwing at her. I’m interested in the main character, who is a little bit hard to like, and as a result, doesn’t have very many people close to her. This leads to a lack of support system when she starts to unravel.
In a sense, this movie reminds me a bit of films like Falling Down: the hero loses the ability to function within the constraints of their life. Usually, this type of movie has a male lead, and Christine feels like a rare case where this type of protagonist is a woman. I also really like Rebecca Hall, and this is an interestingly different performance for her.
I’m also a little bit fascinated by a minor curiosity in the trailer for the film. The trailer includes a “yes, but” scene from the movie, but they’ve recut a piece of dialog for the trailer to make it seem like one of her stressors involves an unrequited crush. I find it interesting that the marketers for the movie were all, like, “I know how we explain her unhappiness: man trouble!”
Again, not a film that I expect many people to get in to, but I thought it was an extremely well-made character piece.
Other movies I enjoyed: John Wick II combined stylish professional assassin flick with frenetic shoot-out action. I remember when I first saw the trailers for the first film, I was convinced that the movie was going to be terrible because the trailer was soooo cheesy. But it surprised me. The second film is pretty much more of the same, but it’s fun and action-y.
I really enjoyed Hidden Figures. I think that the film has a bit of a white saviour problem that’s irritating. But I really enjoyed how Jim Parsons and (especially) Kirsten Dunst were playing almost-entirely unlikeable characters. I read an analysis of the film that talked about how the three primary characters each employ a different strategy for combatting the barriers they encounter: Dorothy Vaughan’s quiet competence versus Mary Jackson’s “working the system” to Katherine Johnson’s active pushback (sometimes even angry pushback) against restrictions.
I don’t particularly love the Star Wars franchise (it’s for kids!). But I thought that Rogue One was possibly the best one since Empire. Maybe the best ever.
The movie, Colossal, was really surprising. I mean, it starts with a really weird premise: woman figures out that she’s controlling a giant Kaiju monster that’s recently been attacking South Korea. But whereas the trailer portrays it as a screwball comedy, the film, itself, turns surprisingly dark toward the end. It’s definitely a film that’s hard to classify.
I loved the first two-thirds of Wonder Woman. I want more of the first two-thirds of Wonder Woman.
By contrast, Dr. Strange was probably the first Marvel movie that I actively disliked. I decided to overlook the whitewashing because I generally enjoy the character and wanted to see how the movie handled him. But I actively disliked it, finding the main character too insufferable (yes, I know that’s how he’s supposed to start out) and finding the magic too much of a special effects gimmick.
I took a long time to watch Moonlight, for no good reason: it came out at a time when I had a pretty full backlog of shows and TV, and I didn’t get around to watching it. When I did finally see it, I found it really hard to watch because of all the bullying. There was an authenticity to the bullying that was just too real for me. I watch a lot of films with dark themes, and not much of that darkness gets to me. This one got to me.
I could not/would not watch Ghost in the Shell, even though a lot about the film would probably be just my speed. It didn’t have to be that way.
Here’s a movie that kinda perplexed me: Before I Fall. Let me be clear: not a movie that I’m recommending. The premise of the movie seems to be “What if Groundhog Day was a teen angst movie?” Our main character is reliving the same day over and over. In the first iteration, she’s killed in a car accident. Several other iterations also end in her death. Sometimes she tries to fix things. In some iterations, she acts out and is mean to everyone. In one of the later iterations she comes to understand that a major event that’s at the centre of a lot of the iterations relate to the discovery that one of her friends has bullied another girl in the school for years. So finally, we hit the last iteration and our hero decides she’s going to be nice and sweet to everyone. Including the bully friend. Finally, this is the iteration that ends the “reliving the same day over and over” thing. I find that a weird choice. Like, should we take away from this that we should be nice to bullies? Hm.
Finally, a movie that I haven’t seen, but which I’m keen to see is Lady Bird. Not only does it star Saoirse Ronan, but it’s written and directed by Greta Gerwig. I haven’t always loved all the mumblecore films I’ve seen, but usually I usually like the ones that involve Greta Gerwig. Gerwig almost manages to offset the Ben Stiller-ness of Greenberg, for example.
I watch so much more TV than movies these days. But I find that movies inevitably disappoint, because I always want more detail and to get to know the characters. Moonlight was a fairly good example—everything about it was beautiful, the acting was incredible, the cinematography was brilliant, but it felt incomplete as a story. I just watched The Shape of Water yesterday and same thing—it was chock-full of individual elements that were fantastic, and it *should* have been everything I wanted from a film, but it just didn’t come together for me the way, say, Pan’s Labyrinth did.
TV, conversely. I am almost dreading doing a media roundup because there’s been so much good TV this year. The last season of Black Sails was the standout for me, but The Expanse and Handmaid’s Tale would also absolutely make the list.
I’m reading the Expanse novels now; have you read them? My main quibble with the adaptation is that Avasarala is even MORE awesome in the books, if such a thing is possible, and swears like a sailor, and while I am glad that they kept her awesomeness intact, I do wish they’d kept her potty mouth.
Such great lists to think about:
I liked The Defenders better than you did, but I didn’t start with a very high bar. It has led me to go back to Daredevil (I’ve seen Jessica Jones and Luke Cage), but I have decided (and Alan, who has seen it, agrees) that Iron Fist probably isn’t worth it.
Yes on The Expanse! Have you been reading the books?
I think I also liked Arrival better than you did. And I’m too afraid to watch The Girl with All the Gifts because it sounds like a pretty graphic adaptation of the novel, which was almost too graphic for me in print.
Of those first two-thirds of Wonder Woman, you must be including the origin story. I liked that too, but was pretty convinced by the political critiques I read after I saw it.
And I get it about Moonlight, but I still thought it was really good. The (white, gay male) friend I saw it with last year in the theaters thought it was too low on words, but I thought that was one of the strongest things about it.