Saturday, December 29, 2018

Our Favorites from 2018


We proudly present our favorites from 2018!*

 (including DVD and Blu-Ray releases)

Peter's Picks-

I saw only four new films at the theater this year (a new low and an indicator of how much I'm hating the crap passing as movies these days), so I'm not qualified to give anything resembling a "Best of Film: 2018" list. I'll just say (very quickly) that, of the quartet of flicks I dragged myself out of the house to see, two were very good, one was passable, and one was a total misfire on a very near and dear subject. Mission Impossible: Fallout defies logic, in that it continues the upward spiral of this series, from its near-unwatchable first three installments to its edge-of-your-seat last three. I'll admit that Cruise is starting to look his age but you have to admit the guy can still pull off those stunts. If there's one downside (and it's a flaw to every one of the six chapters), it's that the twists and turns can get a tad complicated. Just do what I do and forget about keeping track of double-, triple- and quadruple-agents and just enjoy the ride. 

I enjoyed the hell out of Avengers: Infinity War, a boast anyone with half a brain would not make about Age of Ultron, a soul-sucking experience if there ever was one. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who were also responsible for the game-changing Captain America: Winter Soldier) somehow manage to balance screen time for dozens of Marvel heroes (famous or not) without making the affair seem bloated (hopefully Zack Snyder was taking notes). It's a fabulous tapestry with thousands of interweaving threads and a villain who might just have good intentions to go with his insane logic. 

Those were the very good. The passable was the over-rated Black Panther, a film I was expecting so much more out of, thanks to the job director Ryan Coogler did on Creed a couple years back. I'll admit there are a few interesting bits thrown in here and there but, in the end, Black Panther is brought down by the same problem most of these bloated superhero flicks contain: a really bad, really loud, really CGI-aye-aye oozing climax. 

Accept no imitations
And the misfire? Oh, my. What a misfire. How does one transform a larger-than-life figure like Freddie Mercury and a wondrous spectacle such as (was) Queen into a Hallmark-Behind-the-Music-crapfest like Bohemian Rhapsody? Well, first, of course, you get the blessing of two of its members (and why do I get the feeling John Deacon was the smartest survivor when he declared Queen dead after Freddie's passing?) to jettison anything resembling actual history for pathos (just go right ahead and google Bohemian Rhapsody and "accuracy" as I don't have the space here to rant... other than to mention I found it fascinating that the band performed "Fat Bottomed Girls" live four years before they recorded it!). Then, keep that homosexual vibe subtle enough for grandma to digest. Hit all the right beats (anyone want to know how Brian May devised "We Will Rock You?") and ignore the really great music the kids in the audience wouldn't recognize anyway ("Death on Two Legs" anyone?). Yeah, sure, Rami Malek is pretty good, with his fake teeth and oh-so-fake mustache, but not good enough to carry us through scenes like the Live Aid scene that flitters back and forth from the band to the amazed backstage admirers (the goofy look on Jim Hutton's face reminded me of the singing nun segment of Airplane!). Ironically, the only right note, to me, about this 134-minute Wayne's World skit is the "Don't Stop Me Now" video played over the end credits. Actual footage of the actual band performing. Now that would have been something to champion!

Just enough room to recommend a few blu-rays I happily dropped coin for. Indicator's deluxe presentation of Jacques Tourneur's controversial Curse (Night) of the Demon is an insanely complete celebration of one of the best horror films of all time, containing no less than four versions of the classic and boatloads of extras. I am here to proclaim before all that I would gladly sit and watch four hours of Kim Newman talking about... anything. This could be the world's most fascinating man. It's like he's right there in the treehouse with us, giving us his reasons why this is one of the best. Indicator then upped their own ante by dropping William Castle at Columbia: Box One our way the same month. Featuring some of Castle's better-known features (The Tingler, Homicidal, 13 Ghosts, and Mr. Sardonicus), backed by even more fabulous extras (try... an audio commentary on Tingler by Jonathan Rigby, author of English Gothic, and the full-length Castle doc, Spine-Tingler!). These two releases plus the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott box, Five Tall Tales, put Indicator at the forefront of the "niche" releasing companies.

John's picks-

Solo - The bastard child of the Star Wars franchise, and undeservedly so. Did we need to see the back story of the galaxy's greatest smuggler? Of course not. But fortunately, Alden Ehrenreich settled into the role of a young Han Solo with the help of a fantastic supporting cast. If I have any complaint about the film, it would be that they could have spread this story out over several films, and given some of the great supporting characters more opportunities to shine.

Anna and the Apocalypse - A late addition to my list. I was hopeful that this wouldn’t just be a Shaun of the Dead Rom-Zom-Com retread, and thankfully I got my wish. This is one of those musicals that will have you humming the tunes as soon as it’s over. Ella Hunt (Anna) is fantastic in this new Christmas cult classic directed by John McPhail.

Juliet, Naked - My favorite comedy of the year with the always charming Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd as a couple split apart by O'Dowd's obsession with an obscure musician played by Ethan Hawke. I've never been a fan of Hawke, but even he won me over in this adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel. If you like Rose Byrne, then I also recommend I Give It A Year - a 2013 comedy which I discovered earlier this year as well, and Peter Rabbit - the best kids movie I accompanied my wife to this year.

A Quiet Place - A fast-paced, interesting original horror concept written and directed by John Krasinski, in which he stars alongside his wife, Emily Blunt. While some people chose to pick apart the story, I found it to be a welcome, fresh concept from a creator I would never have expected it to come from. And kudos to him for going with a strong opening that lets the audience know just what kind of a film they're in for.

Game Night - Every now and then, I know nothing about a film going in, not even having seen a trailer, and the absence of any expectations leads to a fun movie-going experience. Last year it was Logan Lucky. This year, Game Night filled that slot. Jason Bateman leads a great ensemble cast through a series of misadventures that's a must see, particularly if you and friends ever get together to play games.

Annihilation - The trailers had me expecting a women-power riff on Aliens, so when we instead got the most cerebral sci-fi film of the year, I was pleasantly surprised. Sadly, I also walked out realizing that the film was not going to do well as a result of the misleading marketing campaign. It's a beautiful looking and sounding film, with a pretty wild story. And it's one of those rare films that convinced me to pick up the book on which it was based, to see exactly what the hell kind of book inspired such a visual kaleidoscope.  

Small Town Crime - This one sat in my to-be-watched pile for far too long. Had I realized that it starred John Hawkes (of Deadwood fame), as well as the great Robert Forster, I would have gotten to it sooner. It's a dark, funny tale of an alcoholic ex-cop who finds himself compelled to solve a murder case.

2001: A Space Odyssey - It wasn't until I first saw Kubrick's film on LaserDisc, in widescreen with surround sound, that I was able to appreciate it. I then read Arthur C. Clarke's book and developed a whole new appreciation for it. I had seen the film theatrically once before, albeit in a beaten up 35 mm print. Seeing the remastered digital IMAX presentation this year, I can truly say I've experienced the film in the best possible format, and fortunately the 4K UHD release allows me to replicate the experience (on a slightly smaller scale) at home. The film has never looked or sounded better than it does now. And it's hard to imagine it having looked or sounded this good even on its original release!

Night of the Living Dead (Criterion Blu Ray) - Rather than repeat myself, I'll point you to my in depth review of this indispensable version of the greatest horror film of all time.   

The Maze 3D - This is one of those films that I was compelled to seek out after seeing a bizarre clip from it online. Fortunately, before I got around to watching the import DVD I procured, a 3D Blu Ray remaster was announced. I'm glad I waited. While the film itself is not on par with Creature from the Black Lagoon or It Came From Outer Space, the 3D effects are right up there with those two films. I hadn't really thought of Carlson as the king of 50s 3D, but these films would make for a great (albeit eye-melting) 3D triple-feature. The less you know about the story the better, and if you have the opportunity of seeing it 3D, that's the only way to go.

Jack's picks-

Darkest Hour-Gary Oldman deservedly won Best Actor for this entertaining look at Winston Churchill's successful efforts to rally his fellow politicians to fight off the Nazi menace in 1940.

The Insult-A Lebanese film about how a minor insult becomes a major problem. The background of the warring factions in the Middle East is fascinating and, as so many things in that part of the world seem to be, its roots are deeper than they appear.

Phantom Thread-Paul Thomas Anderson is one of a handful of filmmakers today whose movies I will always go to see. Daniel Day Lewis gives a superb performance in the lead role and I hope he goes back on his claim that this was his last film.

On Chesil Beach-A moving film adapted from an Ian McEwan novel. Saoirse Ronan gives yet another great performance as a nervous newlywed.

The Incredibles 2-The only animated film on my list, this was a worthy sequel to the original. A love letter to superhero comics and family dynamics, it is a joy from start to finish.

BlacKKKlansman-One of my two favorite films of 2018, and the best film I've ever seen from Spike Lee. Of course, the 1970s' setting doesn't hurt!

Juliet, Naked-A very funny film, based on a novel by Nick Hornby, about a woman who meets an aging singer with whom her husband happens to be obsessed. Ethan Hawke is slowly convincing me that he's a good actor, and Rose Byrne is very likeable.

The Wife-Despite all of the press telling me that this is an important film that I should like and respect, I liked it anyway. I've never been a big fan of Glenn Close, but I'll admit she gives a good performance here. Is it worthy of an Oscar? Who knows.

Bad Times at the El Royale-The most fun I had at a movie in 2018 and the only film better than BlacKKKlansman released this year. I had an absolute blast seeing this and I can't think of another movie where I spontaneously yelled at the screen about 15 minutes from the end because I was so surprised at what happened. This is the film Quentin Tarantino wishes he made. I could watch it again right now.

Peter's picks-

Only a few shout-outs this year. Bodyguard (BBC One UK, Netflix USA), created and written by Jed Mercurio, was a fabulously twisty drama, highlighted by stand-out performances by Keeley Hawes (MI5) and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones). Is the bodyguard (who may or may not be battle-scarred) for the Home Secretary secretly planning her death or is he the only one she can trust amidst a government conspiracy? This one led me to Mercurio's earlier UK cop drama, Line of Duty, an even better powder keg of a series. Taking an almost anthology-esque slant, while retaining three main characters, Line of Duty pulls off some major twists in its four seasons. Threads from the first season continue all through the series, intertwined with threads from the second and third, and play major roles in the fourth. Pay attention to this one, it's not one to put on as "background noise." 

Black Mirror (Netflix) lost quite a bit of its steam after its second season but "Metalhead" (from the 4th season) is a wild, Mad Max-inspired roller-coaster ride about a forager stalked by an unstoppable metal beast. I didn't think I'd like Jack Ryan as much as I did. For me, the only Jack Ryan was Alec Baldwin but, after only a few episodes, John Krasinski won me over and I can't wait for the second season. The Haunting of Hill House was like a Stephen King novel in that we got a fantastic set-up, some really chilling scenes, and then a finale that smelled as bad as one of those bags of frozen chicken you forgot to unload from the trunk last week. "Oh, Christ, you mean he was dead?" The Atlas horror story writers put better bows on their presents and they did it for a fraction of the money.

John's picks-

Dark Shadows - My 50th anniversary trip to Collinwood continued to entertain last year, delivering the Adam (aka Frankenstein) storyline I remembered from watching Dark Shadows in syndication as a kid. The end of the year has seen the first appearance of the ghost of Quentin Collins (who I was aware of but had never seen any episodes with), as well as the werewolf, Chris Jennings, and we bid farewell to Alexandra Moltke (the original Victoria Winters). I continue to be amazed at just how wild and entertaining the show is, all these years later. And it streams for free if you're an Amazon Prime member!

The Prisoner 50th Anniversary Limited Box Set - I've been a big fan of The Prisoner since I first saw it aired on PBS as a kid. It was my all-time favorite TV show before being relegated to all-time favorite British TV show (after the release of Twin Peaks). While the 50th anniversary of the show went all but unnoticed in the US in 2017, earlier this year I discovered that the same was not true in the show's homeland. I picked up a 50th anniversary limited edition boxed set from Network Releasing that not only included the entire series in Blu Ray (which I did have the US release of), but newly released material including a feature length documentary on a 1983 attempt to interview star Patrick McGoohan (as strange as it sounds, it's compelling for fans of the actor/show). Also in the deluxe box was an illustrated history book, a 6(!) CD set of original score and library cues. For hardcore fans of the show, it's quite a treasure trove, and copies are still available from the Network website.

The Outer Limits - When Peter and I started our Outer Limits blog with David J. Schow 8 years ago (almost exactly), a common refrain to the question about a Blu Ray release was not to get your hopes up. And certainly not for anything special. If anything, it seemed like fans would be lucky to get new transfers. So there was great rejoicing when word got out that Kino Lorber was not only re-releasing the series on Blu Ray and DVD, but that it would be from new scans. Schow corralled a number of experts (including several WACT alumnus) to provide commentaries, and in addition to those, the shorter Season Two allowed for the inclusion of a mother lode of extras, including the alternate versions of the pilot ("Please Stand By") and "Forms of Things Unknown" ("The Unknown") and tons of existing interviews and supplementary materials. Even those of us who were aware of the existence of said materials would have doubted they could all be collected on an official release, and yet, here we are. While the Season Two set had a minor audio hiccup on my favorite episode ("Soldier"), Kino already has a replacement plan in the works. Schow deserves much credit for working with Kino to make the most of these releases.

Jack's picks-

"The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat"
The X-Files-Season 11 was memorable, mostly for the one-off episodes like "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" and "Rm9sbG93ZXJz," both of which are classics.

Noir Alley-Eddie Muller continues to demonstrate why he is far and away the best TCM host, now that Robert Osborne has died. He shows great noir flicks every weekend and his before and after commentary is fascinating.

Inspector Montalbano-Seasons 11 and 12 were seen this year, with two episodes each. As long as Andrea Camilleri (now 93 years old) keeps writing novels about the Sicilian detective, I'll keep reading them. And as long as Luca Zingaretti (only 57) keeps playing the detective on Italian TV, I'll keep tuning in!

Inspector George Gently-Season 7 brought the story up to the end of the 1960s and it's as good as ever, as Gently and Bacchus cope with the events of those turbulent years. This is a wonderful show that has now ended with season 8 (not seen yet, but heading to the library to get it!), and I highly recommend it.

Vera-Another season 7 this year, and the rumpled, middle-aged, female detective continues to find plenty of murders to investigate in the north country of England. The characters are great and the scenery is wonderful.

Call the Midwife-What is it with season 7s this year? Season 7 of Call the Midwife continued the heartwarming and unflinching look at the work of the midwives in London's East End as the 1960s progressed. This is a fantastic show whose cast has changed over the years but which has not suffered.

Legion-Probably the weirdest show on the list, the second season of Legion wasn't quite as amazing as the first, but it was still superb TV. This is the only Marvel comics-based show (or movie, for that matter) that I enjoy, probably because it's so unlike all the others.

Better Call Saul-I saw season 3 on DVD and then watched season 4 as it unfolded. The death of Jimmy's brother Chuck is a big loss to the show, and I worry that it's heading into Breaking Bad territory, but the writing and acting are among the best on TV.

The Little Drummer Girl
Endeavour-This series just got to season 5, so it's not quite as old as most of the others. The cases of the young Inspector Morse have gotten better and better as the series has developed, and (once again) it's great to watch the characters navigate the world of 1960s' England.

The Little Drummer Girl-The last series I saw on the list for 2018, and another excellent adaptation of a novel by John Le Carre that I never read. Florence Pugh gives a very strong performance and it's hard to believe she's just 22.

Gilbert’s picks-

The Terror (AMC) is horror at its classiest – creeping, insinuated, understated, and masterfully relying upon deliberate atmosphere (including sound design that creates a sustained aural alienation), it has subtlety without being inert or drained of life.  Its attention to mid-nineteenth-century period and nautical detail makes this miniseries feel as hand-crafted as the tale’s pair of old wooden sea vessels. It could easily serve as a blueprint for what an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness should or could achieve, or maybe Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has never been filmed before.  (Or for that matter Jules Verne’s sequel, An Antarctic Mystery; or, The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.)

Based on the novel by Dan Simmons, the Ridley Scott-produced 10-part series follows two British Royal Navy vessels, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, on their ill-fated crossing through the treacherous Northwest Passage.  The mysterious events depicted are historical but subject to fictionalization because of a dearth of records and to make room for the possibility of the supernatural.

There are hints of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner as when the crew, thinking they are firing upon a hostile polar bear, shoots an Inuit shaman and thus brings down an almost albatross-like curse upon these seamen.  There are also echoes of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad alongside Alien, The Thing, Frankenstein, and other examples of “polar horror.”  (A sudden surgery on a patient violently convulsing on a table seems a direct nod to Scott’s own Alien.)

The Terror is sparing in its horror, saving its explicitness for the monster – either a massive polar bear like one of those in Edwin Henry Landseer’s dramatic painting speculating on the doom-laden expedition, Man Proposes, God Disposes, or something more unworldly, namely a demon-animal the natives call “the Tuunbaq” – stalking a crew that has descended into madness and cannibalism.  The ambiguity imparts a sense of profound mystery to a world that one officer calls “the Great White Nothing.”

Later the self-appointed leader, the mutinous Petty Officer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), proves to be the very embodiment of a quote attributed to Winston Churchill about the Royal Navy being run on rum, sodomy, and the lash.  Ambition burns blindingly bright in Hickey, and his extended time in the wilderness only serves to convince him further that he should be not merely the right-hand to the captain, not simply captain himself, not just the leader of the failed expedition party, but shaman-master of the Tuunbaq and all the power the creature holds…  “The horror!  The horror!

Jared Harris of Mad Men and Fringe cuts a noble figure as the quietly tormented but inherently decent captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier.  His foil and friend, Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) of the abandoned Erebus and first-in-command of the expedition, is not a bad man, but for good and for ill purely a man of his times, and inflexibly so.  There is no malice in him, but there is hubris, a costly quality on this grand venture.

Is an adaptation of Simmons’ The Abominable on the horizon?  Unfortunately, it is nowhere in sight.  Since The Terror’s success, AMC has taken the title of Simmons’ novel and franchised it into an unrelated anthology series.  Next year’s 10-episode return will be an original World War Two-era ghost story, though Simmons retains an executive producer credit as he did first season.

Yellowstone (Paramount Network) is a modern Western and family saga from Taylor Sheridan (screenwriter of both Sicario films) that plays a little like a contemporary-era Legends of the Fall.  In the first episode, one son of cattle baron and pater familias John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is sent out to rustle runaway livestock, a set-up by rivals that results in the son’s death and sparks what qualifies as a range war.

Dutton circles the wagons as a Native American reservation chief by the name of Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), savvy in both politics and business, and Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), a conniving real-estate developer, make a land grab for his Montana ancestral homestead equal to “the size of Rhode Island.”  Rainwater runs a reservation casino and explains, “The gambler’s money is like a river, flowing…our way.  This nation doesn’t want to give [our land] back? So be it. We’ll buy it back with their money.” But Dutton will not go gentle into that good night.  When Asian tourists chide Dutton for owning so much land, Dutton does not miss a beat when he snaps back with a line that sums up his ethos: “This is America.  We don’t share land here.”

Dutton’s power and influence – and health – are waning.  He uses what is left to put his son Jaime (Wes Bentley) up for elected office so to help the family cause, and he brings back his ruthless financier daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) from city life and makes her his family fixer because “Evil’s what I need right now.”  Dutton’s land has “been in my family” for “132 years” and he is determined not to be “the one to lose it.” But he is disillusioned with his children, lamenting that “I don’t even know who I’m trying to save it for, anymore.” Which brings us to the wayward son, ex-Navy SEAL Kayce (Luke Grime), who left the ranch and the Dutton family to marry an Indian woman named Monica (Kelsey Asbille).  Dutton wants him back in his life, and particularly wants to be a grandfather to their child. Perhaps in his mortality he is looking to the future and thinking of a worthier male heir.

With headlines like “Yellowstone Becomes Second Most Watched Scripted Series On Basic Cable, Hits New Ratings Highs,” it is no wonder they announced right after the credits of the finale that Paramount Network’s first original scripted series will be returning for a second season in 2019.

Genius Season 2: Picasso (National Geographic Channel).  The first season of this National Geographic anthology biopic series tackled Albert Einstein, and its second painted a portrait of Pablo Picasso.  If all along the makers were going to cover both Einstein and Picasso, they could have saved themselves the trouble and simply adapted Steve Martin’s fictional 1993 stage-play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, in which the two historical personages meet.  Of course that work was more of a comedy, though Geoffrey Rush as Einstein and Antonio Banderas as Picasso in Genius bring a fair amount of humor to their roles.

Like Einstein, Picasso is played by a younger actor (Alex Rich) for the early years.  Rich is good at capturing youthful idealism, but is not as charismatic as Johnny Flynn was at playing a fledgling Einstein.  The Einstein series seemed to commit to one actor or another for a given episode, but every hour of Picasso jumps backwards and forwards in time to depict the chaotic life of a man who crossed paths with Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Jean Renoir, Henri Matisse, and Sergei Diaghilev, all of whom are represented in the series.  The technique also splashes his big and untidy love life like messy paint, in both time frames for emphasis, across the small screen.

Banderas physically embodies the famous image the world knows most.  Much of the love affair between the aging Picasso and French artist Françoise Gilot was covered in the 1996 Merchant Ivory film Surviving Picasso, but with a different take.  Anthony Hopkins was an effective Picasso in his own right, his passions still volcanic, though he brought none of the Latin sensibility of the authentic Banderas, like Pablo a native of Málaga (one locale where they filmed, incidentally).  Hopkins’ Picasso is somehow crueler in his callousness, less emotionally infantile as Banderas is often. This immaturity is sometimes used as an excuse for the monstrously selfish treatment by Banderas’ Picasso of the women in his life, there to serve him, his needs, his greatness.  Both Hopkins and Banderas do paint human portraits of the man they are depicting, however – it is never in doubt that in Picasso’s mind he loves these women and the children he fathers and is generous in his affections (and, at least onscreen, his largesse). It is only that his definition of what love is, and what its obligations are, correspond to a narcissist’s or a child’s.

At times the miniseries tries to use this to soften or justify the parade of women over the course of his life, especially in an ending that might as well shrug and say, “Well he’s Picasso, a genius, and that’s just what geniuses do, love ’em or leave ’em.” (National Geographic’s Einstein was not much different in this attitude, as are many biopics, be they of artists, composers, etc.)

One of the strengths of this long-form format is that a more expansive biopic canvass gives characters, and events in their lives, more room to breathe and develop.  One of the drawbacks, however, is that with so many women and family squabbles, a sprawling sense of sameness and repetition sometimes sets in. (This is less of a problem if one spaces out one’s viewing; it is best not to “binge-watch” this series.)

Next year on Genius – one year after the 200th anniversary of the novel Frankenstein – is Mary Shelly, whose life has been treated in at least four films, not including her cameo portrayal in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – Haunted Summer (1988), Rowing with the Wind (1988), Gothic (1986), and last year’s Mary Shelley with Elle Fanning in the title role – but never at such great length.

Six (History Channel).  The second season of this original History Channel series was its last, which is a shame since it is a refreshing change of pace from the many timid films that choose the War on Terror as their topic only to go bust at the box office because they pussyfoot around the “controversy.”  Six is unapologetic, but not unthoughtful, in its portrayal of the special forces who take the fight to the enemy rather than wait for them to bring terror to home soil.  It had competition from SEAL Team at CBS, a network which specializes in formula procedure (CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, etc.).  SEAL Team outlasted Six, which did not confine itself to formula.

In Six, the legendary SEAL Team Six that avenged America and September 11th by killing Osama bin Laden gets its own showcase series.  While that particular operation is not covered, other fictional (or fictionalized) missions are.  The second season’s special operation, while not the Bin Laden compound raid, is clearly inspired by that operation as they hunt an international terrorist mastermind dubbed “the Prince” and spectacularly infiltrate his Azerbaijani bunker complex (which is what the cat-and-mouse has been building up to all along, and perhaps the previous season as well).

Leading the team into battle is their off-balance commanding officer, Walton Goggins, relatively fresh off of Justified.  By second season, his character only sporadically appears, which is unfortunate.  But doing a good job of picking up the slack as the requisite wild card member of the unit is Eric Ladin from The Killing and Boardwalk Empire (playing J. Edgar Hoover).  Olivia Munn’s character is also something of a loose cannon, turning in a low-key but dynamic performance as a CIA operative who runs black sites in her obsessive need to track “the Prince.”
Overall not quite as strong as its first season, but still strong, and the series as a whole not as good as the similar 2006-2009 CBS series The Unit from David Mamet and The Shield’s Shawn Ryan, but still solid.  While both seasons of Six are worth the watch, be prepared for at least one unresolved storyline which would have presumably formed the basis of a season three.

Marseille (Netflix).  The makers of Marseille must have been reading bare•bones because back in Best of 2016 it was written:

[T]here is something amiss in its depiction of this port city.  It has been called the most dangerous city in Europe because of its Islamic terror presence … But one would never know this from Marseille … Basically, Marseille would have you believe that it is the Mafia that poses the worst danger to the peaceful portside city.  Perhaps in the 1970s, when the French Connection films were made, or the 1960s when the real-life Eddie Egan cracked that world-famous case … But in 2016, that notion is quaint when France faces a terror wave of vehicular jihad, stadium and concert bombings, cartoonist assassinations, and other assorted acts of violence, all perpetrated by radicalized Muslim terrorists … Future seasons of Marseille would be stronger if they featured this aspect of life in the city of Renoir and Cézanne … Really Marseille should play out more like Showtime’s unfortunately forgotten Sleeper Cell, because that is France’s current reality, and these are the stories a series with the name “Marseille” should be telling, or at least acknowledging if it is to be relevant ...

While it is not quite Sleeper Cell, the landscape of the second season is now much closer to headlines.  For one example, the demographics of France’s second largest city include Muslim migrant drug gangs, so Marseille shows one member radicalized and involved in a stadium terror attack.

Also mirroring recent current events is a Marine Le Pen-like figure, Jeanne Coste (Belgian actress Natacha Régnier).  During France’s 2017 presidential election, the press called Marseille a key battleground between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, whose right-wing populist National Front did well enough to make the city their stronghold.  In the series, those forces gain ground in local elections on a nationalist-nativist platform, with the twist that Coste, their candidate, is the daughter of Ivy League left-wing activists. (A comparable “origin story” is to be found in HBO’s The Young Pope where the ultraconservative pontiff is the product of counterculture parents, the thinking presumably being that right wing thought is a reaction to polarizing parents.)

Another twist is that, while Marseille is not sympathetic to her beliefs, Coste is portrayed in very human terms, and that the center-right moderate mayor Lucas Barrès (Benoît Magimel) not only chooses her as his deputy mayor – as much a jab at the ex-mayor Taro (Gérard Depardieu), who disdains her nationalist party, as a bid to build a coalition government – but as his lover.  In a later development, a guilt-ridden Coste seeks spiritual counsel from a goodly priest when she cannot live up to her own ideals in her personal life. All the characters are treated with a humanity generally absent on similar political programs like House of Cards.  The ex-mayor’s sad wife (Géraldine Pailhas), after a suicide attempt, finds peace protecting an illegal North African immigrant boy whose piano-playing captivated her.  The ex-mayor’s daughter (Stéphane Caillard) risks life and limb investigating what she believes is the murder of the owner of the city’s stadium for a newspaper. Depardieu’s retired mayor, the driving force of Marseille whose Machiavellian moniker was “the Crocodile” while in office, tries behind the scenes to stop the sale of the city’s stadium because it stands as a symbol of civic unity where all peoples of all backgrounds can come together.  And so on. Not lost in this are the mandatory maneuverings, scheming, backstabbing, and all else you would come to expect from political dramas.

It is anybody’s guess if Marseille returns for a third season because Netflix does not release viewership numbers the way studios do their box office returns, but Marseille definitely deserves renewal.

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey.  Though filmmaker Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time had a limited release in 2016, in November of this year it screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, accompanied by a live score performed by the Wordless Music Orchestra & Choir, and conducted by Jayce Ogren.  This orchestra-and-balcony choir performance almost qualifies as a new version of Malick’s natural science documentary, for several reasons. Besides a 45-minute version in existence for IMAX theaters narrated by Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien from The Tree of Life himself), there is the Cate Blanchett-narrated version upon which this one is based, and Malick’s preferred cut sans narration (screened at the National Air and Space Museum).  Now there is this concert version with an entirely different narrator (Lily James of Darkest Hour instead of Blanchett or Pitt), not to mention 35 minutes of new music written by Ricardo Romaneiro (The Letter).  Because it was live, it is not a “variation on a theme” that is likely to ever appear on Blu-ray or DVD.

Voyage of Time has been classified as a natural history documentary, but in reality it is best described, in the words of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, as a “cosmic reflection,” one on the order of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) or Baraka (1992).  Christianity Today writer Brett McCracken, in his review “Voyage of Time: Bridge from Science to Faith,” astutely chooses words like “evensong,” “cantata,” and “contemplative liturgy” to characterize Malick’s science project because, though a completely secular work, Voyage of Time’s ceaseless and seamless classical music score is much like that of The Tree of Life’s, its sacred chorales – Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” Arvo Pärt’s Da pacem Domine, Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” from his St. Luke Passion, Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, and probably most appropriately, The Creation of Joseph Haydn, among others – signifying “all motion’s source.”

Voyage of Time is a time scape of soundscapes, spacescapes, seascapes, natural landscapes, cityscapes, and what the press materials call “the futurescape of our universe referencing the latest theories about our cosmic destiny.”  It begins with low-res Harinezumi digital “home movies” of the contemporary world – first world homelessness, third world poverty, a nun negotiating crooked and winding Old World streets, firemen fighting a blaze, then…cosmogony.

These intimate non-letterboxed “home movies” intersperse the larger state-of-the-arts effects-laden widescreen chronicle of our universe, Earth, and life itself, a cycle of constant creation and cataclysm that includes nothingness, the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the birth of the Earth and microbial life, the dinosaurs, the K-T event and mass extinction of dinosaur life, early humans, our sun’s expansion into a red dwarf, and the ultimate collapse of the universe.  Throughout, audiences are given a front-row seat to witness these untold billions of years in a mere hour and a half.

The spectacle of Voyage of Time is brought to dazzling life by Dan Glass (Batman Begins and The Matrix sequels), the visual effects artist who cut his teeth on The Tree of Life under the tutelage of that film’s special effects legend, Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner).  The phenomena, including those unseen by human eyes, were painstakingly researched and recreated in consultation with some of the top experts in their respective fields – astrophysics, physics, theoretical physics, astronomy, anthropology, biology, zoology, geology, and more.

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey is the companion piece to The Tree of Life, a newly-extended Criterion edition of which released to Blu-ray and DVD only two months prior to BAM’s Voyage concert.

Voyage of Time and The Tree of Life together form a diptych, the former functioning as the source material for Malick’s vision and the latter, like Voyage of Time’s sacred music score, an exegetical commentary bringing to the surface “deep and hidden things” that for those with eyes to see, unveil “Creation’s secret force.” 

Peter's picks- 

The best book I read this year actually didn't come out in 2018 so, technically, it's a cheat. Aurora Monster Scenes by Dennis L. Prince and Andrew P. Yanchus is the inside story (Yanchus is the man responsible for concept and design) of what became a kid's dream and the corporation's public affairs nightmare known as the Monster Scenes Model Kits in the early to mid-1970s. I can attest to the line's popularity as I had each and every one of the kits (as well as the tamer follow-ups, The Prehistoric Scenes), built and painted in my bedroom when I was a young buck. Oh yeah, that Vampirella was something else. Prince and Yanchus never bore, telling a fascinating tale even while laying out the schematics for such a feat. 

Hard Case Crime continues to do good work but I can't give a thumbs-up to Understudy For Death by Charles Willeford, a decidedly un-Criminous work by an author I usually eat up. Why HC founder and publisher Charles Ardai chose to reprint this tedious slice of Peyton Place, spiced with soft core scenes, other than for the obvious name value, is beyond me. 

Stephen King, as usual, let me down. But it's my fault for falling for his line again. The first half of The Outsider is the best thing he's done since his heyday in the late 1970s, but then Big Steve feels the need to write a second half and everything falls apart. Those small coincidences and goofy italicy thought thingies he loves so much grew and grew and grew and before too long I was once again questioning (as I did with Duma Key) how a writer so gifted with set-up could be clueless when it comes to wrap-up.

John's picks-

Elevation by Stephen King
When I first read that King was writing a book about a character named Scott Carey who was shrinking, I assumed he might have gone overboard creating a homage to Richard Matheson's novel, The Shrinking Man. Fortunately when the novella arrived, it became clear that he had a different idea inspired by Matheson's concept. It's a poignant little tale from King that doesn't overstay its welcome.

Making Planet of the Apes by Jonathan Rinzler
From the author of the three making of books on the original Star Wars trilogy, this new volume focuses on the original film that launched the franchise 50 years ago. Worth having in your Ape Library for the amazing photos and concept art alone. I have a hunch that his 40th anniversary Making of Alien will be on this list next year.

The Star Wars Archives: 1977-1983 by Paul Duncan
Taschen is known for their big, beautiful books, and this is no exception. For the Star Wars fan willing to shell out the price ($200 retail, though it was offered as low as $130 prior to release), there's plenty inside to appreciate as Paul Duncan navigates the original trilogy scene by scene with art, photos and behind the scenes material. It will be interesting to see if the future will bring further volumes (1999-2005, 2015-19), but for now, we can feast on these 600 18" x 12" pages of Star Wars at its very best.

DJStories by David J. Schow
2018 saw the release of this 'greatest hits' collection of Schow's short fiction, including (for those who keep track of such things) the first time his story "Calendar Girl" - a personal favorite of mine - appears in a hardcover collection. DJStories is a great introduction to his body of work, and a fun trip down memory lane for those of us who have read them all, as they are offered here in chronological order with new story notes, and details on where they originally appeared (information Schow has purposefully left out of prior collections).

Jack's picks-

Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by James Reston, Jr.--This engaging history of the third crusade came in handy when I got around to reading some EC comics stories on the same topic!

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama--A fabulous police procedural set in Japan.

Hard City by Clark Howard--An autobiographical novel of Howard's experiences growing up poor on the streets of Chicago in the '40s.

Robert B. Parker's Debt to Pay by Reed Farrell Coleman--Coleman has livened up the Jesse Stone series since Parker died, and I could not put this book down!

The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter--One of the best of the Inspector Morse series, about a missing young woman and the clues that guide the police department's search.

Treasure Hunt by Andrea Camilleri--A gripping Inspector Montalbano mystery that can swing from comic to tragic in an instant.

Gun in Cheek by Bill Pronzini--Pronzini's examination of the best of the worst in classic crime fiction is a delightful read, with many passages that have to be read out loud to one's long-suffering spouse.

Vanish in an Instant and How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar--Two superb novels by the author of Beast in View; both are compelling reads with shock endings that are utterly unpredictable. They leave you stunned and make you think back over the whole book and look at it in a new light.

Peter's picks-

The best thing that happened to me comics-wise, this year, was the discovery of morethanheroes, a website that allows you access to pert near every Atlas/Marvel comic published pre-1961. Without this miracle of the internet, I'd have been up a creek without a paddle when it came to the "Dungeons of Doom" posts here on bb. Yep, as I usually state, the legality of the files is dodgy but, short of Marvel collecting the two dozen horror/SF anthologies between covers someday or paying ungodly sums for the originals, this is the only way of experiencing these pre-code gems. Feast away and tune in to my rants every other Thursday.

John's picks-

While I continue to regularly buy (and occasionally read) comics I've got nothing when it comes to selecting something worthy of inclusion on this year's Best of list. 

Jack's picks-

The Starman Omnibus, vol. 1-One great thing about not really being in the habit of reading comics from about 1980-on is that I can discover great comics that came out during that period after they've been vetted and collected in book form. A store called Ollie's Discount Locker began selling older graphic novels at dirt cheap prices this year, and one I picked up was this collection of the first 17 issues of the series from the '90s that revived one of my favorite Golden Age characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will seek out more volumes.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters-Emil Ferris wrote and drew this graphic novel, which hit it big in the mainstream culture. It's a great book and I can't wait for volume two in 2019.

DC 100-Page Giants-I got swept up in the excitement of Action 1000 last spring and when DC announced this summer that they were going to revive the mid-'70s 100-page giant format I couldn't wait. They publish four comics every month and they're on sale at Wal-Mart: Superman, Batman, Teen Titans, and Justice League of America. Each comic has one new story that's pretty short and then a few longer reprints. I think the Batman comic is the best so far. but each of the four always has something good in it. Best of all, it's gotten me back in the habit of haunting the store, looking for the new issues. That hasn't happened in a long time!

Peter's picks-
I'm going to second Jack's endorsement of Spotify below. It's not that I'm discovering the joys of Drake and Cardi B. Far from it. I'm finding new proof that the great stuff, even the stuff I've never heard, was conceived forty (sometimes fifty) years in the past. Take for instance, the case of Boz Scaggs, whose Silk Degrees and Down Two, Then Left have been on heavy rotation in my sound studio since they were released in the late 70s. While I'm revisiting such gems as "Lowdown" and "Hard Times," Spotify gently nudges me into Scaggs-territory I'd never explored before. Namely, his 1969 self-titled sophomore album, laced with a heavy dose of Duane Allman on such bluesy numbers as "Loan Me a Dime" and "I'll Be Long Gone." Hard to believe this is the same guy who cut "We're All Alone" seven years later. 

John's picks-

John Carpenter Live Blu Ray - If you missed the opportunity to see John Carpenter perform live on one of his recent tours, a Blu Ray of a concert has recently been released through his website. While I was happy to have it, I wasn't expecting much in the way of production values. The Blu Ray exceeded my expectations, being a multi-camera shoot of the performance. 

Night of the Living Dead (Waxwork) - I plan to do a thorough  review of this new vinyl release soon, but for now I'll just say that it blows the original Varese Sarabande album out of the water, and even expands upon the fantastic CD release (now OOP) They Won't Stay Dead that made my best of the year list in 2010. We get remastered library tracks, including one not included on TWSD, along with several classic synthesized bits that will be extremely familiar to fans of the film.

The Omega Man (UK RSD) - If you've ever tried to track down a Record Store Day release of a particular album, you'll appreciate the added headache that comes when a release is a UK exclusive. But that didn't stop me from getting my hands on a copy of the first ever vinyl release of Ron Grainer's excellent score to The Omega Man. While there's no unreleased material on this one, it fills a nice hole in the collection after 47 years!

Anna and the Apocalypse - As noted above, one of my last surprises of 2018 was this musical zombie-comedy. There's really only one song that has to do with zombies ("Soldier at War"), but there are no shortage of catchy tunes that I quickly became a fan of. Worth checking out if you like a good musical number! And for what it's worth, the UK version contains a song not present on the domestic release.

Jack's picks-

Children of Paradise-Willie Nile-I saw Willie play live early in 2018 for the first time since 1981, and he was fantastic. His new album was a great mix of rock and social commentary. I have tickets to see him again in February 2019 and I can't wait. I've always said his 1981 concert was the best live show I ever saw (better than Springsteen) and, at age 70, he's still my favorite.

Spotify-Just a shout-out to Spotify, the little miracle app on my iPhone that lets me listen to anything, anytime, anywhere. Recall a song you haven't heard in 20 years? Tap, tap, tap, and there it is! Incredible.

*Our favorites, in some cases, may not actually be from 2018, but we saw or read them in 2018.


John said...

Just started watching "The Terror" (through episode four) and I agree that the horror is sparing and as a result, effective. The book was excellent and this film treatment does it justice, at the very least, on the visuals. With Simmons as an executive producer, it stands a better chance of not going off the rails.

The best horror film DVD release of the year has to go to "Night/Curse of the Demon". I was blown away by this boxed set -- it doesn't get much better than this. It was also nice that it was released on region-free discs. Anyone who enjoys a good film, especially a thriller, must see this, tout de suite!

The "Making of Planet of the Apes" book is very nicely done. Good quality and plenty of photos and info of a movie that was quite the shocker for this teenager the year it came out.

Nice job, you guys!

John Scoleri said...

Thanks, John! Peter almost sat this year-end celebration out, and I wouldn't let him go without at least waving the flag for the Night/Curse of the Demon box set. I've got my copy, but haven't had a chance to crack it open yet. I'm sure that I'll be one of the many singing its praises once I do. Happy New Year!