We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph about the most memorable movies and TV shows they saw this year.
“We did everything right,” Soviet engineer Aleksandr Akimov is reported to have said to his coworker, Leonid Toptunov, right after reactor four at Chernobyl exploded. The line is included in the HBO series Chernobyl, a visceral portrayal of the real-life disaster. Viewers in Russia and Ukraine have reviewed the mini-series positively, a testament to the way the series dramatizes events with historical accuracy.
The show opens with Valery Alekseyevich Legasov, the chief of the commission investigating the disaster, hanging himself in his kitchen after taping his last words and coughing blood into a handkerchief. Efforts to address the disaster were delayed and information misconstrued in order to protect the image of the Soviet Union. Throughout the show, Legasov is confronted by the state’s shortcomings until he is faced with the ultimate choice: to speak the truth, or to censor it.
Another narrative in the show is that of Vasily Ignatenko, one of the first firefighters who responded to the explosion, whose body suffered devastating damage following his exposure to the radiation. According to his wife, also featured in the show, he coughed up pieces of his own organs in the weeks leading up to his inevitable death. The show is wonderfully written, navigating this harrowing event in a respectful and impactful way.
My favorite dramas this year have both been biographical, but of very different lives. As everyone knows, The Crown intends to tell the story of Queen Elizabeth and her family from before her coronation up to the present. Thus far it has been much better acted and written than the typical period piece. We see virtues and vices unfold in the lives of the royal family, Elizabeth’s simple but firm sense of duty in contrast to the refined self-absorption of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as well as the tension between family and title that she and her husband face.
Two decades earlier in Austria, Franz Jägerstätter was the only member of his Alpine village to vote against Germany’s annexation of Austria. He later refused to take the oath to Hitler when he was drafted. Terrence Malick’s story of Jägerstätter, A Hidden Life, is the most beautiful movie of the year. At the heart of the story is not a lone conscientious objector but a marriage, a man and woman striving to remain faithful to God as the modern age invades their nest above the clouds.
One of the year’s best films is The Farewell. This American movie about a Chinese family uses understated comedy and sharply observed characters to tell a story of culture shock. The writer and director, Lulu Wang, draws on her own life—she first shared the inspiration for the film on an episode of This American Life. In Wang’s autobiographical radio segment, and now in the film adaptation, a Chinese family keeps their grandmother in the dark about her own cancer diagnosis, hoping to ease her last days. This is apparently a common enough practice in China that few in the family have qualms with it. “We have a saying in China,” explains the sick woman’s daughter-in-law. “When people get cancer, they die.” The audience laughs, but the line is delivered straight: The family will shield their grandmother from knowledge that could prove fatal to her spirit.
The film’s protagonist Billi (played expressively by Awkwafina, and clearly based on Wang herself), however, has grown up in America and been acculturated to a different way of doing things. She finds it horribly difficult to go along with the ruse, especially as the family hastily organizes a cousin’s wedding as a cover for everyone to get a last visit with Billi’s grandmother, or “Nai Nai.” Is Billi experiencing rightful pangs of conscience about the collective lie? Or is it really, as some of her relatives allege, that she’s become too Westernized, too focused on the rights of the individual over the good of the family? Wang, and the film, seems fascinated by the question and unsure of the answer. The film has no doubts, however, about Nai Nai’s indomitable personality and her love for her far-flung family who come back from America and Japan for this wedding. Zhao Shuzhen is utterly charming as Nai Nai, the warm and opinionated matriarch at the center of this family and their campaign of benevolent disinformation.
The film balances the poignant and the comedic, but its greatest strength is its heart. The affection the filmmakers have for their characters keeps us invested in the outcome of this stealthy leave-taking with Nai Nai. See it before the Oscars so you can root for a humane and moving film to win big—but be ready to call your own grandparents afterward.
Some years, I know immediately when I've watched the best movie of my year: I left The Fits in 2016 and Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc last year knowing that I'd experienced something unforgettable, sublime. That didn't happen this year. I saw good, thoughtful new films: The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a weird, rambling, touching exploration of friendship, in which gentrification is more metaphor than politics. Parasite is a twisty psychological horror film about inequality and the sweet smell of success. The Farewell is the rare culture-clash film that lets the non-American culture win. And Corpus Christi follows a Polish juvenile delinquent whose decision to masquerade as a village priest exposes more secrets than his own. But the one new film this year which got inside me and did exactly what it intended was Jordan Peele's Us. This horror film is also a fable of inequality, perhaps an even grimmer and sharper one than Parasite. It's also filled with haunting images and moments: a family of shadows walking across a beach, a song playing on the radio, a pair of scissors. Out of all the new films I saw this year, Us is the one I most want to revisit.
Of course, I'm seeing Cats this weekend, so perhaps my peak movie-watching experience of the year is yet to come.
I have detected in movies of late what might be called “unconscious pop culture salutariness”—the largely accidental exposure of both Hollywood hollowness and counterculture mythologizing. These elements surfaced in about half of the movies I saw in 2019, a “thin” year due to illness, but actually a rich one in marking the growing desperation of the movie industry in peddling the dangerous untruths that have generated much of its treasure and power.
An example was the Judy Garland biopic Judy. I’m a naïve filmgoer: I allow myself to be sucked in, only sorting things out in my head on the way home. Judy tells a depressing story so slickly it seemed uplifting until the second traffic light.
Garland had a terrible life: indentured to showbiz from childhood by her parents, addicted to drugs and alcohol, suffering ill-health (physical and mental) for most of her life, unable to form lasting relationships, but—still, it seems—she “lived to sing” for an audience and blah blah. Judy told this tale of misery as though it were some kind of triumph of the human spirit, culminating in an “inspirational” show-must-go-on sentimentalism (whereas a glance at Garland’s biography would have revealed her careering toward a cliff-edge). As the cheers rang out, the subtitles mentioned, by the by, that she died shortly afterward, aged 47 (of an “incautious self-overdosage of barbiturates”).
Yesterday, presenting a world in which the Beatles never happened, suffered from a related pathology-of-pretense. The central premise is that a world that had never heard of the Beatles would swoon at the first bars of Let It Be. My son-in-law shrewdly proposed that a superior thesis might be such a world finding the music just a little bit naff. As I suggested in these pages earlier in the year, the movie might have been better directed at the destruction wrought by Beatledom in the world of misled youth and, not least, in the lives of those closest to the flame.
So much of what we’ve decided about pop culture arises not from content but context: the insinuation of greatness even where it doesn’t exist because we, in our “averageness,” need it. Behind the recent craze for pop biopics is a kind of tautology: People with “star quality” prowling a stage in view of “ordinary” people who have been persuaded that what they’re watching is in some way heroic, when more often it is the concealed destruction of human lives by dint of a misunderstanding of what life really represents. Show business sells us a bogus notion of human aspiration and, when it goes wrong (as it inevitably does), presents the wreckage as some kind of mysterious misadventure rather than the inevitable destination of the error.
Aside from all that, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was far and away the best movie I saw all year.
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