The Simpsons in its heyday produced some of the most subversive, absurd and outright hilarious sitcom episodes of all time and narrowing down my top ten has been so difficult and over time I will probably change my mind. There will of course be some contentious opinions as many iconic episodes- there are probably about fifty or more classics- and you could really choose anything between seasons three and eight and they'd be nothing wrong with any of your choices. The ranking may see absurd at times and will be incredibly debatable but that's the problem when a show was so consistently great as The Simpsons was in the 90s and rest assured there will be nothing from season 9 and onward.
We're at the beginnings of awards season and many new limited prestige releases are coming out in abundance for our entertainment but mostly to be in time for upcoming award shows. Some are actually in fact mid-budget films that studios hope will hope that word of mouth from festival circuits will carry them into profitability as we are seeing with Ford v Ferrari and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. Knives Out is a peculiar case because although it has high acclaim and has been well-received in festivals, critics don't think it's "serious" enough to be in the running for awards. Unlike the aforementioned films which are the kind of adored biopics the Academy fawns over and instead is a crowd-pleasing whodunit with a gleeful and light touch. I'm so glad that audiences appear to be taking to the film as it shows hope for future non-franchise films aimed at adult audiences and shows the power of an interesting hook that interests viewers regardless of absent brand recognition that mainstream film relies so heavily upon nowadays. Perhaps much of this is owed to its stellar ensemble that's so smartly cast it can grab multiple demographics but among the A-listers and rising stars, comes a breakthrough performance from Ana de Armas as the moral protagonist emerging from an absurd cast of characters to give meaning and depth to a film that has its fair share of stinging satire. Rian Johnson instills scenes with up to the minute dialogue delivered with so much enthusiasm from a delightfully game cast where every player gets their opportunity to deliver venomous one-liners that have sharp insights into the material and social media driven culture of the present day. With its modern spin of a classic sub-genre, Knives Out looks at the familiar themes associated with whodunits as it scathingly critiques class and old money families but present them in a 21st century context with modern language, politics and technology foregrounded in Johnson's rich and endlessly entertaining film.
As soon as the ecstatic first reviews came out for The Irishman I hoped I could experience this film in the cinema where it obviously belongs and I'm so grateful that Netflix has made an effort to give the film more cinematic distribution than their previous films. A Scorsese film with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro is immediately worth watching but this film comes with a sledgehammer performance from fellow acting icon Al Pacino as well. It feels so great to have this trio of great actors lead such a thoughtful and complex entry into the crime epic genre after years of being relegated to some pretty awful films they should never have had to suffer through. While it's not particularly fair that the film does not have very wide distribution, it does need to be taken into account the cost, budget and run time that make a massive financial risk; after years of being in development hell it's just relieving to see it being released in any capacity at all. With the high quality of the film it's hard to believe it struggled to lift off the ground in the first place, it's bristling with crackling wit, a complex rewarding plot of betrayal, dishonesty and regret, and a brilliantly gifted ensemble with what may be Pesci's finally performance ever and if it is he is ended his career on a massive high note.
Opening with a pair of deceptively warm intra-diegetic voice-overs from each partner in this imploding relationship, Marriage Story’s cut to the reality of the pair in couple’s counselling with Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) refusing to read her version aloud is brutally effective. The loss of love and sentimentalism is portrayed immediately but perhaps would evoke more shock in viewers if it wasn’t the basis of all the film’s marketing. But still watching these two eloquently describe their profound affectation for the other and be unwilling to share these feelings in present day is pretty soul destroying especially with the level of romanticism within these monologues thanks to Noah Baumbach’s endlessly witty dialogue. Although the film is touching on some pretty harsh subject matter, Baumbach’s light touch alleviates much of the tension felt with a balanced sense of humour that is surprisingly laugh out loud for a film about a particularly nasty divorce. It also helps that the film is graced with one of the finest ensembles of the year with standout performances from Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern. The latter of which provides one of the most humourous moments in the film in a brilliant speech about how unfair the perception of mothers is ever since the Virgin Mary that is so on point that I imagine, between this and Renata Klein, Dern portrays the most quotable character of the year in her current career hot streak. While Dern is undoubtedly a scene-stealer in her portrayed of her gleefully manipulative divorce attorney Nora, the film is mostly an acting showcase for Johansson and Driver as the couple enveloped in a widening rift.
Luce builds mystery right from its opening shot, and from there it never ceases its complex, winding narrative. A simple placing of a brown paper bag that comprises the film's opening shot becomes the catalyst that ignites many questions of doubt and suspicion that shroud our titular protagonist, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). What is discovered in this bag by his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) are illegal fireworks that mire Luce's picture-perfect image as a young student excelling in both academic and athletic pursuits after growing up in war-torn Eritrea. Luce's narrative of a young black man overcoming his tragic backstory to achieve success in America sees him being put on a pedestal by those around him, a confounding high expectation that unsettles and annoys him. We see this upon his first discussion with his parents about Ms. Wilson, whom he shows immediate disdain towards, and this loathing is felt during their uncomfortable and tense interactions. Based on a play of the same name, the film is of course dialogue-heavy and involves so many incredibly tense passive-aggressive moments where fronts unravel and power plays are employed. It's incredibly engrossing since the film is helmed by some amazing performances from Spencer, Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts as Luce's adoptive mother Amy who's at a loss at what to believe as the film's events unravel as are we as viewers. The film never cuts toward expositional, heavy-handed scenes and so what we know is based on what the ensemble says, which results in a lot of ambiguity since these characters are so slippery. It's shown however that the boys within Luce's athletics team do in fact share lockers so we don't have an immediate reason to distrust him for the fireworks being in his locker. However, his violence-laden written assignment in which he personifies a past dictator provides reasonable suspicion for Ms. Wilson.
Throughout the 21st century there has been a rise in the lazy, formulaic crime procedural spearheaded by CBS that has seen a rise in dull, rather cookie-cutter television filled with bland performances and wholly expected narrative outcomes. This was an unexciting transition for the broadcast television landscape but with the rise of streaming these shows are generally passing out of favor now that audiences have so much more choice. These shows' ratings dwindle due to the fact that there's no incentive to watch a show live anymore when the narrative outcome is so unsurprising, and there's a dearth of other options available to watch. To achieve success with this sub-genre, these tiresome conventions must be challenged and subverted; otherwise, people will lose interest. From its first episode, The Sinner achieves this immediately. A conventional procedural may open with the victim meeting their end and then the remaining minutes of the episode follows the team of protagonists doing their job so the criminal is caught and everything is wrapped up tidily, ready for next week's episode. While it's true that the show's opener shows the crime committed very soon into the first episode, the circumstances are changed and the narrative conventions are upended. As we see the perpetrator of the crime commit the criminal act before us there is no question of who, and she is quickly apprehended so there is no rush to capture the criminal either. Instead the focus is on why this inexplicable crime was committed as it appears that there is no circumstance apparent that would lead protagonist Cora Tannetti do such an act to a man she has no apparent connection to. The crime itself surpasses our expectations by being actually shocking in a genre that has become so exploitative. There's also such a palpable atmosphere when Cora repeatedly stabs an unknown male on a family day out to the beach in front of numerous spectators and her own infant child. Whoever selected the song "Huggin' & Kissin'" by Big Black Delta has a gift for selecting such evocative and moody music that becomes more emphatic every time it's played throughout the series. This song is a striking cue that brings back much of Cora's repressed turmoil that wounds her so tightly and the majority of the narrative is about her resurfacing her own suppressed traumas so that she can make sense of her inexplicable crime.