Plus his pick of TV shows, American & foreign, best stand-up specials, and, gulp, porn stars!
The year 2017 was a pretty good one for movies. Half of the ones I liked best were foreign — 30% British. World War II featured in four of them. Two featured dogs, one centered on an eagle, and another was set in a zoo. I didn’t see the big Oscar-candidate films that came out at the end of the year but am really looking forward to The Post, The Leisure Seeker, Darkest Hour, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
As usual, I saw lots of good, smart TV. Many of them were reviewed in my Rag Blog column and appear in my book, 89 Smart, Foreign TV Series). I list this year’s small screen crop (78 series) below, along with 16 stand-up comedy specials wife Sharon and I enjoyed — and a little something extra.
- A DOG’S PURPOSE is a wonderful movie, for families or anyone. With warmth, humor, intelligence, and philosophical inquiry, it seeks to determine a dog’s purpose over five lifetimes. Josh Gad voices the canine protagonists, Dennis Quaid and the cast are very good, and the five dogs are excellent. Legendary Norwegian director Lasse Hallström was nominated for three Oscars for helming The Cider House Rules and writing and directing My Life as a Dog, and he was nominated for four global honors for directing Chocolat. Reza Noorani of The Times of India wrote: “If you’re a dog-lover, the makers will have you eating out of their hands in no time. If you’re a cat-person, there is still enough humor and heart in it to enjoy it with family.”
- AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER is Al Gore’s decade-later follow-up to his world-shaking An Inconvenient Truth, which significantly propelled the global environmental movement. Here he travels the world seeking to influence climate policy and school climate activists. The film dramatically illustrates that Earth is nearing a true climate revolution, aided by Gore’s efforts at the global summit and elsewhere. This is a very educational and uplifting documentary, with more than a bit of drama and humor.
- THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (Czech.-U.K.) is a very involving, uplifting, dramatized true story of how a Warsaw zoo-owning couple managed to hide 300 ghetto Jews from the Nazis and aid their escape. Jessica Chastain is terrific in the title role, supported admirably by Daniel Brühl, Johan Heldenbergh, and a strong Czech cast. After Antonina and Jan Zabainski’s zoo is destroyed, many of their animals are slaughtered and others transported to the Berlin Zoo, they bravely work with the Resistance to help small groups of Jews escape, at great risk to themselves and their children. Brühl, always wonderful, is a very three-dimensional villain.
- THE BIG SICK was the summer’s surprise critical hit (98% approval from 244 writers at Rottentomatoes.com) that resounded with audiences too (93.4% yesses from 64,709 Internet Movie Database voters). It is a warm, funny romantic comedy starring and co-scripted by Pakistan-born comic Kumail Nanjiani (TV’s Silicon Valley and Franklin & Bash) with excellent support from Holly Hunter, Zoe Kazan, and Ray Romano. A standup comic’s love interest falls ill and he has to confront her parents and his family’s expectations. The film received 76 award nominations and 13 wins, including the SXSW audience award. This is a highly enjoyable picture.
- A MAN CALLED OVE (Swe.) won 13 major awards and took 36 nominations, including best foreign film Oscar. This is a charming Swedish comedy-drama about a grumpy middle-aged man who forms an unlikely friendship with boisterous Iranian neighbors in his condo complex. More than 95.5% of 29,458 IMDb viewers gave it thumbs up and it was strong with all demos, especially females 18-29. At Rotten Tomatoes, 91% of 106 critics approved. Our old friend Rolf Lassgård is solid in the lead. A sweet movie.
- THE GOOD LIE (Kenya, India) is a nice Reece Witherspoon vehicle in which she’s the gold-hearted employment counselor for three Sudanese refugees in Kansas City who endured astonishing hardships to reach the U.S. and who struggle to adapt to Yankee ways. The terrific young Sudanese actors are all refugees or children of refugees. 88% of 85 critics and 94.7% of IMDb voters liked it (especially women 18 and older). After the 1983 Sudan Civil War, some children trekked 1,000 miles to find safety; 3,600 were later welcomed into the U.S.A. It’s a very rich, dramatic story.
- THEIR FINEST (U.K.) is another fine Bill Nighy film in which a female secretary (Gemma Arterton) becomes a scriptwriter on a propaganda film during the 1940 London blitz. The movie deals with sexism, political interference with artistic decisions, war, romance, and jealousy. Tom Huddleston of Britain’s Time Out calls it “witty, sophisticated and unexpectedly somber.” It was honored in Sweden, was nominated for two British Independent Film awards, and Nighy was nominated for best supporting actor at the International Online Cinema Awards. 90% of 138 critics approved, as did 86.7% of IMDbers.
- HIDDEN FIGURES was nominated for 120 global awards (including best picture, screenplay, and supporting actress [Olivia Spencer] Oscars) — winning 36. It’s the story of a group of female African-American mathematicians who were NASA “human computers” during the early space program, overcoming all kinds of obstacles. 93% of 255 RT critics applauded, as did 96.4% of 135,659 viewers at IMDb (young women mostly). Excellent thespianship by Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali. In this moving and exciting picture, Black femme math whizzes become American heroes.
- ALLIED (U.K.) is a gripping World War II spy drama in which Canadian Wing Commander Brad Pitt comes to suspect that the woman he loves (Marion Cotillard) may be a Nazi agent, even though they’ve together assassinated the German Ambassador in Casablanca. Pithily written by brilliant Brit scribe Steven Knight (The Hundred-Foot Journey, Dirty Pretty Things) and handsomely helmed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future), it was nominated for 11 awards. At IMDb.com, 92% of 103,717 viewers liked it (young gals the most).
- THE EXCEPTION (U.K.) is a riveting movie about a WWII German soldier who tries to discover if the Dutch Resistance has planted a spy in the Netherlands home of Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) and his wife (Janet McTeer). Good cast includes stalwarts Eddie Marsan, Ben Daniels, and Anton Lesser and attractive youths Lily James and Jai Courtney. This one’s full of espionage, romance, danger, heroics, and a bravura Plummer performance. At IMDb, more than 88% of 5,225 voters approved.
- LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED (Den.) is an extremely likable and picturesque romcom directed and co-written by dazzling Dane Susanne Bier (an Emmy, 37 other wins, and 36 additional noms for the wonderful miniseries The Night Manager and other works). Pierce Brosnan stars as a Copenhagen businessman who goes to his Italian villa for his son’s wedding to the daughter of mastectomy-surviving hairdresser Trine Dyrholm. Matthew Bond of Britain’s Mail on Sunday calls the film a “sunny, uplifting and gently moving delight.” It’s full of fun and quirky characters, well-played by Scandinavian thespians.
- QUEEN OF KATWE is the engaging, inspiring, true story of how a 12-year-old girl from a rural Ugandan slum becomes an international chess champion. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o head a colorful African cast, sensitively directed by the great Mira Nair (52 nominations and 28 awards for gems like Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake). Danny Leigh, of the U.K.’s Financial Times writes, “For every cliché the film indulges, another is skirted, and another subverted. By the end, every ounce of feelgood is deserved.” A very nice picture, lauded by 93% of 163 critics, more than 93% of 10,002 IMDbers, my lovely wife, and my good self.
- SULLY is the tale of how courageous pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) lands his damaged airplane on the freezing Hudson River, saving the lives of 155 passengers and crew, and then has to endure a harrowing investigation, questioning his judgment. It was well directed by Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, Jersey Boys) and was nominated for 45 awards, winning 12. It was a hit with 95.4% of 168.550 INDb viewers (kids 18 and younger the most) and 86% of 305 critics. Matthew Sragow writes in Film Comment: “Sully may be just what the mass audience wants in the 21st century: a disaster film with a happy ending.”
- THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (U.K., Mongolia) is a fascinating dramatized documentary about a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who enters the male-only world of tribesmen who hunt with eagles. It was nominated for 28 world honors, winning nine. The scenery is stunning and the native cast is excellent. After training with her father’s eagle, the young girl clambers down a rock cliff with a rope to take a fledgling eagle from its nest, opposes 70 male hunters in a national eagle-hunting skills contest, and then hunts a fox in a dangerous, minus 40-degree wilderness. 93% of 111 critics and 92% of 2,406 IMDbers thought this was powerful, uplifting stuff.
- VICEROY’S HOUSE (U.K.) features a strong Indian cast and the great Om Puri plus Brit stars Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Simon Williams, David Hayman, and Gillian Anderson in the well-dramatized true story of how India and Pakistan got their independence from Britain in 1947 — after 300 years. The film is full of political intrigue and conflict, romance, carnage, and chaos. It is both very accurate history and highly compelling drama. More than 83% of 3,367 viewers and 71% of 73 critics liked it.
- TODAY’S SPECIAL is the story of a fired New York sous chef (Aasif Mandvi) who has to take over his parents’ failing Queens Indian restaurant, assisted by a cabbie who once cooked for royalty in India. This is a sweet, fun, romantic, feel-good comedy-drama which earned thumbs up from 86% of 5,013 IMDbers and 81% of 31 critics. The cast includes Dean Winters, Kevin Corrigan, Madhur Jaffrey, and an excellent Naseerrudin Shah as the taxi driver. A small but real pleasure.
17. CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY is a fine documentary about how writer/urban activist Jane Jacobs fought legendary post WWII New York City urban developer Robert Moses to try and preserve historic neighborhoods. It was nominated as best documentary at the Miami Film Festival and best political film in Hamburg, Germany. This is a highly educational, true David-and-Goliath tale of excessive urban renewal versus principled neighborhood preservation. It appealed to 94% of 53 critics at Rotten Tomatoes and 86% of 268 IMDb viewers.
- MEGAN LEAVEY is an emotional, uplifting, true story of a Marine corporal dog handler who saves many lives in Iraq during 100-plus missions until both she and her German shepherd Rex are injured in an explosion and the powers-that-be want him put down. It stars Kate Mara, Common, Bradley Whitford, Ramon Rodriguez, and Will Patton. It was a hit with 91% of 12,351 viewers and 84% of 90 critics. If the touching ending doesn’t inspire your tears and cheers you’re probably already dead or in a coma.
- MARSHALL is a tense courtroom drama about an actual case, featuring Chadick Boseman as future Supreme Court Jurist Thurgood Marshall, defending an African-American chauffeur accused of raping his white female employer. Josh Gad, James Cromwell, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, and Kate Hudson do good work in the cast. Thumbs-up from 90% of 4,164 moviegoers and 83% of 106 critics, plus 19 award nominations and three wins.
- BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a Disney live-action epic that won me over, primarily with the wonderful music and sensational supporting cast (including Ewen McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Kevin Kline, and Josh Gad). The stars — Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans — are fine, but the clock, candelabra, teapot, etc. steal the show. It’s the classic tale of a girl and a hideous-looking man who fall in love, assisted by various knicknacks, pieces of furniture, and tableware. It was nominated for 48 honors (winning nine). Chief Disney composer Alan Menken, during his career, has won eight Oscars, 43 other awards and 73 noms.This is a very engaging family film (a remake of the 1991 animated original).
MY 78 FAVORITE TV AND INTERNET SERIES (in no particular order).
This year, for the first time, the two best TV series I saw were both American, albeit with British and Aussie hosts. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Sundays, HBO) and The Jim Jeffries Show (Tuesdays, Comedy Central) are hilarious, brilliant, pungent, and way better than anything else on the tube.
- AMERICAN (20): Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, The Ranch, Fargo, The Killing, Master of None, The Crazy Ones, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Bill Nye Saves the World, Hell on Wheels, Limitless, Blue Bloods, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Madam Secretary, Real Time with Bill Maher, Genius, Major Crime, Big Little Lies, HawthoRNe.
- BRITISH (40): The Crown, Victoria, Peaky Blinders, Father Brown, Hinterland, London Spy, Detectorists, Spotless, River, Marcella, Legends, Borderline, Grantchester, Call the Midwife, Endeavor, Home Fires, Inspector Lewis, Mr. Selfridge, Murder on the Home Front, My Mother & Other Strangers, Poldark, Prime Suspect: Tennison, Sherlock, Silk, The Durrels in Corfu, The Paradise, Vicious, Wolf Hall, Worricker, To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters, The Missing, Accused, The Darling Buds of May, Lillie, Shetland, The Game, The Escape Artist, The White Princess, Silent Witness, Terry Jones: Medieval Lives.
- OTHER (18): 800 Words (NZ), Murdoch Mysteries (CA), Narcos (SP), The Doctor Blake Mysteries (AU), Deep Water (AU), Behzat Ç (TU), Wentworth (AU), Mar de Plastico (SP), Call My Agent (FR), Rake (AU), The Lava Field (IC), Versailles (FR), Borgen (DE), Department Q (DE), Four Seasons in Havana (CU), Janet King (AU), Detective Montalbano (IT), Flashpoint (CA).
16 FAVORITE STAND-UP SPECIALS
Sharon and I enjoyed dozens of stand-ups last year, but these (in order) were our favorites: Lewis Black, Kathleen Madigan, Dave Chappelle-, Trevor Noah, Judah Friedlander, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Russell Peters, Denis Leary, Craig Ferguson, Patton Oswalt, Neal Brennan, Stephen Fry, Jack Whitehall, Eugene Mirman, and Joe Rogan.
8 FAVORITE PORN ACTRESSES OF 2017
In a year in which the President paid off Stormy Daniels and vast numbers of Hawaiians — anticipating nuclear attack — turned to Internet pornography, this is an octet of my favorite erotic thespiennes: Monique East, Lexxi Luxe, Alia Janine, Vanessa Del, Jana, Minka, Sapphire, and Denise Davis.
[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine.]
- Read more of Alan Waldman’s writing on The Rag Blog.