The State of the Art: Movies 2016

It seems that books aren't the only area of life that I just couldn't whip up the time or energy to devote myself to in 2016. As life gets more hectic and television continues its streak of being awesome, I just don't watch as many movies as I used to. Here's where I'd usually make some grand resolution for the upcoming year about how I'm going to watch a ton of movies that encompass all sorts of interesting genres, but I just can't make the promise this year. Hopefully, I'll see a bunch of movies. Hopefully, they'll be good.

The decline was steep. Last year, I saw 41 movies. This year? I saw 30. If there's one metric where I improved, it's in seeing new releases. 16 of the 30 were released in 2016, so I've gone up a full 10% in keeping abreast of the current cinema climate. I don't know what that says about my movie-going habits (if anything), but apparently, even though I didn't watch a lot, when I did see something, I was happily persuaded into going to the theater.

As always, a note about grading: Grades tend to be awarded not only on how much I liked something, but on how well it accomplished the goal it set for itself. So, if a movie aspires to nothing more than being a goofy comedy and makes me laugh my ass off, it'll rank higher than a character drama that had an annoying protagonist, no matter how prestigious the cast list is.

#1: Pee-Wee's Big Holiday

What I Said: Pee-Wee sets off on a road trip, and encounters all kinds of odd sorts, from a farmer with nine love-starved daughters to a trio of leonine bank robbers who can't help but be charmed by him to an aviatrix who's better at small talk than at staying aloft. I couldn't stop giggling throughout this whole movie. Paul Reubens' sense of childlike humor is still a delight, and every actor in this movie is totally game to share in the silliness.

#2: Moana

What I Said: Disney animation has been on a hot streak lately, and Moana is no exception. There's a lot to love about this movie. The animation is top-notch, which is all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it can be to achieve appealing water effects. The story is extremely respectful to the culture it's depicting. Moana is not only the protagonist, but the full-on heroine of the story, and though she depends on her friends, she is no helpless girl needing rescuing every five minutes. And then there's the music, which I've been full-on, openly singing out loud for a week now.

#3: Captain America: Civil War

What I Said: Really, the best thing that can be said about it is that it takes an incredibly complex moral situation and makes a good case for both sides. I found myself siding more with Iron Man, while the friend I saw the movie with opted for Captain America's side, but both points of view are completely understandable. And what's more important, both points of view are flawed as well.

#4: Kubo and the Two Strings

What I Said: It's a terrific story, at times hauntingly sad, but always visually stunning. If there's one complaint to be made, it's that most of the Asian characters are voiced by white actors, which seems unnecessary at best, but in all but one case, it doesn't distract from the performances, which are excellent.

#5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

What I Said: For the most part, it fits really well into the Star Wars timeline. Jyn doesn't trust the Alliance any more than she trusts the Empire, and those shades of ever-darkening moral gray in the supposed "good guys" was a bit distracting while I was watching it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. The battle scenes are well-designed and well-edited; though there are several different factions fighting it out, I was never confused about what was going on.

Wow. It sure isn't difficult to see what kind of mood I've been in this year; I desperately needed some light distraction. 2016 put too much on my mind for me to be able to watch weighty dramas the way I usually can. Hopefully, 2017 will be such a fantastic year that I can go back to enjoying a depressing movie from time to time! Hooray! For now, let's look at the full ranking of 2016 movies I was able to catch this year:

2016 Movies

Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (A)
Moana (A-)
Captain America: Civil War (A-)
Kubo and the Two Strings (A-)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (B+)
Arrival (B+)
Bad Moms (B+)
Hail, Caesar! (B)
Finding Dory (B)
Zootopia (B)
Allied (B)
Ghostbusters (B)
X-Men: Apocalypse (B)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (B-)
Sausage Party (C+)
Jason Bourne (C-)

So, either the gloom of the year is affecting my grading scale, or my quality filter is a bit off. Last year, 55.5% of the movies scored a B+ or higher. This year, it's 43.8%. That's quite a dip, although I do note that there are more in the A-range this year. Let's just chalk the anomaly up to 2016 Sucks In General. But how did the 2016 movies fit into the entire list? Only one way to find out!

Pee-wee's Big Holiday (A)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (A-)
Moana (A-)
Captain America: Civil War (A-)
World of Tomorrow (2015) (A-)
Kubo and the Two Strings (A-)

Spotlight (2015) (B+)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (B+)
Arrival (B+)
Force Majeure (2014) (B+)
Anomalisa (2015) (B+)
Bad Moms (B+)

Hail, Caesar! (B)
The Peanuts Movie (2015) (B)
Finding Dory (B)
Zootopia (B)
Allied (B)
Ghostbusters (B)
X-Men: Apocalypse (B)
Do I Sound Gay? (2014) (B)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (B-)
The Last Five Years (2014) (B-)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) (B-)
The Overnight (2015) (B-)
The Heat (2013) (B-)
Mud (2012) (B-)

Whiplash (2014) (C+)
Sausage Party (C+)
The D Train (2015) (C)
Jason Bourne (C-)

The State of the Art: Television 2016

I think it's official now. Television has overtaken movies. Back in the day, movie stars wouldn't be caught dead appearing on TV, which they considered "the enemy". Then, when it was clear television was here to stay, film actors started to deign to appear on the small screen, but there was never any worry that cinema's little brother would ever catch up in terms of quality or prestige. And yet, here we are. Though there are plenty of good movies out there, TV is just exponentially better right now. I don't know how long this trend will last, but for now, it seems clear that if you want top-notch entertainment, you don't even have to get off your couch.

All that said, I have limited time and access to the wealth of variety TV is offering right now, so as always, my top five will look nothing like the critics'. There are certain channels I don't get, and there just aren't enough hours in the day to watch everything I'd like to be. These are the kinds of problems you want to have, though. There was still plenty to delight me over the course of 2016. So why don't we get to the best of the best?

#1: Black Mirror - Season 3

One way I can tell if a show belongs at the top of my list is that I can't stop talking about it with other people. As gloomy and pessimistic as Black Mirror tends to be, I couldn't stop myself from enthusing about Season 3 to anyone who would listen. While all six of the episodes are good, four of them are straight-up excellent, and one of them has the distinction of having absolutely no competition for my single favorite episode of television this year. When people usually talk about horror, what they're referring to are slashers. A group of dumb, horny teens goes to a remote cabin and gets butchered by an axe-wielding maniac. When I talk about horror, I mean watching what we're capable of when the baser aspects of human nature have access to advanced technology. Black Mirror paints a terrifying portrait of where society could be headed if restrictions on our impulses were lifted by convenient techno-gadgets, and what makes it so thrillingly scary is how realistic it is. Even amongst the dire warnings and chilling scenarios, Season 3 found some time for levity, for hope, and dare I say it, for a single happy ending.

#2: American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson

Another way to determine the great shows of the year is by noticing something that shouldn't work at all, yet manages to overcome all obstacles and actually be terrific. There was so much stacked against a miniseries dramatization of OJ Simpson's arrest and trial. There's an inherent danger in it just coming off as tabloid trash, like a pretentious Lifetime original movie. It was helmed by Ryan Murphy, who may be great at starting projects, but has a poor track record when it comes to sticking the landing. People could've had little interest in revisiting the topic; though it fascinated the world at the time, was this story really worth ten episodes? But when I actually sat down to watch this, I shut my fat mouth in a hurry, because it was enthralling. All of those Emmy wins were well-deserved.

#3: The Great British Baking Show - Season 3

What else makes a television show worthy of making the top five? Much like baking, you need consistent quality. Once the novelty of something wears off, it is still entertaining? The Great British Baking Show answers that with a jolly wink and probably an awful food pun or five. Everything I originally loved about this show is still on-point. Terrific bakers, terrific challenges, terrific hosting, terrific judging, terrific food photography... You name it. Unfortunately, nothing this wonderful ever lasts long enough, and once Season 3 had aired, all sorts of news about the impending massive cast upheavals started rolling out. So before too long, we'll likely have to say good-bye to this gem of a show that filled me with happiness and warmth, provided an opportunity to have guests over to enthuse over the people and the bakes with me, and even got me into the kitchen to try some experimental recipes.

#4: Lady Dynamite - Season 1

Consistency is great, but there are also shows that come out of nowhere, and are completely unlike anything else on the air. It took me a few episodes to fully embrace Maria Bamford's absurdist, semi-autobiographical show about clawing her way back to a life in entertainment after a mental breakdown. Haha! What a laugh riot! Thing is, it was! Before a few modern shows came along (see below), most comedy/sitcom characters always had such easily-solvable problems. Whether it was a misunderstanding at work or accidentally giving your date food she's allergic to, there was nothing that couldn't be dealt with in a half hour. These days, though, comedy is stretching its muscles to talk about issues that aren't so tidy. It must be incredibly difficult to walk that fine line between being funny and having something real to say about bipolar disorder, and this show pulled it off perfectly.

#5: BoJack Horseman - Season 3

Though Bamford's story is factual, fictional depression can also amazingly be adapted into comedy, if you're smart enough to do it well. And BoJack Horseman does it very, very well. Like The Great British Baking Show, this is not the show's first appearance on the end-of-year favorites list. Unlike GBBS, though, which maintained its superiority by sticking with a formula that works, BoJack Horseman expanded its universe even further than last season. There are scenes that made me laugh out loud, and scenes that made me cry. There's an underwater episode that's almost entirely wordless, which was a close second to Black Mirror's "San Junipero" in Favorite Episode of the Year. The other four shows on my favorites list almost sell themselves, but this one is weird enough that it tends to drive some people away. Don't be frightened. Jump in!

Honorable Mentions

They may not have made the top five, and some of them aren't terribly current, but I can't ignore the other shows I saw this year that got at least an A- on the grading scale. These are all definitely worth your time, so settle into your couch and treat yourself to some quality entertainment.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season 1: A really fantastic show with really fantastic music, but even I can't justify having three shows about mental illness on my top five. That, and the CW makes this show impossible to conveniently stream, so I tend to catch up a long time after it airs. Still, I often can't keep myself from singing those (often-inappropriate) ditties to myself out loud.

Man Seeking Woman - Season 1: Ineligible, since it aired in 2015. This is another one that doesn't stream until well after it airs, so it'll constantly be playing catch-up. The magical realism technique for cracking wise about the maddening complications of the dating world works incredibly well in this show, and its absurdities are zany without ever becoming obnoxious.

Making a Murderer - Season 1: Ineligible, since it aired in 2015 (and probably wouldn't have quite cracked the top of the list, anyway). It's tough for documentary television to grab my attention, since I usually use television as an escape from the grim realities of life, not to delve even deeper into them. But the story of Steven Avery's trial and conviction are so compelling that I couldn't tear myself away. As agitprop decrying the corruption of the judicial system, it may have been a little one-sided, but I can't argue with the production value one bit. I'm not a true crime fanatic, but am firmly on board for more episodes of this.

Superstore - Season 1: Hey, did you know NBC is capable of making good sitcoms again? I know, I was shocked, too! After a few place-setting episodes, this one snapped into a really terrific ensemble comedy. It's very jokey, but still finds sly ways to comment on the culture of big box stores, whether it's their anti-union policies or the token nods to minority employees. The interstitial shots of customers being all customer-y, and the fact that it's set in my hometown doesn't hurt, either. It may not be the most groundbreaking show on television, but it makes me laugh, and that's all I want out of it.

The State of the Art: Books 2016

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but then that must mean the opposite is true, too. Once a year turns shitty in one area, it's bound to affect other areas as well. I don't know if I can truly connect them, but here are two facts for you: 1) 2016 has been one of my worst years ever. 2) Since I've been list-making, I've read the least amount of books in 2016, and the great majority of ones I did read do not begin to stack up in quality to the ones in previous years.

You'd think I'd be more focused on the problems in my own life and in greater society in general, but right now, all I can do is mourn over this weak, pathetic little list of books. It honestly makes me cringe a bit in embarrassment. I guess the only thing to be done is to buckle down, and hope against hope that I'll have a better reading year in 2017.

That said, there were a few gems in the pile of rocks. As usual, once I start looking back at the year, a theme emerges that I didn't notice while I was in the midst of it. 2013: Year of the Short Story. 2014: Year of the Parallel Universe. 2015: Year of the Family Drama. All three of those themes show up this year, too, but in looking at my list, it appears that 2016 is officially the Year of the Protagonist in Peril.

A time-traveling woman must survive a slave plantation. A band of traveling artists must survive a post-pandemic world of dangers. A young boy must survive a crumbling house built on a pile of shifting garbage. A rural gay teen must survive a high school full of homophobes. And then there were the actual women who...didn't survive Puritan Massachusetts. Everywhere I look on this list, mortal danger looms. There's probably a lesson in that, somewhere. Enough bad news, though. Let's get to the top five that did their best to save 2016.

#1: Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

What I Said: It's only February, but I can already tell that this is likely to land on my top five at the end of the year...[Dana] must survive, but she doesn't want to be completely servile. She wants the union between Rufus and a slave girl to eventually happen, but is unhappy with his attitude towards the slaves under his family's watch. It's a really fantastic book, and a much-needed reminder that the horrors of slavery can't just be summed up in a dry recitation of facts in a high school history textbook.

#2: Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli

What I Said: This is easily the best of the books I've read lately. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different gender. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different sexual orientation. It's incredibly difficult to write a believable teenaged character (especially one who isn't an annoying ass). And yet, somehow Becky Albertalli has pulled off the trifecta.

#3: Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

What I Said: Station Eleven got a lot of attention when it was published, and I was immediately intrigued by its plot. At first glance, it's another of the many books to tackle an outbreak that wipes out most of the world's population. But this book sets itself apart in many ways, not least of which because it doesn't really focus on the collapse of society at all, but in the times just before and just after. Its characters are complex and relatable, and I found myself truly invested in how they would navigate a world that's totally alien to the one they were born into.

#4: The Clasp - Sloane Crosley

What I Said: This book combines the fun of an adventure story with Crosley's perfectly acerbic brand of humor, and was a really enjoyable read.

#5: Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell

What I Said: As someone who enjoyed Mad Men, how could I resist a book set in the publishing world of 1950s New York? It wasn't the most remarkable book I've ever read, but it's a solid, entertaining read. It also really captures the mood of the era, which is a tough feat to accomplish.

Hey, my top five is all female authors! Nice! Assuming that I'm able to pick up the reading pace in 2017, I'd like to continue my ongoing resolution to read more books by women and minority authors. In the meantime, let's look at the full year's ranking, with books published in 2016 underlined:

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler (1979) (A)
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli (2015) (A)
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2014) (A-)

The Clasp - Sloane Crosley (2015) (B+)
Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell (B)
Why Not Me? - Mindy Kaling (2015) (B)
The Witches - Salem, 1692 - Stacy Schiff (2015) (B)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids - Edited by Meghan Daum (2015) (B)
The Hand That Feeds You - A.J. Rich (2015) (B)

Sorceror to the Crown - Zen Cho (2015) (B-)
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks - Toni Tipton-Martin (2015) (B-)
The Unfortunates - Sophie McManus (2015) (B-)
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here - Anna Breslaw (B-)
The Doll Maker - Richard Montanari (2014) (B-)

Cub - Jeff Mann (2014) (C+)
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories - Manuel Gonzales (2013) (C+)
Heap House (Iremonger #1) - Edward Carey (2013) (C)
The Eighth Day - Dianne K. Salerni (2014) (C)
Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (2011) (C-)

And finally, a few books that get no grade at all. These have the dubious distinction of joining the handful of books that I couldn't even get through. Sometimes, it's my fault; I'm just not in the right mood to work with what a perfectly-decent book is trying to convey. Not always, though.

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik: I adore Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I need to go find an actual biography of her. This is a cute little coffee table book from 2015, but doesn't really explore anything beyond her highlight reel.

Louisa Meets Bear - Lisa Gornick: A 2015 book of short stories, each of which featured a different protagonist, though they're all linked in some way. I just couldn't connect with any of the characters, and gave up halfway through.

Earthly Possessions - Anne Tyler: A 1977 novel that was so boring that I literally fell asleep every time I tried to read it.

Thank goodness we can now tie a bow on this reading year and put it on the shelf. Hopefully, 2017 will give me enough of a break to relax and enjoy some terrific books. There's plenty of talent out there; I just need to catch my breath and find it.

Rebel Yell

It's about time to compile the rankings of this year's movies, but it's also a busy time of year for movie-going itself. Despite being swamped with the demands of the holiday season, I somehow managed to go out and snag two more movies for the 2016 list, both of which are about rebellion for a greater cause. The first was the newest animated film from Disney, Moana. Pro-tip: If you're battling the winter chill, go see this movie right away; its depictions of warm, sunny beaches will have you feeling like it's July. At first blush, Moana would seem to be the newest in a long line of Princess Movies. A young girl (Auli'i Cravalho) who will someday be chieftain of her Polynesian island feels the pull of seafaring adventure, but her parents aren't having it. When the island starts to lose its natural resources to an impending curse, Moana sets out anyway (with an animal sidekick in tow, natch) to persuade the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore the islands' natural order.

Disney animation has been on a hot streak lately, and Moana is no exception. There's a lot to love about this movie. The animation is top-notch, which is all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it can be to achieve appealing water effects. The story is extremely respectful to the culture it's depicting. Moana is not only the protagonist, but the full-on heroine of the story, and though she depends on her friends, she is no helpless girl needing rescuing every five minutes. And then there's the music, which I've been full-on, openly singing out loud for a week now. There are a couple of clunky lines, and as with the trolls in Frozen, there's an unnecessary side character with a forgettable mid-movie song, but other than that, Moana is a terrific entry in the franchise.

The short ahead of it, Inner Workings, is fun and clever as well. It's not as sweeping and grand as Paperman was, but a cute running joke about the struggle between what our brains and hearts want for us.

Up next was the first stand-alone Star Wars movie, Rogue One. I went ahead and splurged on an IMAX 3D screening for this one, which turned out to be a good decision. Like the other Star Wars movies, there are expansive scenes, not only in the usual space battles, but on the surfaces of various planets, all of which had wildly varying design. Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance transitions from trying to achieve their goals through political maneuvering to straight up military incursions. This movie takes place right before the events of 1977's Star Wars. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a young woman whose father is a reluctant Imperial scientist in charge of designing the Death Star. He has second thoughts, but rather than openly resisting, which would only lead to his death and slightly stall their plans, he subtly sabotages their efforts by building a flaw into the blueprints (so there's that old plot hole explained away). When Jyn learns of these plans, she and a band of Alliance members who are tired of sitting on their hands team up to steal the plans from the Empire so they can learn how this flaw can be exploited.

For the most part, it fits really well into the Star Wars timeline. Jyn doesn't trust the Alliance any more than she trusts the Empire, and those shades of ever-darkening moral gray in the supposed "good guys" was a bit distracting while I was watching it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. The battle scenes are well-designed and well-edited; though there are several different factions fighting it out, I was never confused about what was going on. That said, there are definite flaws. The late-stage edits are pretty evident. In particular, Forest Whitaker was clearly supposed to have a different arc than what's shown. The use of CGI Peter Cushing was an unwise choice. Overall, though, if all Rogue One set out to do was be a ripping adventure, it very much succeeds.

Moana: A-
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: B+

Shorties #21

Since it's getting to the time of year to write out our best-of lists, I need to wrap up the mentions of what culture I've been consuming in 2016. By happenstance, this last Shorties entry of the year is a wealth of diversity, containing one title from each of the entertainment categories: Movies, TV, Books, Games, and Music.

#1: Bad Moms: I am emphatically not in the target audience of this 2016 movie about a trio of suburban moms who get fed up with the constant demand of perfection from their kids and the other moms around town, and who decide to let themselves enjoy life for once. That said, it's always a pleasant surprise when a movie that isn't trying to impress me does so anyway. Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell are very good as the moms who are cracking under their familial pressure, while Kathryn Hahn just about steals the entire movie as the foul-mouthed rebel mom who doesn't give a good goddamn what anyone thinks. Toss in Christina Applegate as an ice queen, and you've got yourself a pretty fun flick. (Grade: B+)

#2: Food Wars (Season 2): I've already described how I found myself drawn to the first season of this anime, and so I happily jumped into the second, released onto Hulu in 2016. Soma is still facing down his classmates in dramatic food competitions, and the food animation is still as droolworthy as ever. However something that sparked in the first season is missing now, and those are the sections where nobody's challenging someone else. I miss the interactions between Soma and his house-mates, as they build friendships that give them the confidence to be stronger cooks. This season is all about the battles. It also unnecessarily introduces a ton of new characters, at the expense of the ones we were still getting to know. Oh! They also changed the theme music, and I much preferred the original. It's still a fascinating show, and though the last episode felt awfully final, if they ever make another season, I'm on board. (Grade: B)

#3: The Witches - Salem, 1692: I do wish the morals and lessons America should have learned from the tragedy and horrors of Salem, Massachusetts didn't keep making themselves terrifyingly relevant in modern times. Yet, here we are. However, even though we all know the basics (people executed because a bunch of teenage girls accused them of witchcraft), I wanted to get a deeper understanding of just what in the hell happened in 1692. Stacy Schiff's 2015 book explores not only the people who found themselves at the end of a hangman's noose for the crime of being unpopular, but the society that allowed such hysteria to take root. A lot of non-fiction is taken to task for writing styles that are too dry, but I actually have the opposite request. Sometimes, Schiff's language is a little too flowery, and I just wanted her to get to the point and tell me what was happening. That said, it was an overall entertaining read from which I learned a lot, and that's all I ask when it comes to reading about history. (Grade: B)

#4: Jackbox Party Pack 3: We play all sorts of tabletop games at my friend's weekly game night, but this is the first time we've incorporated an interactive technological one. Sure, we all play video games too, but that tends to be a more solitary activity. This one involves the whole gang. 2016's Jackbox Party Pack 3 is made by the same folks who gave us You Don't Know Jack, which I used to enjoy (and dominate at!) quite a bit. They've upped their game, so to speak, by making this a video game that people play together from their phones. There are five games available, from "Quiplash 2", which is somewhat like Cards Against Humanity, as your friends vote for who had the best/funniest answer, to "Trivia Murder Party", in which you'd better answer questions correctly, or the homicidal host will tear your little stuffed doll avatar to shreds. We've been having a lot of fun with this game pack for several weeks now, so I can definitely recommend it for your next party. That said, bring a charger. Your phone's battery will be taking some punishment. (Grade: B+)

#5: "White Knuckles" - Boh Doran: It's going to be tough to narrow down a favorite song of 2016, but I do want to feature one of the runners-up, which is this 2015 jam that should give you a good idea of where my musical tastes lie this year. Here, have a listen. I could talk about how I relate to the lyrics, which allude to holding on to something (or someone) too tightly, as if you're afraid it's going to slip through your fingers at any moment. But if I'm being honest, I just really like the tune. (Grade: B+)

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I'm certainly far from the only person who enjoyed the first two seasons of Black Mirror. It got so much attention here in the States that it was picked up for additional episodes to be produced by Netflix. While the previous seasons were both from a British perspective, Season 3 is a healthy mix of British and American episodes.

The tone remains extremely misanthropic, and very pessimistic about human nature and what our baser instincts would lead us to do, were we to be presented with advanced technology. It's actually really fitting, given our current political climate. If you want a good wallow in what kinds of cruelty humans can inflict on each other, given the right tools, this is the show for you. Normally, I'd hate a sci-fi show that was this grim, but Black Mirror always finds a way to tell these stories in a compelling way, when it could just as easily be totally repellant. And there's even a kernel or two of hope here in Season 3! Dare I say it, there's even an episode with a happy ending.

Here's some quick descriptions, but I won't spoil the ending of any of them, because I want you to go watch these. "Nosedive" imagines a near future in which everyone is evaluated by their social media popularity. Your job, your housing, and all the services available to you are based on how many stars you're rated. Bryce Dallas Howard is fantastic as Lacie, a woman who's trying to bump her rating to attend the hoity-toity wedding of her highly-ranked friend. In "Playtest", an easy-going American (Wyatt Russell) is traveling the world, and when his identity is stolen and he runs short of cash, he agrees to test out a secretive project designed to bring horror games to new levels of realism. This one was not as successful, as it crosses over the line from having a dark tone to straight up gratuitous misery porn. It's still very watchable, and Russell is great, but it was easily my least favorite episode of the season.

"Shut Up and Dance" does a better job of bringing a terrifying scenario to life. A shy teenager (Alex Lawther) clicks on a link he shouldn't, and soon after, blackmailers who videotaped him in his bedroom are forcing him into increasingly wild and dangerous stunts, under threat of exposure. Along the way, he encounters others who are also being blackmailed, and they desperately hope that if they give the shadowy hackers a good show, they'll be let off the hook. That one was probably my second-favorite of the season, and it was immediately followed by not only my favorite episode of the season, but the best episode of Black Mirror to date, and is in fact probably my favorite episode of television this year, full stop.

You've likely heard the words "San Junipero" floating around the web, and for good reason. A shy, retiring young woman (Mackenzie Davis) meets a fun-loving outgoing girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a seaside town in the '80s, and begin to be drawn towards one another. As their relationship develops, the audience discovers that the women are not all that they seem to be, and neither is the town they inhabit. It's an incredibly beautiful, moving, and gripping hour of television, and it also just happens to contain some of the best music choices ever. If you watch one episode of television this year, make it this one.

Unfortunately, it was followed up by my second-least-favorite episode, "Men Against Fire". It centers around a soldier named Stripe (Malachi Kirby), a newbie who joins a military company to help protect a village against a horrifying invasion of ghoulish monsters. Since this is Black Mirror, the underlying facts aren't as simple as that, and Stripe must come to terms with where his loyalties truly lie. It's not a bad episode by any means, but I found it didn't dig deeply enough into the show's core credo of how human nature is warped by technology. It's just kind of a facile episode about war. Thankfully, the season ended on a high note with "Hated in the Nation", which has the longest running time, and is really more of a movie than a television episode. The always-wonderful Kelly McDonald plays Karin Parke, a police detective who takes on rookie sidekick Blue (Faye Marsay) in order to investigate the mysterious deaths of people famous for being pilloried on the internet.

Parke is the kind of traditional detective we've seen on countless shows, but unlike those universes, she must contend with the futuristic technology that is implicated in the deaths. Equal parts thriller, crime procedural, and spine-tingling sci-fi, "Hated in the Nation" was a really great episode, and capped off my favorite season of Black Mirror so far. Depressing as the show often is, it's such a terrific blend of quality writing, acting, and production design that I simply can't resist.

Black Mirror - Season 3: A

The Allied Invasion

The winter holidays rolling in generally signals an uptick in movies for me. Whether it's heading to the theater with friends or family, November and December tend to be big months for actually heading to the local multiplex, as opposed to kicking back with some Netflix. This year is no exception; I've seen a trio of new movies in the past few weeks, all of which have to do with the challenges of interacting with a mysterious Other.

The first was Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of an existing story about a linguist (Amy Adams) who is recruited to decipher the language of an alien force hovering just above the Earth's surface. Adams' character Louise is excellent at her job, but leads a solitary existence. Still, she can't resist being roped into the effort to understand the newly-arrived aliens and what their plans might be. The extraterrestrial beings are not the only complicated life forms to deal with, as she must contend with the military and the responses of other countries who may not have as measured a response as she wants to have.

It's a fascinating movie, and I was a big fan of its tone, which combines intellectualism with a dreamy emotional bent. That said, it does suffer from some plot flaws that keep it from being the cinematic marvel that a lot of reviewers are claiming it is. There are some unnecessary obstacles that are thrown up as pure contrivance, which held the movie back a bit. Also, as a purely petty complaint, I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Forest Whitaker play his character (Colonel Weber, the head of the US military presence) with a grating Boston accent, but it was a mistake. Arrival is well worth your time. It's probably one of the better movies I've seen this year. It just wasn't as rapturous a success as everyone's making it out to be.

After that, it was time to dive back into the world of Harry Potter with the kickoff to a new series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I love the Potterverse, though I waffle back and forth on how well the movies come off in comparison to the books. In this case, there's somewhat of a combination, as this one marks the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling. The movie follows the American adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the eventual author of the titular book that Harry Potter and his contemporaries use in their studies.

Scamander is obsessed with the study and conservation of magical creatures, and has come to 1920s New York to... Well, actually, there's no real reason for him to be in New York. He just is, okay? An accidental briefcase switch with a Muggle (or a No-Maj in American parlance) leads to several creatures being let loose on the streets of Manhattan, which could not come at a worse time. The wizarding world is under intense pressure to remain secret from the general populace and deal with escaped dark wizard Grindelwald. Local governmental employee Tina (Katherine Waterston) assumes the duty of wrangling Newt, his animals, and the No-Maj Kowalski (Dan Fogler), with limited success.

As a family-friendly, effects-heavy popcorn flick, you could do a lot worse. As a tentpole that's supposed to anchor a full series of movies, it's pretty disappointing. It's not that I was bored or pissy about the giant plot holes (of which there are plenty). There just isn't enough interesting story to sustain the character, so it essentially becomes a bunch of video game fetch quests. Alison Sudol is extremely impressive as Tina's mind-reading sister Queenie, but beyond that, this one was a bit of a letdown.

Finally, over Thanksgiving break, there was the World War II romantic drama Allied, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. The two play Max and Marianne, a Canadian and French spy respectively, who are paired up in order to take out a Nazi operative in Casablanca. The first part of the movie is all about their mission, but once that's complete, the two get married and move to London. Later, Max is informed that it is believed that Marianne is in actuality working for the Nazis, and is asked to set up a sting operation to discover her true motives.

I enjoyed the movie far more than I thought I was going to, even if the plot points are pretty paint-by-numbers. You can elevate a certain amount of rote story with good acting, and Cotillard is reliably fantastic (Pitt is fine, too, but she's the one who really shines). This would normally not be a movie I'd choose for myself, but unlike some other recent offerings that I agreed to tag along for, I didn't walk away from this one feeling like it was a waste of time.

Arrival: B+
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: B-
Allied: B
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