December 24, 2012
Guest: David Bianculli â David Edelstein
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this edition, it's not just Santa making a list, it's our TV critic David Bianculli and film critic David Edelstein, who are here with their lists of the best and worst of the year. Let's get started with what David Bianculli has to say about the year in television.
Hi, David, it's always good to talk with you in person.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I love this time of year.
GROSS: So before we get to the 10-best list, just overview: good year, bad year for TV?
BIANCULLI: Good year for TV again in terms of cable, I think an even worse year for broadcast TV.
GROSS: Worse than last year?
BIANCULLI: Worse than last year, which I wouldn't have thought possible 12 months ago. But broadcast TV really didn't do much, and that has to change, or they've just given up the entire fight.
GROSS: And now to prove your point, let's get to your 10-best list.
BIANCULLI: OK, I'm going to do it from number 10 to number one so we have dramatic impact. And tied for 10 is a show that's just about to begin again in January, "Justified" on FX, which I think doesn't make a lot of people's lists because they have to remember all the way to last winter. But it was a wonderful show. So - and one that just ended, "Homeland" on Showtime, which last year was near the top of my list, and I still think it's a very good show, but this year it went from having an episode where it did one of the best and most surprising things I've seen a TV show do in a while to coming up near the end.
And I'm not going to reveal anything, but the momentum of the last few episodes was different than the first few episodes. And I'd actually like to play a clip. There's one pivotal episode that the third - you know, like three episodes in on this season, and you have Claire Danes as Carrie, who is this CIA agent who spent all of last season suspecting this other character of being a terrorist working for al-Qaida, when he's actually a returning POW Marine.
And Damian Lewis plays him - it's Brody, and - so last year there was that whole cat-and-mouse. Well, this year, you would think, or at least I thought, that it was going to be this whole big deal that was drawn out where they used him and just kept tabs on him. But they pivoted it so suddenly that that episode was a shocking thing to watch.
It's like she goes into his hotel room, which is already bugged, and so her co-workers are watching, and you'll hear them watching what's enveloping in the room. She goes back up to the room, to what you think is a seduction, but it isn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")
DAMIAN LEWIS: (as Nicholas Brody) You still have your twisted theories about me, don't you?
CLAIRE DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Not theories anymore.
LEWIS: Look, I'm sorry I called. I guess I thought we could be friends.
DANES: Friends? Ah, yeah, yeah, do I want to be friends with a demented ex-soldier who hates America, who decided strapping on a bomb was the answer to what ailed him despite his daughter, his son, people who loved him in real life, not in the (beep) world of Abu Nazir - who in the end didn't have the stones to go through with it but had no problem sending me to the nuthouse? Yeah, no thanks. I don't think I need a friend like that.
LEWIS: OK, not friends.
DANES: So what are you going to do now? Are you going to kill me? Are you going to blame it on rough sex maybe? I mean how long can you get away with something like that?
LEWIS: I've had a pretty good run so far.
DANES: It's true.
LEWIS: I seem to be good at this, if nothing else.
DANES: You're special.
LEWIS: I liked you, Carrie.
DANES: I loved you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Police! Hands behind your back. On the floor. Are you good?
DANES: If only the circumstances had been wildly different. You are a disgrace to your nation, Sergeant Nicholas Brody. You're a traitor and a terrorist, and now it's time you pay for that.
BIANCULLI: See, they, like, skipped a whole half-season by jumping that quickly and forcing the plot to something that you didn't expect her to do that soon. But I think - go ahead.
GROSS: I haven't been keeping up. So what happens to the character now that we know he's a terrorist?
BIANCULLI: Well, I don't know how much to tell. This is where I get stuck.
GROSS: Oh, don't tell.
GROSS: All right, moving on.
BIANCULLI: I know, but so without saying anything specific, I'll just say that because they burn through their material so fast on "Homeland," I mean they have just, you know, they are on the accelerator the whole time, I think there were times in this second season where they vamped a little bit, and things weren't as tight and cohesive as they were the first year. So that's why it's down near the bottom instead of the top.
But television is so good, making the top 10 at all to me says it's still a very, very good show. All right, so to go through the rest of them: number nine, "Modern Family" on ABC, number eight, "Walking Dead" on AMC, number seven, "Parenthood" on NBC, you know, a real drama about the sort of things we can all relate to, and I love that. This year was great for that.
"Louie" on FX is a fabulous comedy. That's number six. Number five, "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central, terrific year for that crew; number four, "Good Wife" on CBS, great writing, great performing. It wasn't even their best year, and it still ranks that highly. Number three, "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, again an election year, but boy, he did great stuff off-camera with superPACs and on camera.
Number two, "Mad Men" on AMC; and number one, also on AMC, "Breaking Bad," my favorite show on television.
GROSS: When is "Breaking Bad" coming back?
BIANCULLI: Oh, it's not soon enough. It's next spring or summer. But it will be ending when it comes back. So I'm already looking forward to it with dread, like it's the last piece of pie from that pie.
GROSS: This is a fairly new but increasingly popular way of ending a series, that you decide OK, next season we're through, we're going to have a dramatic ending, and that's that, as opposed to just continuing it until no one's watching it anymore.
BIANCULLI: I love this. I think it's one of the few positive developments in terms of scripted television in the last few years is the idea that more and more producers are saying I'm going to end it or pull the plug, or we're going to agree that one season, two seasons, and we're done. So they can write it with a particular shape.
That happened back in 1967 with "The Fugitive" when they knew they were going to get canceled, and so they said, well, we'd better wrap this up. We've been chasing the guy for, like, nine years. But now every show - well, "The Sopranos" didn't really end, it stopped.
BIANCULLI: But that sort of gave us...
GROSS: It just faded to black.
BIANCULLI: Right, that just gave us the idea. But you really do get a lot of richness by knowing that your story is going to end. I think that what could save American television is to do more of the British model and do fewer episodes each year and do them for only X number of years.
GROSS: So correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think there's one show on your top 10 list that's new.
BIANCULLI: No, there isn't. Oh, there definitely isn't, yes.
GROSS: And that says...
BIANCULLI: Well, that says that the networks had a terrible production year, and even cable didn't have a spectacular new one. There isn't a new show. I do have - if you can allow me to just do a super-fast list of other shows that I watch every episode of that I really like so that maybe...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, run through it.
BIANCULLI: So people won't feel bad that I haven't mentioned - here we go: "Downton Abbey," "Call the Midwife," "Sherlock," "Moyers & Company" - all right, that takes care of public television - "Treme," "Girls" and "Newsroom," "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO; "Parks and Rec" and "30 Rock" on NBC", "60 Minutes" on CBS, "American Masters," "American Experience," "Great Performances," more PBS shows but a different kind.
I watch all those all the time, which means...
GROSS: You watch a lot of TV.
BIANCULLI: I have no life, is what that means.
GROSS: David, let's talk about what you think are the worst series of the year.
BIANCULLI: There were a lot, but here for different reasons are the bottom five. The fifth-worst is a CW game show called "Oh Sit," S-I-T, and it's basically musical chairs mixed with "Wipeout," which was one of my worst shows of a few years ago. And "Wipeout" is just they find ways to beat up people and throw them in water and get - it's an obstacle course, and then they have a live band playing, and when the band stops playing, they have to run the obstacle course and get on a chair.
And your face, which only I can see, says it all.
BIANCULLI: But yeah - no, and that was a whole - that was an actual primetime show. Number four was "Neighbors" on ABC, it's sort of like "My Favorite Martian" or "Mork and Mindy" in reverse. Instead of having one person who's an alien, surrounded by humans, this is a gated community where everybody's an alien except for this human group, this one couple, this one family that moves in. It's horrible.
"Mob Doctor" on Fox - she's a doctor, but she also has to do things for the mob. And so it's like we'll be "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Sopranos," but we weren't either one of those.
BIANCULLI: And then this is the month that we finally saw the end of "Jersey Shore," the TV show, not the actual location, and I'm - I couldn't be happier to say goodbye to Snooki and company.
But the number one really worst one, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" on TLC. It's a spinoff of, like, the "Toddlers and Tiaras," where it's, you know, mothers with their little babies in these, you know, little baby pageant things. Honey Boo Boo is Georgia - how can I say this? Her - the accents of the family are so Deep South, that they are subtitled.
These are not people from a foreign country or a different language, but everything they say is subtitled so you have a chance of understanding it. And in the clip I'm going to play you, what's happening is that the mother, in order to help her daughter become more refined, her daughters, one of them is Pumpkin and then the other one is the Honey Boo Boo, invites an etiquette expert to come in and help.
And when the etiquette expert drives up to the home, they're holding one of their new pets, which is a squealing little pig.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO")
JUNE SHANNON: When Alana didn't win anything in the pageant this past week, the judges said that she needed to be more refined, what the hell ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SQUEALING)
SHANNON: I know, shh. I really want to come back and win at the glitz pageant in six weeks. So we decided to invest in some etiquette lessons. And I think that out of all my kids, I think Pumpkin needs to be the more refined because she needs to be able to learn manners. So maybe this lady will help today with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SQUEALING)
BARBARA HICKEY: This is one of those pet pigs. Hi, I'm Mrs. Hickey. I'm Barbara Hickey, and I own the Etiquette School of Atlanta.
SHANNON: This is Glitzy(ph).
HICKEY: Glitzy? Interesting.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SQUEALING)
HICKEY: And is this a baby because she...?
SHANNON: It's a teacup piggy.
BIANCULLI: That's plenty. Honey Boo Boo is something you can't unhear or unwatch, and...
GROSS: Until now I didn't need to. No, because I'd never seen it. I even heard President Obama make a Honey Boo Boo joke, and I'd never seen it. I didn't really know the show. So thank you so much, David.
BIANCULLI: I feel like this is my job, to bring you...
GROSS: Can I just ask you before we move on, you know, this is a TLC show, which, you know, used to stand for The Learning Channel. What happened?
BIANCULLI: It's happened with a lot of networks.
BIANCULLI: Yes, I mean History Channel.
GROSS: Bravo was like the arts channel.
GROSS: It's a lot of reality now.
BIANCULLI: A lot of them have given things up. Even Syfy runs wrestling.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that.
BIANCULLI: Yes, it's - there's a lot of - you know, very few cable networks at this moment have stayed true to their original vision. I mean C-SPAN is one. Turner Classic Movies is another, you know, Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, some of them - and certainly ESPN - have stayed true to what they were going to do. But a lot of these that were more all-purpose, like USA and TLC and E! and VH1, oh my. They've changed.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm with David Bianculli, our TV critic, and we're talking about the year in television. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll be back and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, and we're talking about the year in television. So of course one of the biggest stories of the year, on TV and off, was the presidential campaign, and before that of course the primaries. Did you see anything new this year in terms of cable or network news or comedy coverage of the presidential campaign that, you know, that you hadn't seen before?
BIANCULLI: In news, no, and I was really disappointed. I thought this was going to be the year where the political debates really stepped up because they were important, and people were watching them in pretty good numbers, but the formats that they used, they're not tried and true. They're like tried and false. And we just sort of endured them all, waiting for a gotcha moment instead of actually going policy stuff back and forth.
In terms of humor, that's always sort of encouraged me and discouraged me at the same time because we have comedy shows, which are going back into the vaults and playing old clips to put things in perspective along with new ones when they're dealing with politics and politicians.
GROSS: Colbert and Stewart.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, Colbert and Stewart. And why don't the networks do more of that? It just boggles my mind.
GROSS: MSNBC does a lot of that, and I think they maybe picked it up from Jon Stewart, but the MSNBC shows really do juxtapose what a politician said last year or five years ago with what they said yesterday or today. What about election night? What network or anchor or commentator do you think did best?
BIANCULLI: Well, I have to watch them all and like to watch them all. I don't know that there was a best. The big election night moment for me was Karl Rove on Fox news, when his own network called Obama's re-election because of Ohio, and he just wasn't quite ready to let go.
GROSS: And what is doing now? Is he affiliated at all with Fox anymore?
BIANCULLI: I don't know. He doesn't call; he doesn't write.
GROSS: So David, what do you think? My impression, in terms of the presidential debates, was that the debates that were set up by networks, by TV networks, encouraged, like, applause, and, you know, like just like hearing the audience, whereas the other debates just were much more, like, please hold your applause until the end. It wasn't about, like, you know, getting that visceral response and being more of, like, a TV show with people taking sides.
BIANCULLI: That's a fair point, and another thing is that some of them, you know, were so desperate to get interactive, like here's a question from a Twitter person, here's a question from - you know, and it's like look, why don't you just get some of the best journalists around and have them ask the questions, although the town hall meeting debate stuff, that's a completely different thing, but that's a dynamic, and it's actually as much a performance as anything else by the politicians.
GROSS: One of the most unfortunate things in terms of television this year is the amount of time that networks, you know, had to spend covering just horrific tragedies like in Newtown and the horrible shooting in Aurora in the movie theater, and, you know, the shootings at the Sikh temple.
You know, I watch the coverage of these events and almost can't turn off the TV, but at some point I always ask myself, am I crossing the line at any point as I watch it into not getting any new information but wanting to watch it because it almost becomes like a reality show about grief.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, no, I...
GROSS: Do you know what I mean? I...
BIANCULLI: I know exactly what you mean, and actually - TV critic for like 35 years or something. This is the first time I was in a position, because I'm not writing for a daily newspaper anymore, that I was able to say, watching the Newtown coverage, I've had enough. You know, I didn't have to keep watching. Once I realized no new news was coming out and checked all the different outlets, it was affecting me so much emotionally that unlike 9/11, you know, this one I was able to say no, I'm going to turn off the television set for a while because it's just too sad, and it's getting to me.
And some people say that television has desensitized us to violence. I don't think that's true in these real-life cases because the ones that you mentioned and others that you can think about, they stop everything, and the networks go 24 hours, and we are horrified by them and fascinated by them for the exact reason that they do affect us, and they are still unusual and tragic.
GROSS: Our TV critic David Bianculli will be back in the second half in the show as we continue our best and worst of the year edition. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Before we hear David Edelstein's list of the best and worst of the year in film, let's get back to our conversation about the year in television with our TV critic David Bianculli.
Every year, David, when we talk about the year in television, we talk about how new technology is changing how we watch what we watch, and how what we watch is measured by the networks and by, you know, anybody trying to get information for advertisers, or whatever. So what are the new developments on that front this year?
BIANCULLI: Oh, they're going crazy on that front. They've succeeded in having not only measurements of what people are watching when they're watching live, but now it's a plus-three day sort of thing, or even up to plus-seven days. So if you record it and you watch it within three days, that the program gets credit for that.
GROSS: So, like, if you DVR something, they're going to be able to tell that if you've watched it in the next three days.
BIANCULLI: But the trick about this: Let's say that you're advertising a movie on Friday, you know, in TV show that airs on Friday. You have Thursday or Friday night movie ads, and you want people to go for the weekend. If they don't see that until Sunday or Monday...
BIANCULLI: ...that does you no good. So the movie - you know, some of the advertisers are saying, well, I don't want to pay as much for plus-three as I do for regular, because it doesn't help me. So those rules are changing.
But the other one that I didn't see coming that's really fascinating is all these DVD box sets that have gotten bigger and better and more ornate, they may be an endangered species now, just as we're getting the hang of doing them well, you know, because of cloud, because of Netflix, because of Hulu Plus. You know, people don't have to store their own libraries if they know that they're somewhere they can check it out whenever they want to.
GROSS: Huh. Interesting. OK.
BIANCULLI: And that's scary, actually.
GROSS: Why? Because you're a hoarder?
BIANCULLI: Ow. Et tu? Yeah. No, but I...
BIANCULLI: No, it's horrible, because it's sort of like...
GROSS: I shouldn't talk.
BIANCULLI: No, no. Listen. But if everything's out there and people don't know, if there's no place to actually go get it, this is just going to die. Every year, when I teach, there are a few fewer people percentage-wise, 20-year-olds, that have seen "The Honeymooners," you know, that have seen even "I Love Lucy." And that's a shame. And once it's not playing in syndication, where will they see it, and why?
GROSS: Yeah. And it's also nice if somebody gives you, like, a DVD box set of - as a gift of a program that you didn't intend to watch or download, and maybe you'll watch it and find out you really like it.
BIANCULLI: Are you kidding? That's my gift-giving you've just described. Here, "The Singing Detective." You're going to love it.
GROSS: Any other big shifts in television this year you want to talk about?
BIANCULLI: I think that's the biggest shift, except overall, I don't understand what broadcast television is doing.
GROSS: You've been saying that the past few years, and about how they've just moved from scripted TV to reality TV and to sitcoms that aren't that...
BIANCULLI: Yeah, maybe it's because it's easier for them to replicate "American Idol" by doing "The Voice," you know, than it is to try to replicate "Lost," which they're still trying to replicate. But it's just - they should realize that strong, original scripted programming is one of their strengths, and they don't. They seem to be giving it up, just as they gave up the TV movie, they gave up the miniseries. It seems like now, dramas and comedies, most of the best ones are on cable.
GROSS: David, if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about your year and your year in television, because this year, you had some health issues...
GROSS: ...that kind of forced you to take some time off from work, and gave you, I think, a lot of opportunity to watch television just as a watcher and not as a critic. And my guess is that you were going for a kind of comfort-food TV, which might be just a little bit different than what you'd watch as a critic, and that you might also just have perceived it differently.
BIANCULLI: It's absolutely true. That was sort of a revelation. I spent, you know, probably close to a month in the hospital in two different visits. I'm fine now, by the way. But the idea is that I didn't even have - they didn't even have Turner Classic Movies on the cable, the hospital where I was. So, to me, this is, like, third-world health care, you know.
BIANCULLI: Because I would have been totally happy with just Turner Classic Movies. I wouldn't have needed to change anything, and that would have been comfort food 24 hours a day.
But it got to be where when "Andy Griffith Show" would show up on TV Land in the morning, that was really important to me, and made it easier to get through that hour. And I forgot how soothing television can be, because I watch so much of it and take it for granted and teach it and everything like that. But just watching Andy and Opie was huge for me.
GROSS: What are some of the other shows that you found really pleasurable to watch?
BIANCULLI: Oh, this is not going to help my reputation. "SpongeBob SquarePants" really helped me in the hospital. It was just goofy enough and just light enough. And once I could get to a cycle where you had Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, it was like friends had come by to visit. And that meant a lot.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So let's close with your favorite TV moment of the year, which is...
BIANCULLI: Which is, for the second year in a row, it's "Parks and Recreation," and for the same selfish, stupid reason that it was last year, is that I got an unexpected little shout-out in it. And so, last year, I said that I'm the only person that this would be the favorite moment of television for. This year, I believe that it could also be Ken Tucker's favorite moment in television.
BIANCULLI: So it's Dan Castellaneta as public radio host, and I love the way he makes fun of...
GROSS: And he's from "The Simpsons."
BIANCULLI: Yes. And he's from "The Simpsons." And he - you know, you have Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope on as a guest. But the way he makes fun of public radio, I just find absolutely hilarious, and I hope anyone listening now will, as well. But, for me, I get the added kick of hearing my name in there somewhere, and so does Ken Tucker.
GROSS: Well, David, I want to wish you happy holidays, and a happy and healthy New Year.
BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks so much. Yeah, I want a healthy one, too. And thanks. These debriefings are so much fun.
GROSS: For me, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
DAN CASTELLANETA: (as Derry Murbles) Welcome to "Thought for Your Thoughts." I'm your host, Derry Murbles, sitting in Nina Joplin, who is touring the country performing a spoken-word opera about pear-shaped women. My guest today is city councilwoman Leslie Knope.
AMY POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) It is a pleasure to be back, Derry. Your show last week on dolphin lactation was just riveting radio. Derry, my team and I are trying to build a park, and we need input on the design from you, the citizens of Pawnee. So I guess I'm here to send out the Bat-Signal.
CASTELLANETA: A Bat-Signal, for listeners who might not know, refers to the children's character the Batman, a strong gentleman who fights crime nocturnally.
POEHLER: That's correct. Well put. This park is going to be a celebration of Pawnee, by Pawnee and for Pawnee. So, you know, send in your plan or your resume, and quick. Please. Hurry. This is all going to fall apart if you don't hurry.
CASTELLANETA: Coming up after the break, movie reviews with Ken Tucker, who is filling in for David Bianculli, who's in New York filling in for Ken Tucker. Leslie, would you like to introduce the next segment?
POEHLER: OK. Now it's time for "Jazz Plus Jazz Equals Jazz." Today, we have a recording of Benny Goodman played over a separate recording of Miles Davis.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CASTELLANETA: Research shows that our listeners love jazz.
GROSS: OK. Well, you'll find our TV critic David Bianculli's list of the best and worst TV shows of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org. David is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic - well, he's the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and he teaches TV and film history at Rowan University.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. It's our Best Of show. Let's see what our film critic David Edelstein has chosen as the best and worst of the year.
David, welcome. Good to talk with you again. Let's start with your 10-best list. You want to run through it for us?
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Sure, Terry. This is a - not a 10-best list. This is a 12-best list. I've stubbornly refused to conform to the dictates of my media masters.
GROSS: What a free spirit you are.
EDELSTEIN: Thank you so much. And they are in alphabetical order. So you notice, I'm not picking a best film. So I'm going to give you my list from A to Z. And, actually, this year, there is an A and there is a Z. So let's start with Michael Haneke's "Amour," Ben Zeitlin's impressionistic epic "Beasts of the Southern Wild," then "The Deep Blue Sea," Jennifer Westfeldt's "Friends with Kids," "The Gatekeepers," which is a documentary, "Holy Motors," from Leos Carax, "How to Survive a Plague," another documentary, "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," of course, "Oslo, August 31st," a film by Joachim Trier, "Pitch Perfect," the a capella musical, and finally, my Z, "Zero Dark Thirty."
GROSS: So let's start with "Zero Dark Thirty," which I think most people have heard of right now, because it's a film about the CIA trying to track down bin Laden and using waterboarding as a means of trying to extract information. You described this as a movie that's borderline fascistic, but as a piece of cinema, phenomenally gripping, an unholy masterwork. And you've been quoted in a lot of places - you were quoted in the New York Times. You've been quoted in a lot of blogs. So just tell us a little bit of what it's been like for you to say something that's gotten you in the news about this already controversial movie.
EDELSTEIN: Well, I think what I've tried to do is to spotlight my own ambivalence based on the fact that, you know, I sat through the beginning of the movie - which plays actual audio tapes from people who were about to die in the World Trade Center - and it ends with the killing of Osama bin Laden, portrayed very realistically, in the manner that we know it went down, and saying, yeah, they got him - and at the same time, being aware that the film does take - does, for all the filmmakers' professed objectivity, the fact that they say this was just the fact, ma'am, they do take what seems to me to be a very strong stance that intel on the identity of bin Laden's courier came as a result of, quote-unquote, "enhanced interrogation" - that is to say, torture.
Now, they've been backpedaling like crazy. They've been fudging it like crazy. There's even a review in the New York Times that says, in fact, the film proves the opposite. So what's the answer? The answer is we're just going to have to sit down and talk about it and look at the facts as we know them. You have so many people lined up on one side, and you have so many people lined up on the other. All I know is it's probably very, very good we're having this discussion.
GROSS: I was kind of surprised to see "Friends with Kids" on your list, because it's not - I don't think it's the kind of film that sets out to, like, win awards and be prestigious and everything. It's a comedy about single people who wonder if they even want to be married, because they see their married friends having such a hard time as spouses and as parents. So what did you love about the film?
EDELSTEIN: Well, so many people, actually, have come up to me about that film and said, wow, I hated that movie. And I can't quite figure out why, but I think the reason is that it comes on like a kind of formula, middle-brow rom-com about a lot of affluent white people. But also has this very nervous, high-strung, anxious rhythm. The characters have their backs against the wall. The biological clock is ticking. They are suffering. They have money woes. They don't know. They're very uncertain about the ethics of bringing children into this world.
So I think, you know, in a way, that the film captures better than any film I've seen, so much of the anxiety floating around how we breed now. And it's just a - as a perfect counter-example to that is the new Judd Apatow film, "This is 40," which pretends to be about many of the same things, but is, I think, just a spectacular piece of navel-gazing.
GROSS: The movie "Amour," which is on your 10-best list, is opening in January in a lot of cities around the country. And it stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was in the Italian movie "The Conformist," which is such a great film.
GROSS: He gave such a great performance in that. So tell us a little...
EDELSTEIN: That's on my top 10 films of all time list.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. Great. So tell us a little bit about "Amour" and...
EDELSTEIN: Did I just rank? I just ranked. I just said something - I just ranked that film. You know what? I apologize. I don't need to pick a top - I like all movies. OK. You know, "Amour" is a very difficult film because I really hate Michael Haneke. I think he's a provocateur. Or is he a provoc-auteur?
He is kind of a sadistic, proto-punk guy. And finally, in this case, I think he's discovered a real world antagonist that's even more brutal than he is, which is time. In the movie for two-plus hours, grueling hours, he charts the stages in the decline of an elderly woman, played by Emmanuelle Riva, and the grief and the impotence of her husband Jean-Louis Trintignant.
It's a cruel, unflinching movie, and you can't always tell if it's compassionate or mocking, if that very title is meant to be sarcastic or it's meant to be earnest. And yet, I think in spite of Haneke's coldness, something truly moving comes through. We live at a time now where we see so many older people kept alive in so many ways, and we watch them literally degenerate. And I think this movie captures what that feels like in a way I've only seen onscreen in documentaries.
GROSS: So, we're talking about movies and your best movies of the year list. So shortly after the tragedy in Newtown and, you know, Americans are always arguing about whether there is or isn't a correlation between movie violence and real world violence. But whether there is a correlation or not, do you find that a horror like the shootings in Newtown affects your interest or even your ability to sit through violent films?
EDELSTEIN: Yeah. I've been struggling with this in the days and the week after that terrible tragedy. A film like "Django," Quentin Tarantino's film that opens just in time for Christmas Day, is a film that uses violence in I think what Tarantino considers a moral way, and yet a gleeful way.
GROSS: Do you think you're evaluating the film any differently now than you would've, say, last month?
EDELSTEIN: No. I think I was very disappointed when I saw it, which is not to say that it didn't give me a great deal of pleasure. It's entertaining the way I think all of Quentin Tarantino's films are entertaining. But morally, it's very lazy. Again, you're really just supposed to get off every time a white slave owner is mowed down in some garish way.
You are never supposed to see them as any more than monsters, than monstrous exploiters. The one interesting character in the film is played by Samuel Jackson, and it is a - he's referred to as a house n-word. He is, in fact, much closer and aligns himself with the slaveholder, as opposed to his fellow African-Americans, and turns out to be, in fact, the most formidable opponent of the hero, a freed slave named Django.
GROSS: Well, "Django Unchained" is opening Christmas Day. Can we take a brief look at some other films opening for the holidays?
EDELSTEIN: Yes, we can.
GROSS: So one of the big movies is "Les Mis," the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical. I don't know if you saw the Broadway show. Some people are so attached to that show and other people think that it's, you know, just pretty treacly in its music. So I don't know if you have a preexisting opinion of the show and the music, but what did you think of the movie?
EDELSTEIN: I came to it a virgin and what I saw onscreen was a transcendentally tasteless bombardment, an absolute horror show that in a just world would send people screaming from the theater. I saw a director, Tom Hooper, so eager to underline the fact that his actors were singing live, as opposed to post-synching to their own voices - which, by the way, I heard on this very show, Barbra Streisand has sung live despite the fact that the makers of "Les Mis" say this is an innovation.
He's so eager to draw our attention to that that, he gets his camera in really, really close, generally underneath. And the camera cants and tilts and follows them and gets right in their faces. You can practically see their tonsils. You can see every pore in their skin.
And this horrible music is coming out of the screen by actors who, in many cases, can't hit the notes. They're either sharp or flat or, in the case of Russell Crowe in some water buffalo zone of their own. And I'm sorry, I can't concede anything about this film. It is ghastly from first frame to last.
GROSS: My guest is our film critic David Edelstein. We'll talk more about the year in film after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is our film critic David Edelstein. We're talking about the year in film. So what were some of your favorite performances of the year?
EDELSTEIN: Well, it's very hard to talk about any year in which Daniel Day-Lewis appears without talking about Daniel Day-Lewis. There's a sense in which he bestrides the narrow world like a colossus, as someone says of Julius Caesar. Here is someone who combines the sort of method actor's total immersion in a role and at the same time is just an amazing craftsman; is formally so disciplined.
For "Lincoln" he managed to raise his voice an octave. He becomes the Lincoln of our imagination. He becomes every bit as deep in that role as we imagine the man would be. And it also points up something very interesting. If you look at another film this year, "The Master," in which Joaquin Phoenix has gotten a lot of attention, now there's an example of an actor who loses himself in a role and doesn't really come up for air.
In some ways the emotional and the moral chaos that the character goes through makes it impossible for me to relate to this man and for all of us to relate to this man and to get inside his head. He can be a great, great actor but he's also someone who has precious little control. Daniel Day Lewis seems to be able to put it all together as very few actors do.
GROSS: Any other performances you want to sing about?
EDELSTEIN: It's wonderful to see Denzel Washington, an actor who is too cool for school, you know, explore, take apart, anatomize his own cool, playing a drug- and alcohol-addicted pilot in the film "Flight." I almost feel as though he's deconstructing himself before your eyes and putting himself back together.
It becomes a film about mastery and the loss of mastery. He's a very impersonal actor. In some places not a particularly likeable actor. And yet I think the way he approaches this role gave me more insight into him than any other performance he's given.
I think Michelle Williams turns her x-ray machine on herself in Sarah Polley's very underrated film "Take this Waltz." I think that Matthew McConaughey is an actor that I've said many times I think is very undervalued. Strips down as a sort of satanic stripper and club owner in the film "Magic Mike" and just gives a high-on-the-hog, rip-roaring wonderful performance that has been awarded by a number of critic societies, deservedly so.
Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty" is a fascinating study in contrast when you compare her to the absolutely wonderful performance of Clare Danes playing what's rumored to be the same sort of character on "Homeland."
GROSS: So any final thoughts on 2012 in film?
EDELSTEIN: I didn't use the M word this year, Terry - masterpiece. Except in relation to a film that was shot in 2005, 2006 and really cannot be seen on the big screen, although it made its first appearance this year. It's Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret." It was released theatrically last year in an abbreviated cut, two hours and 20 minutes or so. I thought the first half was brilliant and the second half was a fiasco.
Lonergan got hold of it. He extended it by at least 45 minutes. He clarified certain things. I think the film that exists now on DVD is an absolutely bona fide masterpiece. This story of a young woman's moral and emotional coming of age unlike, I think, any that we've seen onscreen in decades and decades. People must rent it or buy it. They must see it. But they must see the extended cut. It really is the greatest film of the year.
GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you as always for talking with us and I wish you and your family happy holidays and a good and healthy New Year.
EDELSTEIN: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for FRESH AIR and New York magazine. You can find his list of the best and worst movies of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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