Nothing Beats 'The Good Place': David Bianculli Picks The Best TV Of 2019
Good TV seems to be coming at us in increasingly large quantities and from so many different directions. Just last month, two major services — Apple TV+ and Disney+ — launched, joining the crowded field of streaming services. All this added up to a great year for quality television. Here's a list of my favorite shows of 2019.
Other segments from the episode on December 23, 2019
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to look back at the year on TV with our TV critic David Bianculli. Hey, David. I always look forward to this at the end of the year.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Oh, me, too.
GROSS: OK. So let's start with your 10 best list. You want to run through it for us?
BIANCULLI: So going backwards from No. 10 for maximum suspense.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
BIANCULLI: No. 10 is "Veep," which ended this year on HBO, had another strong season. No. 9 is CBS' "Evil," which premiered this year. It's by the same producers who did "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight." And they're doing this very strange, spooky, supernatural, religious questioning thing. It's worth seeing. It's really a good show, and it's developing as it's going along. And it's on broadcast television. There aren't that many great shows left on broadcast TV. So it's good to point out that, yes, they can still do drama. No. 8 is "Barry" on HBO, which just deepens all the time and really good performances and writing. That's a very funny show.
No. 7 - maybe not a lot of people saw this but it was on Netflix - called "Dead To Me," Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. And a very dark but very funny comedy about women who are going through changes in life and reacting to one another. And it really goes in lots of unexpected directions. No. 6, which started again this month on Amazon, is "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." And so the people who are fans of that show already know about it, and it's back. It's got a good cast and good writing by Amy Sherman-Palladino.
No. 5 - Damon Lindelof's show "Watchmen" on HBO. This is one that has gotten so good so fast that it's sort of taking the place, for me, of a show that ended this year that I loved because it was so bizarre, and that was "Legion," which is also on my top 10 list farther up. But "Watchmen" is getting so weird. Catch it on streaming now because it's now gone for the season, and its episodes are so smart. Jeremy Irons is in it. It's just - Jean Smart. There are so many good performances all the way through.
GROSS: Regina King.
BIANCULLI: Yes, she's fabulous in this.
GROSS: Is it coming back?
BIANCULLI: I'm pretty sure it is. This is in - it's in the place right now where, like, "Big Little Lies" on HBO was originally thought, maybe we'll just do one, but it caught on so big that it came back. So I'm expecting the same of "Watchmen." No. 4 - I'm using the fourth place as a tie for "Fleabag" on Amazon and "Killing Eve" on BBC America. They're both created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She didn't do the current season of "Killing Eve," but it's still her idea. But "Fleabag" on Amazon surprised almost everybody by winning Emmys this year as best comedy, and it's deserved. It's really a good show and a distinct female voice that's great to have on television.
No. 3 is "Black Mirror," and that's from Charlie Brooker, and it's the best anthology series since "The Twilight Zone." And it just - every single year it comes out, other people try to imitate it and fail, showing how hard it is. And "Black Mirror" just does more really good stories, and that's on Netflix. "Legion," I've already mentioned, that was on FX - ended this season. Noah Hawley. It used television better than almost anything since "Twin Peaks" has used television. And then No. 1 - this is probably going to surprise people because it's another network show. It's from NBC. It's from Michael Schur, and it's "The Good Place." It's a comedy about the afterlife.
GROSS: Like, heaven and hell in the afterlife?
BIANCULLI: It's heaven and hell, and you never know which one is which. It's just so brilliant about the way that it approaches its subject. For example, I brought along a clip...
BIANCULLI: ...Since it's my favorite show of the year, where you have people who have their respective little cadres in what we can call heaven and hell. And Ted Danson is Michael in the good place, ostensibly. And then there's a guy - Marc Evan Jackson plays him - he's called Shawn, and he's the leader of the bad place. And so this opening sequence has both of them. It alternates between them giving pep talks to their respective troops. And in the bad place, you get to hear hell's theme song. And when I heard it, it really made me laugh.
GROSS: So we're starting with the good place, and then we'll go to the bad place?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOOD PLACE")
TED DANSON: (As Michael) And marching us into battle, our fearless leader, the pride of Phoenix, Ariz. - Eleanor Shellstrop.
KRISTEN BELL: (As Eleanor Shellstrop) Technically, the pride of Phoenix is a life-sized statue of Alice Cooper made from cigarette butts. It's outside city hall. But thank you for the kind words.
DANSON: (As Michael) With this team, there's no problem we can't solve.
MARC EVAN JACKSON: (As Shawn) There is no problem we can't create. And believe me, we are going to create some a-problems (ph). So let's kick things off with her official bad place song.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) One-eight-seven-seven cars for kids. K-A-R-S cars for kids.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ooh, are we singing?
JACKSON: (As Shawn) Shut up, Glenn.
GROSS: I love that. That Kars4Kids commercial, I...
BIANCULLI: I hate it.
GROSS: I feel like it's stalking me.
BIANCULLI: I know. I know.
GROSS: It follows me around when I watch TV. Then on satellite radio, I hear it, too. It drives me crazy.
BIANCULLI: Me, too And when I heard this on "The Good Place," I really did one of those super laugh-out-louds because I thought, oh, my gosh, Michael Schur understands. He hears the same bad song as many times as I do, and he thinks it comes straight from hell, and he could be right.
GROSS: Well, good. OK, so, David, your top 10 list - thank you for presenting that. So hearing your top 10 list, of course, I can't help but notice that four of the shows were from streaming services. You've got "Black Mirror," "Fleabag," "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and "Dead To Me." And...
BIANCULLI: Oh, yeah. That's right.
GROSS: And so the way things are going now, it's funny - like, we're living in an era, so many people have cut the cord to cable and they're not paying for TV. But now in order to watch shows, you have to subscribe ala carte, not to cable but to the streaming services. So let's talk about how they're developing. We've got new ones that we didn't even have before.
GROSS: And the old ones are just getting bigger and bigger. Let's start with Disney because they're such a new entry.
GROSS: And they're so big.
BIANCULLI: Disney+ is, to me, inescapable. You've got the Disney backlog of movies and TV stuff. You would think that would be enough to keep a new streaming service alive, but they also have the "Star Wars" universe. They also have the Marvel Universe. They also have the Muppets. They have Pixar.
GROSS: How did they get all that?
BIANCULLI: Just by, you know, marching across Europe and taking over territories. They just spent a lot of money. What's happening with all of these streaming services who are going for global domination is that they are spending the money as fast as they can. I mean, you look at Netflix, for example, which led the territory here. It used to say, we've got an original show, and then we'll have another one in six months. And so that was its pace. Now you get six or seven shows from Netflix every Friday.
And so what everybody's doing is spending money and then making as much of their own stuff exclusive or buying it exclusively. So the Disney movies that used to be - or some of these "Star Wars" properties or Marvel movies that used to be available on Netflix or elsewhere, they've drawn back. So they're now exclusively on one service. So if you want to see those, you've got to get Disney+.
GROSS: What do they charge? I mean, what are we up against financially?
BIANCULLI: Well, almost all of these - it's going to be, like, $5 a month. Or if you don't want to have commercial interruptions, then it's going to be $10 a month. You can basically sort of round it out to $10 per month per streaming service. And if you think...
GROSS: That's a lot of money.
BIANCULLI: Yes, it is. And if you think that on my top 10 this year alone, you had Netflix, you had Amazon. So that's two that you got to get just to get some of the best that's there.
GROSS: That's $20 a month right there.
BIANCULLI: Right. And then Hulu had "Handmaid's Tale" and "The Act" and some other things. And so you start adding them. And then you had Apple TV+ was another new one this year, and it just keeps going. It's the same problem as when cable started in the '70s.
GROSS: What was that problem with cable?
BIANCULLI: The problem was everybody wanted to get on board but separately. And so all of a sudden, consumers were paying more than they wanted to for cable. So the corporations began bundling up. And so you'd get a premium sports bundle or an entertainment bundle or a news bundle, and then things would drop by because they wouldn't get enough support on cable companies. Streaming, it's all there at once, so it's totally dependent upon whether they can create an appetite from the viewer.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, and we're talking about the year in television. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, and we're talking about the year in television.
Let's talk about another new entry in this field, and that's Apple TV+. How are they defined in terms of the programming?
BIANCULLI: Well they're - they don't have a backlog. Their stuff is all original. They're saying, you're coming to us for the new stuff, and we've got this "Morning Show" with Jennifer Aniston, and we've got this different sort of thing that's kind of like "Game Of Thrones." But they don't have much. The one thing that I've been impressed by is M. Night Shyamalan's "Servant," which is written by other people. He's directed a couple. It's a good horror series. But I don't think that's what it wants to be known as, you know, at Apple. So I don't think they have a clear identity yet.
GROSS: Well, with Netflix, like, they are doing movies as well as TV shows.
BIANCULLI: Oh, my head hurts. Yeah, I know.
GROSS: Yeah. And I mean, so "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story," two of the really acclaimed movies of the year are Netflix films. There's probably others, too, but those are current ones. I have to say, with "The Irishman," I made a point of getting to the movie theater because I thought it's 3 1/2 hours, and I want to just be in a dark room with it because I was really afraid if I watched it at home, that there'd be so many distractions.
BIANCULLI: What was it like for you? Because I watched it at home.
GROSS: I saw it in a theater, and I liked it a lot, and I was really glad I was in the theater. I think I wouldn't have been as immersed in it had I watched it at home. And it's a kind of complicated plot, and I have a feeling if I watched it at home, I'd keep rewinding it and going like, oh, who was that guy who was just shot?
GROSS: And, like, I'd never make it through, whereas in the movie theater, it goes by, you go, OK, I didn't quite get that; I can live with that.
BIANCULLI: And I'm glad it held up for you at that pace in the theaters.
GROSS: Yeah, and there's a lot I liked about the film.
GROSS: But that's not to say you wouldn't enjoy it at home if you're thinking of watching it at home.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, no...
GROSS: I personally recommend it (laughter).
BIANCULLI: Because I did.
BIANCULLI: But I just - that's the reason it's not on my top 10, is because I consider it a movie.
GROSS: So how has Netflix been evolving? Because it's one of the streaming services that really established streaming as an important player.
BIANCULLI: It used to be saying, we will do things of quality that will get us noticed. And then they just started saying, we will do things of quantity, and some of them will be quality. And now they're saying, we will do things in more than one arena. And so there's no reason, they figured, with all the money they have that they couldn't make movies as well as original television productions. And they get a double dip that way. They get to go into the movie stream and do box office and maybe go for Oscars, and then they get the first rights to it. It's something else exclusive to them, so that when you say, what streaming service am I going to hang on to, it's like, oh, well, look - this movie that was in theaters that I didn't see, I can only see here. It's all Machiavellian, and it's all scary.
GROSS: What are the TV networks doing to maintain relevance during this period?
BIANCULLI: Not enough. I mean, really not enough. The networks know that they can rely on - it used to be news and sports would be live. That would be it. But you think of CBS and NBC and ABC, and they're not the news presence that they used to be. I don't know - and it's not a fair question to ask you, and I don't even think it's a fair question to ask me to identify the network anchors of the evening newscasts at CBS, NBC and ABC. A generation ago...
GROSS: You know, I've been thinking about that, too, David.
GROSS: You know, for myself, I watch the news channels a lot.
GROSS: I'm not home when the network news is on. But even if I was, I'd probably have one of the news channels on.
BIANCULLI: That's exactly what I'm doing. But I am watching more news than I ever have; I'm just not watching a lot of it on the broadcast networks.
GROSS: You know, we were talking about how fragmented the TV audience is now because you've got networks, you've got cable, you've got all these news streaming services, and each service - some of the services have so many shows. And because of that fragmentation, the TV audience is so divided, and as you acknowledge, some of the shows in your 10 best list some of our audience will have never heard of...
GROSS: ...Because the audience is so fragmented. But it seems like the main characters in our culture now, the characters that everybody knows, are the people in politics. Like, everybody doesn't know who's on "Fleabag," even though that's a good show.
GROSS: But everybody knows who Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi and Rudy Giuliani and Adam Schiff are. So, you know, politics is what we're disagreeing on, but it's also what we're all talking about.
BIANCULLI: It's a great comparison because we're disagreeing about it in part because our politics and our news are so fragmented. It didn't used to be that way. We watched all the same news at the same time pretty much. And now you go to your respective corners and watch your preferred interpretation of whatever happened that day. I, as a TV critic, bounce around. So I'll watch CNN. I'll watch MSNBC. I'll watch Fox News. And every time I complete that lap, I have a really horrible headache because I see how little commonality there is, and I think all the time most people don't see that.
GROSS: Because they're not watching all three?
BIANCULLI: They're not watching all three. They're not watching what Fox News is not saying that MSNBC is and vice versa and not covering. It's tricky. I don't know how we escape from this.
GROSS: David, you're not only a TV critic. You're a TV historian. You teach television history.
GROSS: And I'm interested in hearing your comparison of TV coverage of Watergate with TV coverage of the impeachment of Donald Trump.
BIANCULLI: It's fascinating because it changes. You'd think when I was teaching TV history of the '70s and I'm covering the news of the '70s that I could lock that in and never change it, but, like, it's - no. I've got to spend more time talking about the firing of a special prosecutor. I've got to spend more time about the actual hearings that are on on Watergate because there such amazing parallels today.
I even brought a clip of - this is something that Walter Cronkite put out after the fact that talked about the Watergate hearings. It starts with an announcer announcing the Senate hearings and then Walter Cronkite putting things into perspective. And then also, you hear some testimony by John Dean, the White House counsel, and by Alexander Butterfield, a White House aide who gave this bombshell about a secret taping system. And I remember watching both of those on live television.
GROSS: A secret White House taping system.
BIANCULLI: Yes. You know, it's just - it's...
GROSS: That was very incriminating...
GROSS: ...Once they got the tape.
BIANCULLI: It doesn't get more dramatic than that except now, watching, you know, the testimony that we have gotten. It's amazing to me.
GROSS: So you want to hear that clip?
GROSS: Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Watergate Senate hearings - to ensure complete live nationwide coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings, the three commercial television networks are rotating the daily coverage.
JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.
WALTER CRONKITE: By the spring of 1974, the Watergate affair was a full-blown scandal as televised congressional hearings gradually uncovered the cover-up.
FRED THOMPSON: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?
ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: I was aware of listening devices. Yes, sir.
THOMPSON: Are you aware of the installation of any devices on any of the telephones - first of all, the Oval Office?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, sir.
SAMUEL DASH: Now, the tapes which you mentioned which are stored - are they stored by particular date?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, sir. They are.
DASH: And so that if either Mr. Dean, Mr. Haldeman, Mr Ehrlichman or Mr. Colson had particular meetings in the Oval Office with the president on any particular dates that have been testified before this committee, there would be a tape recording with the president of that full conversation, would there not?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, sir.
GROSS: Really interesting to hear that.
BIANCULLI: I mean, it's unbelievable.
GROSS: Well, since the holidays are coming up, while you're here, why don't you recommend a few shows that are on streaming or on demand that, you know, are - is, like, a limited series that people can binge and and catch up on during the holidays - not something with a whole lot of seasons because they'll never make it through that over the holidays...
BIANCULLI: OK, well...
GROSS: ...But something manageable?
BIANCULLI: All right. I'll start with TV movies - two of them - "Deadwood: The Movie" on HBO and "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" on Netflix. So if you loved those series that have been gone for a while, it's a chance to go back and see the newest episode 10 years later or whatever, and they're both wonderful. Hulu and Amazon both this year have unearthed for the first time the complete showings of one series from the '70s, "Lou Grant," and one series from the '80s, "St. Elsewhere," that have never been out on home video.
GROSS: I'm going to throw in one...
GROSS: ...Because I binged on this, I guess, a year ago, two years ago. I lose track of time.
BIANCULLI: That's fine.
BIANCULLI: I can't wait to hear what this is.
GROSS: OK. It's "Godless," if you like westerns...
BIANCULLI: Oh, yes.
GROSS: ...As I do. But it's this really charismatic western that - it has really strong women in it, really charismatic men. It's fabulous, so...
BIANCULLI: That's a great recommendation.
BIANCULLI: You'll know before the opening credits whether you want to be with this show.
BIANCULLI: And you should.
BIANCULLI: That's a good one.
GROSS: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Good for you.
GROSS: Thank you. Well, it's been great fun to talk with you, David.
BIANCULLI: I love this. Thanks a lot. Happy holidays - all that stuff.
GROSS: Happy holidays. You going to to be watching TV?
BIANCULLI: Well, I hope not as much.
BIANCULLI: I have a full contingent of grandkids coming in.
GROSS: Oh, good for you.
BIANCULLI: I'll watch them instead.
GROSS: All right. Well, happy holidays.
BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks a lot.
GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He's the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and is a professor of television at Rowan University in New Jersey. After we take a short break, our film critic Justin Chang will talk about the year in film and tell us what's on his 10 best list. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER CHRISTMAS SONG")
STEPHEN COLBERT: (Singing) Ho, it's another Christmas song. Whoa. Get ready, brother, for another Christmas song. They play for a month ad infinitum. One day, it struck me someone must write them, so it's another Christmas song. Santa Claus singing on naughty snow, reindeer ringing in the mistletoe - the manger's on fire. The holly's aglow. Hear the baby Jesus crying, ho ho ho. Hey, it's another Christmas song.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to take a look back at the year in film with our film critic Justin Chang, who is also a film critic for the LA Times.
Justin, I'm looking forward to talking with you. It's been a year since we've spoken on the air.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I know.
GROSS: Since your previous top 10 list. So speaking of top 10 lists, let's start there. Let's start with you running down what's on your list.
CHANG: For sure. One thing I've done is I like to pair my titles. It's not something I try to force, but there are these thematic pairings. I feel like these movies often speak to each other, and the reasons I like them are also the reasons that they're kind of connected. So I'm going to go back from 10 to one. At No. 10 is "Little Women," Greta Gerwig's wonderful retelling of Louisa May Alcott's much-adapted classic. It delivers all the emotional satisfactions you would expect, but it's - also has really great things to say about women artists, the challenges they face in every era. That is also true of my No. 9 movie, "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire," Celine Sciamma's gorgeous and thrillingly intelligent drama about an 18th century French painter and the woman she falls in love with.
No. 8 is "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood," Quentin Tarantino's deeply pleasurable and transporting valentine to 1969 Los Angeles. I'm pairing it with a movie that far fewer people have seen and which has an even longer title; it's called "I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians." It's from the Romanian director Radu Jude. And it's a brilliant movie about Romania's complicity in the Holocaust, among other things, and how we choose to remember tragedies and atrocities, which makes it a fascinating double bill with the Tarantino. At
No. 6, I have "Marriage Story," Noah Baumbach's bitingly funny and deeply moving drama about two artists and their divorce, superbly acted by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, among others. My No. 5 is another really piercingly sad love story inspired by personal experience, and that is "The Souvenir," Joanna Hogg's exquisite memoir about her early years as a filmmaker. It features wonderful performances as well by Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke. My next two movies are both elegiac decades-spanning crime dramas. No. 4 is Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," a sprawling yet very incisive movie that is an epic reconsideration of the gangster movie from the guy who made "Goodfellas" and "Casino" and others. No. 3 is Ash Is Purest White from the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. It's a brilliant and heartbreaking study of a woman who takes the fall for her small-town mobster boyfriend, and her life is never the same afterward.
And finally, my top two movies gave me truly the happiest hours I spent in the theater this year, and they gave them to me many times over. I've seen them both more than once. No. 2 is "Knives Out," Rian Johnson's deliriously entertaining throwback to the classic drawing room whodunit. And No. 1 is "Parasite," a thrilling and devastating masterpiece from the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Both of these movies are just marvels of craft and construction. They're ingeniously plotted puzzle-box thrillers, and they have a lot to say about class and wealth inequality in the world today.
GROSS: And some of these films are still playing in theaters. "Marriage Story" and "The Irishman" you can watch on Netflix. So if you haven't seen these, there's still ways of seeing them. What are some of the movies, Justin, that you think best reflect the moment that we're in politically and culturally? I mean, we have impeachment, the continued reckoning with men who have a history of sexual harassment and men who have helped cover it up, continued fanning of hatred and discrimination against African Americans, Latinx people, Muslims, Jews. Where are we?
CHANG: It's pretty overwhelming to think about. One of the reasons I do love Parasite so much is that this is a movie that is made in South Korea and has had a level of impact that Korean films typically do not in the United States and in other countries. And this is a movie that puts the haves and the have-nots front and center but in ways that are really subversive and that are not banal or kind of expected. I mean, this is a really surprising movie. I think it's the best of a number of movies that have taken on class this year. "Knives Out" is another. The heroine of that movie, played by the Cuban actress Ana de Armas is a Latin American immigrant woman who is the nurse to a wealthy white man and his family, and it's a really fascinating movie about that class dynamic and that race dynamic.
There were movies like "Hustlers" and even "Joker," which was a really divisive movie that I liked more than some of my colleagues. You know, Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker" plays this lonely, tortured white male sociopath who becomes the embodiment of rage against the 1%. I don't think the movie's class politics are all that trenchant, really, but it's interesting to see a studio comic book blockbuster engaging on that level.
I think "Richard Jewell" is a really interesting movie. And I - like a lot of journalists, I liked a lot about that movie except for its portrait of the Olivia Wilde character, the Atlanta Journal Constitution journalist who first started reporting on Richard Jewell after the Atlanta bombing. The movie depicts her sleeping with a source in order to get information and that completely unsubstantiated thing that kicked off a real firestorm. And I think that the reaction just to how that character is portrayed tells us something about the #MeToo moment that we're in because I think a few years ago you could have gotten away with a stereotype like that, a really kind of blatantly misogynist stereotype, which - and kind of easy journalist baiting.
And in this moment when the press is under attack as never before and in which, you know, women are speaking out more about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct and abuse, that just doesn't fly anymore, and I think that's heartening. And I overall liked that movie despite finding that extremely problematic.
GROSS: I want to talk with you about Martin Scorsese because he's one of the filmmakers of the year, and you wrote a great essay about him in the LA Times. So let's start with "The Irishman," which is on your 10 best list. What do you think that film represents in Scorsese's career?
CHANG: I mean, I used the word elegiac when I was saying it on my top 10 list. That word is maybe overused of late, but I think it's a great one because there's something very meditative and ruminating about that film. You know, you think Martin Scorsese's greatest gangster movie before this was "Goodfellas" and, you know, arguably, I mean, I really like "Casino" as well. But, you know, a movie that has so much amped-up kinetic energy and the camerawork and in the psychology of those characters. And you get excited. You get kind of high watching that movie. The movie achieves a contact high almost.
And that is not the case in "The Irishman," even though the movie is really entertaining and there are colorful characters and great moments and the violence almost feels anecdotal in that kind of rat-a-tat way that he has. But by the end - and this movie is 3 1/2 hours long. It's playing on Netflix so you can watch it in two parts, or you can watch it all in one sitting as I did both times I saw it. The ending slows to a crawl, and it's about, you know, Frank Sheeran, the main character, who is a real man, and him looking back at his life of crime.
And it says so much, I think, about the futility of crime and just what happens when you are sort of the middleman doing everyone's dirty work and there is no one left to look after you at the end. And your family has turned on you, and, you know, you have just countless numbers of people's blood on your hands. And I think coming from Scorsese, there's something really authoritative about "The Irishman." I mean, here is someone who, you know, has made great gangster movies, maybe will continue to do that. But there's a real finality to that movie and what it says about the genre.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to our film critic Justin Chang. We're talking about the movies of the year, and we'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TO ROCOCO ROT'S "MISS YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is our film critic Justin Chang. He's also a film critic for The LA Times. And we're talking about the movies of the year.
What are some of your favorite performances of the year?
CHANG: Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems" - you know, I have, like, done my share of Sandler-bashing like anyone does in this job after a while. But at the same time, he's been a fabulous actor when given the right material in movies like "Punch-Drunk Love" and "The Meyerowitz Stories." This is my favorite performance of his in Josh and Benny Safdie's thriller. Antonio Banderas in "Pain And Glory," the film from Pedro Almodovar which just missed my top list - on a different day, it would probably make it - wonderful, deeply moving humane performance as a character who is a fictionalized stand-in for Pedro Almodovar himself. Zhao Tao in "Ash Is Purest White," a Chinese actress who has been in the director Jia Zhangke's work for, you know - she's sort of his constant collaborator, and she just gets better and better. This is a performance that I think is fully equal in its impact and in just its resonance, too. Robert De Niro's great performance in "The Irishman" - everyone in "The Irishman" is just fantastic.
Jennifer Lopez as a stripper-turned-grifter in "Hustlers" - I don't want to necessarily classify this as a comeback, but I think that this movie utilizes her incredible star wattage and presence in ways that movies too rarely do. Lupita Nyong'o in "Us" - this is a dual performance in Jordan Peele's terrifying horror-thriller, another movie about class and the haves and the have-nots. And Lupita Nyong'o plays a woman and her murderous double in this movie, and it's just a mesmerizing performance. I think awards-giving bodies tend to overlook genre movies and horror movies at times, but Lupita Nyong'o won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. I think she is being taken seriously in a way that she absolutely should. And Brad Pitt in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood," another movie that is crammed with pretty great performances, but - just a great star turn. And I think that as good as Leonardo DiCaprio is in that movie, it is very much Brad Pitt's movie, as you come to realize at the end. I just loved him in it.
GROSS: I think they're both great in it. I think we should also, like, mention Scarlett Johansson because she was so good this year and both "Jojo Rabbit" and "Marriage Story."
CHANG: She's terrific in both those movies, and I say that as someone who is no great fan of "Jojo Rabbit." But I think she brings humanity and warmth to that role of Jojo's mother. And I think she's terrific in "Marriage Story," and it's a - I think she's doing, in some ways, the hardest job of anyone in that film because it is very much largely the Adam Driver character's perspective that - you know, which some have interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as the Noah Baumbach perspective - on that movie. But she is just effortlessly believable in that movie, and yet she's also juggling a lot of technique.
GROSS: And I want to say something about the other star of "Marriage Story," Adam Driver. I'll preface this by saying many of our listeners might know he walked out of an interview that I was recording with him. I say that just for disclosure. But I thought his performance in that film was terrific, and it had one of my favorite film moments of the year in which he sings - it's a song I love. And it's a very, very compelling performance of that song, a really wonderful moment.
CHANG: It's a great performance. I love Adam Driver in just about everything, and I just think he gets better and better. And he was in a lot this year. He is in the new "Star Wars" movie. He is in "The Report" with Annette Bening. But "Marriage Story" - I think his work there, I mean, just takes it to another level.
GROSS: "Cats" will be in theaters. I know a lot of people have seen the stage musical of "Cats." I have to preface this by saying you did not like this film. I'm going to read a couple of lines from your review. (Reading) Given how often the movies tend to stereotype felines as smug, pampered homebodies, there are certainly worse characters one could spend time with, though way I am hard-pressed at the moment to think of many worse movies. I say this with zero hyperbole and the smallest kernel of admiration.
Wow. That is really not a positive.
GROSS: How do you feel writing a film review like that about a beloved musical which, apparently, in your opinion, does not turn out well on screen?
CHANG: No, it doesn't. And - but I have to say, Terry, I'm kind of grateful that this movie exists because bad or mediocre movies are a dime a dozen. Something that is as just jaw-droppingly surreal and misguided and just weirdly, compellingly bad as this one to be released at Christmas by a major studio - I mean, it's both the Christmas gift and the Christmas coal, as it were. I think this movie would have been better, actually, just without this ghastly visual design that Hooper has come up with, where you have these human actors wearing cat ears and sporting tails and covered with digital fur. And they're not quite cats. They're not quite humans. That whole hybrid look works perfectly well on the stage because of the magic of stagecraft and live performance, and here, it just looks so wrong. Your eyes never adjust to it, and you just sort of - your heart goes out to even actors who, I think, equip themselves as well as they can like Ian McKellen, Judi Dench.
And this movie, when - since the trailers emerged, has just been the joke of the internet, and you don't want to just pile on and feed that. And you don't want to prejudge the movie. You want to go in with your eyes wide open and think, I know what I know, but this could be good, darn - but it wasn't.
GROSS: "Bombshell" will be in movie theaters - the movie based on the women at Fox News who came forward about Roger Ailes and got him forced out of Fox. I think Charlize Theron's performance as Megyn Kelly is really excellent. What did you think of the film?
CHANG: I agree with you. She's excellent, and I think she's better than the movie is. And her performance goes for a level of realism. It's just uncanny how much she looks and sounds like Megyn Kelly in the film. But the rest of the movie doesn't live up to that standard. You have Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson. I think Kidman's good in it, but there isn't that same level of verisimilitude. You have Margot Robbie as a fictional somewhat composite character. You have John Lithgow under what appears to be a lot of prosthetic makeup as Roger Ailes.
I found the movie really slipshod in a lot of ways and yet powerful at others because I think that this look inside the corridors of power at Fox News and - Margot Robbie has the scene with Lithgow - this - it's a sexual harassment scene. And it is painful and heartbreaking to watch. I think scenes like that are really powerful. The rest of it feels a little bit "SNL" sketch level in terms of - look, that person's playing that person. And it throws you out.
And I think that - the movie, I think, has to negotiate this tricky ground of - in terms of making heroines of people who, depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, may strike you as heroic or villainous or somewhere in between. And I don't think, ultimately, the movie is gutsy enough to be truthful about those characters in a way. Even - you know, I think it sort of hedges.
And it feels like - I have a real skepticism of necessarily rushing to make movies about events that are still fairly recent. I mean, it's not that it's too soon. But I do think that filmmakers and the director, Jay Roach, in this case didn't have the time to really grapple with this in a way that would have made for a more thoughtful and analytical film.
GROSS: Well, Justin, it's been great to talk with you. I wish you happy holidays and a healthy and fulfilling 2020 with good movies.
CHANG: Thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure, and happy holidays to you.
GROSS: Thank you. Justin Chang is FRESH AIR's film critic and a film critic for the LA Times.
After a break, our critic-at-large John Powers will have his annual ghost list - his list of the best things he read, saw or listened to but didn't get to review. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. As each year comes to an end, our critic-at-large John Powers invariably regrets all the things he was not able to cover. And so he makes what he calls his ghost list of the best things he saw, read or listened to but somehow never reviewed.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Few things haunt a critic more than loving something and not being able to share it. Every year, I wind up being plagued by the hungry ghosts of the things I wasn't able to review - dog-eared books, dust-covered DVDs, TV shows and songs that rattle the windows of my playlists. Each December, I try to placate them with this ghost list before time runs out.
Fittingly, I begin with an artist whose work draws much of its wonder from otherworldly spirits. I'm talking of Hayao Miyazaki, the 78-year-old Japanese who's the greatest animated filmmaker alive. Over the last year or so, GKIDS has been bringing out fabulous collectors' editions of his best films on Blu-ray and DVD. You still can't stream them. Miyazaki doesn't do brash American animation with parrots voiced by comedians and bushels of pop culture jokes. Often beginning with childhood pain or anxiety, he taps into deep psychic wells and Japanese folklore to conjure worlds that teem with invention, like the 12-leg cat that's a bus in the beloved "My Neighbor Totoro" or the enigmatic amusement park of his masterpiece "Spirited Away," whose 10-year-old heroine is plunged into a wonderland as slippery and surreal as Lewis Carroll. Watching Miyazaki, you enter a realm of pure imagination.
Things are distressingly real in Netflix's "Unbelievable," a series based on a true story about the victims and pursuers of a serial rapist. It begins with a young Washington state woman, Marie, played by Kaitlyn Dever, whose life collapses when male cops bully her into retracting a claim she's been raped. Then, two years later outside Denver, a series of identical rapes start being committed. And two female cops from different cities - that's Merritt Wever and Toni Collette - realize they may be chasing the same man. Here, they've just met, and Collette's character starts explaining what her perp did.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBELIEVABLE")
TONI COLLETTE: (As Detective Grace Rasmussen) He proceeds to rape her for three hours on and off. I mean...
MERRITT WEVER: (As Detective Karen Duvall) Same thing with my victim - stopping and starting for four hours.
COLLETTE: (As Detective Grace Rasmussen) Huh. Well, after, he did the shower thing. By the time she gets out, he's gone - took her sheets, her pillow, blankets.
WEVER: (As Detective Karen Duvall) Yeah - same with mine. He left a scene so clean you could eat off it.
COLLETTE: (As Detective Grace Rasmussen) My team searched every dumpster within a two-mile radius, every trash can. They scoured ditches. We dragged a pond hoping to find something - the gun, her sheets or...
WEVER: (As Detective Karen Duvall) No luck?
COLLETTE: (As Detective Grace Rasmussen) Nada. I mean, I got a few leads from the neighbors, a cable guy some folks thought was a bit creepy, which he was - the cable guy. So anyway, he checked out. There were a few other shifty dudes, some with assault records, but I just cleared the last one yesterday, so...
POWERS: "Unbelievable" unfolds slowly and methodically and without melodrama. Its eight episodes not only take the time to show the cost of sexual assault on its victims, but the show's deliberateness only heightens the ironic sting of the series' title. What's truly unbelievable isn't Marie's story about being raped but how she's not listened to by those supposedly there to protect her.
There are, of course, other ways that women are ignored. Take the case of Nancy Hale, a hugely acclaimed short story writer from the 1930s to '60s. She had 80 stories published in The New Yorker, but like many women artists, her work seemed to vanish into the ether. I'd never even heard of her until the invaluable Library of America brought up "Where The Light Falls," a collection of her stories chosen and introduced by Lauren Groff. Recalling writers like Virginia Woolf and John Cheever, Hale's stories tackle many topics from unwanted pregnancy to the fear of nukes. The usually center on characters who must come to terms with ways of living unlike their own, like the young man who prefers the earthy honesty of Finnish immigrants to his own prosperous family or the abandoned wife who discovers her affinities with a Jewish escapee from the Holocaust.
If Hale is a great rediscovery, one of 2019's greater rivals as Mati Diop, a Senegalese French filmmaker who became the first black woman to have a film in competition at Cannes. It's titled "Atlantics." You can see it on Netflix. And boy, is it a terrific debut. Set on the outskirts of Senegal's capital Dakar, this sensuously photographed movie starts off seeming like a romantic tale about a young woman, Ada, engaged to a smug rich guy but secretly in love with a construction worker, Souleiman. But after Souleiman sets off on a ship in search of work, everything changes. We grasp that we're actually in a magical realist ghost story that's also a political movie about poverty, immigration and women's freedom. Reminiscent of moody, poetic horror films like "Cat People" and "I Walked With A Zombie," "Atlantics" ushers you into a mysterious new world.
I also loved being ushered into the not-so-old world of 1969 Los Angeles in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood." Quentin Tarantino's movie itself has no cause to wail from neglect, but I do want to say a few words in praise of the well-curated musical soundtrack. Rather than wallpaper the movie with iconic hits, the cuts from the likes of Deep Purple, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Paul Revere and the Raiders perfectly serve Tarantino's vision. They offer a somewhat skewed version of a famous year. The payoff comes with The Rolling Stones' "Out Of Time," a track about kissing off an old girlfriend. We're used to songs being repurposed in degrading ways. Just think of that Amazon commercial which shows ecstatic consumers to the strains of "Ave Maria," for crying out loud. Tarantino does the opposite. He takes a song that's not in the Stones' pantheon. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it their 82nd best. But by playing it over the slow build to the climax, he achieves cinematic alchemy. The song deepens the movie's fatal sense of time passing not only for those menaced by the Manson family but for an entire era of Hollywood. And the movie deepens the song, uncovering emotional resonances we'd never before noticed. You'll never hear "Out Of Time" the same way again.
And with that, it appears that I'm out of time, too. So, Mick, take it away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF TIME")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) You don't know what's going on. You've been away for far too long. You can't come back and think you are still mine. You're out of touch, my baby, my poor, discarded baby. I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time. Well, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time. I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic-at-large. You can find all of our critics' best of the year lists on our website, freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, for Christmas Eve, we have some great roots and rockabilly Christmas songs performed in our studio by their composer, J.D. McPherson, and his band. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF TIME")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) You're out of touch, my baby, my poor, unfaithful baby. I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time. Well, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time. I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time. Yes, you are left out, out of there without a doubt 'cause baby, baby, baby, you're out of time. You thought you were a clever girl, giving up your social whirl. But you can't come back and be the first in line. Oh, no.