DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large John Powers has an omnivorous taste for books, movies, TV shows and sports. Each year at this time, he singles out a few people or things for special attention. Here's what's dazzled him this year.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Although the world began slowly opening up this year, I still spent countless hours in my home, plowing through movies, TV shows and books, many of which I reviewed on this show. As 2021 comes to an end, I want to single out for praise seven revelatory people or things that I haven't talked about but that surprised me or filled me with delight.
Topping my list is something you might not expect - a professional athlete. Steph Curry shoots a basketball better than anyone who ever lived. Even other NBA stars are in awe. Yet a few years ago when his Golden State Warriors were unbeatable, his genius became the target of nitpicking and resentment. This year, he's enjoyed a renaissance. We're now back to the point at which a shiver of pleasure goes through the crowd each time he touches the ball. And even better, in an era when too many sports stars grimly chase titles or relentlessly push their brands, Steph invariably exudes ease, joy and playfulness. He's the Fred Astaire of American sports.
You find the same lightness of spirit in the most enjoyable scene of the new James Bond movie, "No Time To Die." When 007 crashes a specter soiree in Havana, he meets up with a newbie agent played by Ana de Armas, the Cuban-born actress best known for "Knives Out." What follows is a beautifully choreographed sequence in which the two banter, flirt and blast their way out of a death trap, punctuating the pandemonium by knocking back martinis that are surely shaken and not stirred. Although this theater hopes to shake us with its air of romantic tragedy, de Armas stirs this with something far better. She unleashes the fun side of Daniel Craig.
It would be misleading to say that George Saunders' "A Swim In The Pond In The Rain" unleashes the fun side of Russian literature, but his book fills you with the life-enhancing excitement one can get from reading the likes of Chekhov or Tolstoy. Based on a writing class Saunders teaches at Syracuse University, the seven essays in this volume are an inspiring masterclass in how to read, how to write and how reading and writing can help us learn how to live. As a one-time literature professor, I read Saunders' book with the odd admiration of an ordinary basketball player watching Steph Curry shoot.
I suspect many actors feel that way watching Jean Smart, who in her 70th year reached the pinnacle of a crackerjack career. If she was terrific as Kate Winslet's snappish mom in "Mare Of Easttown," she was flat-out brilliant in "Hacks" as Deborah Vance, a legendary Vegas comedian whose past is as layered with struggle and pain as her dialogue is studded with wisecracks. Here, she's first meeting her new young writer Ava, played by co-star Hannah Einbinder.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")
JEAN SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Are you a lesbian?
HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava) Not sure you can ask me that.
SMART: (As Deborah) Oh, what? Someone's going to show up and arrest me?
EINBINDER: (As Ava) Since you're my employer, it is illegal. If you're genuinely curious, I used to only hook up with men. In college, I finally hooked up with this amazing TA, Phoebe (ph), and I realized that I could connect more emotionally with women, which led to deeper sexual experiences. So anyway, I'm bi.
SMART: (As Deborah) Jesus Christ. I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow's mechanic.
POWERS: The comedy is far rougher in the movie "Zola." Based on a viral Twitter thread, this feminist shaggy-dog story stars eloquent-eyed Taylour Paige as a Black stripper named Zola who gets lured to Florida by a saucy white stripper - that's Riley Keough - with the promise of making a fortune. Although their trip spins dangerously out of control, the movie doesn't, thanks to sharp, inventive filmmaking by Panamanian-born Janicza Bravo. From its wild and woolly characters to its witty sex scenes, "Zola" deals with a series of hot-button topics - race, sex work, online madness - through eyes very different than the white male gaze.
As it happens, white male gazers are the main villains of the addictive Korean series "Squid Game," in which 456 poor people engage in a murderous battle royale for $38 million that hangs over their heads in a huge glass pig. A triumph of pop storytelling, the show's two best episodes highlight the pointed critique of contemporary capitalism. Without spoiling anything, I'll simply say that in Episode 2, the participants learn that merely winning a democratic vote won't save you if you're poor, while Episode 6 shows that when you're caught in a system based on winning and losing, there's no way to survive and stay morally clean. Dark, paranoid and hyperviolent, "Squid Game" is 2021's biggest worldwide hit, which tells you a lot about how life feels to people these days.
But let me end this list not with oppression but creativity. On Thanksgiving night, my sister and I were watching "The Beatles: Get Back," Peter Jackson's documentary series about the Fab Four, rehearsing to do an album and TV special The series contains fascinating things, from George Harrison walking out on the band to Yoko Ono sitting among the quartet like a ghost. Yet the moment that really got us talking comes when the staggeringly talented Paul McCartney sits there, seemingly goofing around on his guitar, and before our eyes, he goes from making sounds to making music to creating a song that would reach No. 1 on the charts. I can think of no better antidote to our dread of the latest COVID variant than to hear the song that McCartney created while waiting for the ever-tardy John Lennon to show up for rehearsal.
DAVIES: John Powers is our critic at large.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET BACK")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner, but he knew it couldn't last. Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for some California grass. Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.
DAVIES: On Monday's show, how the pandemic has reshaped the way we think about work and opened up new opportunities for work from home. We talk with Anne Helen Petersen, co-author with her partner Charlie Warzel, of the new book "Out Of Office: The Big Problem And Bigger Promise Of Working From Home." A couple of years ago, they gave up office life to become independent journalists working from home. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET BACK")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged. Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "GET BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.