A Critic Returns To The Books, TV, Music And Movies He Didn't Get To In 2019

Dec 23, 2019
Originally published on January 3, 2020 8:00 am

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 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.

The films of Hayao Miyazaki (GKIDS)

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 artist who's the greatest living maker of animated films. Miyazaki's films aren't available for streaming, but over the past year or so, GKIDS has been bringing out fabulous collector's editions of his best films on Blu-ray and DVD. Let me say, they make an ideal holiday gift.

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. Take, for instance, the 12-legged cat that's also a bus in the beloved My Neighbor Totoro, or the enigmatic amusement park of his masterpiece, Spirited Away, where a 10-year-old heroine is plunged into a wonderland as slippery and surreal as Lewis Carroll's. Watching Miyazaki, you enter a realm of pure imagination.

Unbelievable (Netflix)

Things are distressingly real in Unbelievable, a series based on a true story about the victims and pursuers of a serial rapist. It begins with Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman in Washington state whose life collapses after she is raped and the male cops assigned to her case bully her into retracting her crime report. Two years later, a series of identical rapes are reported outside of Denver, and two female cops from different cities (Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) realize they may be chasing the same man.

Unbelievable unfolds slowly and methodically and without melodrama. Its eight episodes take the time to show the cost of sexual assault on its victims, and its deliberateness 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.

Where the Light Falls, by Nancy Hale (Library of America)

There are, of course, other ways that women are ignored. Take the case of Nancy Hale, a hugely acclaimed short-story writer who published 80 stories in The New Yorker between 1931 and 1969. But like many female artists, her work seemed to vanish into the ether. I'd never even heard of her until the invaluable Library of America brought out Where the Light Falls, a collection of her stories chosen and introduced by Lauren Groff. Recalling writers such as Virginia Woolf and John Cheever, Hale's stories tackle an array of topics from unwanted pregnancy to the fear of nuclear weapons. They 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.

Atlantics (Netflix)

If Hale is a great rediscovery, one of 2019's great arrivals is Mati Diop, a Senegalese-French filmmaker who became the first black woman to have a film in competition in Cannes. It's titled Atlantics — you can see it on Netflix — and boy, is it a terrific debut. Set in the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, this sensuously photographed movie feels like a romantic tale when it starts off; young Ada is engaged to a smug, rich guy but secretly loves a construction worker, Souleiman. But after Souleiman sets off on a ship in search of work, everything changes. We grasp 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.

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (movie soundtrack)

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 superbly curated musical soundtrack. Rather than wallpaper the movie with iconic hits, cuts from the likes of Deep Purple, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Paul Revere & 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, but Tarantino does the opposite. He takes a song that's not in the Stones' pantheon — Rolling Stone magazine ranks 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.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.