Cinema is a pretty fluid entity, permeating many different mediums. The predominance of Twin Peaks: The Return on film critics’ Top Ten lists last year proves that… or it just adds more fuel to the frustrating debate. Regardless of what’s a “film” or not, what’s cinematic or stirring as a media object is often undeniable. The mind-melting terror and awe of Twin Peaks atomic bomb fueled meltdown this time last year. The in-the-moment disorientation of Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic. The vivid momentum of a Paul Thomas Anderson music video. Other examples that no doubt depend on the viewer’s own sense of wonder.
And regardless of what’s cinematic, a stylistically subdued media object can still stick with us & press upon us the way our favorite films do. The works below may not have gotten the grandeur of a big screen treatment, but nowadays that’s not even a guarantee for the most singular big screen triumphs (see Annihilation). These titles are all readily available for audience’s personal screens. That possibly makes their lifespan greater & stronger in this world, but there’s no doubt that any of them wouldn’t be well-suited to the theatrical treatment.
A quick honorable mention for Steven Universe, which continues to be one of the most surprisingly intelligent and emotionally insightful shows on TV, regardless of age bracket. The show’s currently celebrating climax of its fifth season, featuring the first ever LGBTQ+ proposal and wedding on a children’s animated series. With more episodes undoubtedly on the way for the rest of 2018, I’ll leave it at that for now.
10. SKAM Austin (Dir. Julie Andem)
We’re overrun with artificial, over complicated high school serials. This one could easily have fallen through the cracks if it weren’t for its signature gimmick, passed on from its Norwegian flagship series SKAM. Seeing a high school drama revealed over short daily installments over its eight-week season could’ve felt forced or stretched thin, but having overseen several series, across different countries & cultures, Julie Andem has a strong handle on her storytelling. Directing every minutes of SKAM Austin‘s first season, she allows us to sense a world beyond its central protagonist’s confined and emotionally muted vantage point.
Zeroing in Megan (Julia Rocha), a former dance team member with a damaged reputation, the season is very clearly a remake of the original SKAM‘s first, be it with a fresh perspective & newly enlivened characters. Megan copes with her loneliness by falling into group of friends, only superficially billed as an alternative dance team. As the season unfolds, so does Megan’s relationship with her affectionate beau, and at times her cobbled-together bond with her new friends. Viewed in real time, it was tense kind of social thriller, laced with naïve comedy, but also a lived-in anxiety about these characters’ immediate happiness and emotional stability.
We may be able to guess at some of its obvious twists and turns, but those are lessons and signals we’ve only learned through gradual experience. Fueled by Facebook Watch, SKAM Austin‘s technique and Andem’s stylistic warmth & compassion convey that sense of gradual education better than most high school stories. (Available on Facebook Watch)
9. HomePod: Welcome Home (Dir. Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze is a better music video/commercial director than he is a filmmaker. He’s made plenty exceptional and moving film works, but none has quite the in-the-moment thrill of his short-form flights of fancy. When his sense of sprightly enthusiasm doesn’t feel hinged to narrative, he’s allowed to be more instinctively inventive. Not to slight works like Her or Where the Wild Things are, but they often lack the livewire vibe present in Kenzo World, a perfume commercial, or his latest, HomePod: Welcome Home, an apple product ad.
Both Kenzo and HomePod border on music video territory, here collaborating with two music artists, FKA Twigs and Anderson .Paak, the former simply starring while jamming out to the latter’s music. Akin to early scenes of Her, FKA’s character starts out weary from ambiguous societal pressures, only to enliven her home-space with a literally elastic musical energy. Her space groovily reshapes as she tunes down her anxieties, only to be pushed to face those anxieties head on and leave them somewhat achingly behind. For the alert viewer, the ending holds some of the body-swapping disorientation of Jonze’s early work, but his sense of joy remains infectious from start to finish. (Watch on YouTube)
8. Dear White People: Season 2 (Cr. Justin Simien)
Justin Simien’s first season of Dear White People thrillingly expanded the scope & focus of its filmic predecessor. Splintering the focus from episode to episode, letting differing racial, gendered and queer perspectives tug our sympathies and prejudices all over the board, it was a potent encapsulation of our cultural moment. You could feel the carpet shift underneath the characters’ feet as their career futures and present sense of safety were constantly in motion. That didn’t change in its second season, and if anything, the new administration has only dropped an extra can of cultural acid into its frenzied view on contemporary Ivy League America.
There may not be as much of a driving narrative thrust to this season, but there’s just as potent an environment of all-sides antagonism to its storytelling. Morally contemptible internet trolls, combative artistic and activist perspectives, the poisonous nature of celebrity notoriety, a generations-old network of conspiracy, the weight of cultural expectation and internalized shame and the cutting-edge dividing line between kindness and toxicity are many of the subjects tackled in this sophomore effort. Listing them off doesn’t convey the gutting sense of personal turmoil these characters go through, desperate to attain a stable sense of self that may either give them peace or lock them into ideological rhythms they can’t escape from. It’s a dire, delirious world Simien sees. It’ll be fascinating to see it grow and evolve as we wade deeper into the terror implied by this current administration. (Watch on Netflix)
7. Childish Gambino: This is America (Dir. Hiro Murai)
Provocation is as sure a method of starting conversation as any, which is partially how Atlanta collaborators Donald Glover and Hiro Murai struck cultural gold with This is America. A 4-minute spectacle pitched eerily between farce and horror, party and nightmare, its most immediate interpretation may be as a startling condensation of the history of black American cultural representation, from Jim Crow to the tense present, though with no clear progression forward. Different influences from past to present co-exist and clash in a fury instantly reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!.
It’s a tight subjective perspective, but not quite as sympathetic as Jennifer Lawrence’s titular cipher from that influential work. Glover’s comic-horror persona keeps us at once goofily entertained and appalled at our entertainment, unsure if we should blame the artist or ourselves. HINT: We should always question ourselves first and the perspective we bring to it, but the artist is not without reproach, which is largely the blunt point of Glover and Murai’s study here. The ways people are represented in media affect their cultural image and self-image, and you can feed into that image, either as artist or consumer, and still remain accountable for it.
Even when you strip away the subtext, though, it’s an imminently watchable, compelling and visually sophisticated work, controlling so many overwhelming in-camera elements without losing its tight grip on tone and ambiguous message. (Watch on YouTube)
6. GLOW: Season 2 (Cr. Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch)
A lot of people had no problem getting on GLOW‘s wavelength from the start, immediately connecting to the mid-80s tale of out-of-work actresses finding home in an irreverent, B-grade wrestling show. For those who found it a bit schematic and predictable in its storytelling, though, the 2nd season may be an even better introduction to the world Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch have made. Immediately they set the resonant feminist stakes, as the wrestling cast each try to find their own version of personal achievement and progress.
The already frayed dynamic between former besties Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) takes on more tacit levels of competition and resentment. The struggle for power and status, even on their lowest bracket of the entertainment industry, makes it a more complicated depiction of female friendship colored by the #MeToo era. More than before, it’s a show about the internal compromises necessary for success in an unavoidably male-ruled industry, and the small victories that get the girls by from day to day. Beyond that, it’s a delirious blast with the visual sensitivity to casually walk from a goofy set-piece into a vivid heartbreaking composition. (Watch on Netflix)
5. Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife
Few stand-up specials feel so clearly like a sequel and a progression of an existing story. That’s a special part of what makes Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife feel distinct from the repetitious sea of stand-up specials populating Netflix. After the mini-sensation of Baby Cobra two years back, it feels very much like Wong picks up where she left off, but with new experiences coloring her sharp, razor-tongued perspective. The physical and domestic realities of motherhood lend an extra degree of acid to her unique and viciously hilarious perspective.
Wong is very aware of the conventions of motherhood and the unconventional nature of her being the ostensible breadwinner in her family. She’s also immensely pissed off about the reality of her situation, her ostensibly naïve dreams of domestic bliss contradicting with her less repressible progressive ideals. Hard Knock Wife‘s sobering realism improves and elucidates the seemingly, but deceptively, regressive feminist conceits of Baby Cobra. Ali Wong is aware of the impact her voice and success has in the world. She’s also not gonna let the perks of that situation keep her from mocking how much of a pain in the ass it is. One hopes her future stand-up specials continue to develop the focus and perspective without losing an inch of her sharp wit. (Watch on Netflix)
4. Mitski: Nobody (Dir. Christopher Good)
It took a good few days before I realized *why* Mitski’s latest music video, following up from her mini-hit with Geyser, was connecting so closely to me. Brightly designed and connected to its sense of visual quirk and wit, it was without a doubt imaginative, but not the obvious whirlwind I felt with something like Homepod: Welcome Home. It wasn’t until I paid a little closer attention to the lyrics that I realized how potently and specifically it depicted a particular loneliness and desperation I’ve felt rather consistently.
“And I don’t want your pity. I just want somebody near me. Guess I’m a coward. I just want to feel alright. And I know no one will save me. I just need someone to kiss. Give me one good honest kiss and I’ll be alright.” From there the erased faces, open enough to imprint on, but too empty to really connect with, felt more directly wrenching. The entrancing opening shot conveyed such a memorable sense of isolation. Every adjustment to the design heightened the feeling of obsessive desire with no anchoring direction. A desire just to be desired, to have an emptiness filled, to not wake up *every* morning alone.
And the bitter icing on the cake, conveying how it feels when someone sees you searching. The paranoia that you’re being awkward, absurd or just plain uncomfortable for others to be around. When loneliness gets its hooks in you, it doesn’t stop at your turmoil. It unavoidably distracts you from all the other things that matter deeply to you. (Watch on YouTube)
3. Killing Eve (Cr. Phoebe Waller-Bridge)
There was never any disguising or misunderstanding how radical and fresh Killing Eve was going to be. Showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge was hot off the dark comic success of Fleabag, so pairing her wicked comedic taste and sensual style to a globetrotting tale of spies and assassins was already a dynamite proposition. What made Killing Eve so compelling from week to week, though, besides its thrilling lack of procedural fat or tiresome hand-wringing, was the performances and intoxicating queer dynamic between Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.
Much like Fleabag, it’s a delicate tonal juggling act from episode to episode, each leaving its opposing leads in a drastically different emotional space. From disappointment to arousal, to terror, to psycho-sexual thriller, to dry bedroom farce to unsettlingly sweet, if unconventional, rom-com. What anchors Killing Eve is the complex push-pull of Eve (Oh) and Villanelle (Comer), some cutting combination of impassioned romance and hunter-prey chase. Are they transfixing kindred spirits, star-crossed lovers or cut-throat enemies? Waller-Bridge refuses to choose, teasing us from exciting, alluring and hilariously moment-to-moment. Regardless of Season 2 on the distant horizon, it’s a master class of tension, genre and simply gratifying lesbian pulp. (Watch on BBC America)
2. Dirty Computer (Dir. Janelle Monáe, etc.)
An album grafted to the backbone of a loose sci-fi narrative, Dirty Computer‘s musical and cinematic elements are necessarily inextricable from one another. Just as you don’t get the whole musical scope of the album from watching Janelle Monáe’s visual accompaniment, you also don’t get the complete socio-political and sensual statement without watching the “film”, so to speak. It’s dystopic future is schematic, but deepened by Monáe’s idiosyncratic style, colouring an upsetting, but all too real future visual with a sense of the fantastical.
In a world where people are referred to as computers, and their distinctive traits are viewed as bugs and defects, Jane 57821 (Monáe) is put through a kind of sci-fi conversion therapy to erase every memory that might lead her to objecting against conformity. As viewed through her mind’s dreamlike lens, the music video segments tell the story of her personal rebellion as the world around her falls apart. We see glimpses of her romance with guru-ish filmmaker Zen (Tessa Thompson), who outside her memories has already been “cleaned”, taunting Jane with her passive gaze. And there’s the occasional interjections from the two white boys whose whole role is watching queer black content and indiscriminantly deleting it.
Perhaps not so deep in character, Dirty Computer still displays the kind of rebellious, unbound spirit that we need right now. The systems around us may try to erase us, but our minds are inventive enough to find new artistic methods of resistance, down to the last moment. (Watch on YouTube)
1. Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
As raucously entertaining as most stand-up comedy specials are, they’re rarely works of near surgical precision. We rarely see a performer, however hilarious, so carefully design and balance their jokes to achieve a very specific emotional goal. That attention to detail, to how the audience’s mood and outlook is growing over the course of a performance, is a strong part of what’s made Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette such a small sensation. The goal isn’t expressly to make people laugh, though she does that quite capably and often surprisingly. Often times a dick-fueled joke you thought was played out will come back to smack you in the face.
Much of the time, though, Gadsby is simply establishing a joke early so she can purposely undercut and dismantle it later on to an even more startling effect. Nanette isn’t just about the recurring pleasures and techniques of humor, but also about how they can be a method of self-harm and distortion. In the world of comedy, a serious or heartbreaking declaration is a drag, so even if it feels disingenuous, you have to dismember your experiences to make them funny. At least, that’s what Gadsby is experiencing. That’s what’s pushing her to nervously step away from comedy, in spite her notable lack of a back-up plan.
And as piercing a work of personal storytelling as it is, wringing both laughs and tears out of dissections of different rennaisance artists, it’s also a piece rather searingly of its time. Hannah Gadsby confronts all the ways we bury and corrupt our own feelings to avoid dealing with them. We either use them to laugh at ourselves or spread rage towards others. Gadsby’s story may well raise those feelings in you, but she makes clear that’s not her goal. Her goal is simply to tell her story honestly. The hope underlying it is that others will follow and tend to their own stories as truthfully. (Watch on Netflix)