© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

Merritt Wever and Toni Collette play two detectives investigating a series of sexual assaults in the Netflix show <em>Unbelievable</em>.
Beth Dubber
Merritt Wever and Toni Collette play two detectives investigating a series of sexual assaults in the Netflix show Unbelievable.

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 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.