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Highly Specific Superlatives: TV And Movies From 2019


Pretty much everyone else with an opinion right now - we're sharing our best-of-the-year lists. But instead of boring subjects like best movies or best albums, we're going to go for something highly specific here, things like best guitar solo and best comedy bit about being pregnant. So today's highly specific superlatives are from screens, both big and small. Glen Weldon from NPR's Arts desk and Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans are here to help us out.

Hey, guys.



CHANG: All right. So let's dive right in. Glen, I'm going to start with you. I understand your first highly specific superlative involves Jennifer Lopez.

WELDON: It does. I am going to nominate Jennifer Lopez's pole dance in "Hustlers" as outstanding achievement by a hamstring.

CHANG: Please explain this.

WELDON: In the movie, J.Lo plays an exotic dancer who scams a bunch of Wall Street bros out of their money. And her character is introduced to us with this breathtaking pole dance to Fiona Apple's "Criminal."


FIONA APPLE: (Singing) I've been a bad, bad girl. I've been careless with a delicate man.

WELDON: So it's not a body double; that's her. And she makes some very difficult moves look completely effortless. Now...

CHANG: She did all the dancing.

WELDON: She did. Now, she's J.Lo, right? So she's in great shape. She's a trained dancer. But she said that learning that routine was the hardest thing she's ever had to do for a role. She trained for months with this dancer from Cirque du Soleil. And there's this moment during the song when she is doing an inverted split, just supporting herself with one leg off the pole. And her hamstring looks like it was carved from a slab of marble. It's fantastic.

CHANG: Oh, I'm so jealous.

WELDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


APPLE: (Singing) What I need is a good defense.

CHANG: So putting aside her beautiful dance routine, I'm thinking you saw some other impressive moments in this movie.

WELDON: Oh, sure. Film's a lot of fun. It starts out as kind of a heist movie and then quickly becomes a movie about this complicated friendship between her character and Constance Wu. So if Jennifer Lopez, as some people are saying, gets nominated for an Oscar and she wins, I'm betting she's going to be thanking her Pilates instructor in the acceptance speech.

CHANG: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: Or her pole-dancing instructor.


CHANG: Exactly. OK, Eric. You're up next. What is your first award? And who does the honor go to?

DEGGANS: I have picked best use of a hammer in an action sequence. And that goes to...


DEGGANS: ...Regina King in HBO's "Watchmen." Now let's listen to a little bit of a scene where she is talking to a man who we have come to understand over the course of the series is her husband. But it also turns out that he's secretly a superhero, and he doesn't even know it. Let's check it out.


REGINA KING: (As Angela Abar) And we always knew that this day would come.

YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: (As Cal Abar) What day, Angela? I don't know what you're talking about.

KING: (As Angela Abar) You do know. You just don't remember. If it's any consolation, it was your idea.

ABDUL-MATEEN II: (As Cal Abar) I don't know what they did to you. You're not yourself.

KING: (As Angela Abar) No, Jon. You're not yourself.

ABDUL-MATEEN II: (As Cal Abar) My name is not Jon.

KING: (As Angela Abar) I am so sorry.


CHANG: Oh, my God. OK. This is audio, not visual. So you need explain to me what just happened right there.

DEGGANS: That is the sound of Cal getting hit in the head with a hammer wielded by Angela Abar, the character played by Regina King. Now, basically, people who know the graphic novel "Watchmen" will know that the only superhero with actual powers was this character named Doctor Manhattan. Now, in the TV series, he decided he wanted to live as a human. And so she helped him get this device that he put inside his brain so that he would forget that he had powers and he would think that he was this human named Cal. Now she needs to have him remember who he is. And the only way she can do that is to whip out the hammer, break open his head...


CHANG: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: ...Pull out this device. And then, all of a sudden, this blue glow fills the room. And suddenly you realize that Doctor Manhattan is back.

WELDON: It's such a great reveal and...

DEGGANS: It's such a great reveal.

WELDON: And the thing is we don't see it. All we get, really, is the sound. And as you can just tell, Ailsa, it's enough. You get it.

DEGGANS: The thing that's great about this is that one of the criticisms of the superhero genre is that it's been so centered on white characters and white male characters especially. And one thing that "Watchmen" did was put black people at the center of the superhero mythos, both by having Regina King's character, who's a costumed crusader named Sister Knight, and having - replacing this character, the central character of the "Watchmen" graphic novel - making him a black man.

CHANG: So cool. "Watchmen" is definitely on my watch list.

All right. Back to the big screen. Glen, you also want to talk about, I understand, a particularly gripping action sequence.

WELDON: Yeah, an action scene that kind of doesn't so much quicken the blood as slow it down. This is most hilariously inactive action scene. And this is from "Downton Abbey" the movie.

CHANG: Action heroes galore.

WELDON: Look, "Downton Abbey" isn't a Jason Bourne film. It's not about quick-cut, you know, action fight scenes. That's not what it does. That's not what it's for. What it's for is - there's rather a spot of bother with the pudding spoons.

CHANG: (Laughter).

WELDON: That's what it's for. That's its lane. But they decided, when it came time to make the movie, to shoehorn in this royal assassination attempt plotline, which comes to a head when the character of Tom scuffles with the would-be assassin. And it becomes immediately clear that no one on that set knew how to stage or shoot a fight scene, you know? Arch quips from the Dowager Countess, they're all over. But a fight scene? Nope. And they stage it just with a wide shot the whole time, so it just looks absolutely inert. And it's over very, very quickly - so quickly that you think they're almost embarrassed by it. And then the characters forget that it ever happened just faster than you do.

CHANG: Yeah.

WELDON: And so it's like, just stay in your lane, "Downton Abbey." Know what you do.

CHANG: All right, Eric. I hear that your next honor involves the wonder and promise of children.

DEGGANS: That's right. It's the outstanding deployment of a feral child, which goes to...


DEGGANS: ...HBO's "Barry." And the most bonkers episode of the second season was called "Ronnie/Lily." And basically, Barry is a hit man who's trying to reform himself. And during the second season, he's constantly asking this question - am I a terrible person? Am I a psychopath? He gets pressured into killing this guy. And when he goes to kill that guy, that guy's daughter shows up.


BILL HADER: (As Barry) Little girl...

DEGGANS: And it turns out...


HADER: (As Barry) I know this looks bad.

DEGGANS: ...She's trained in taekwondo.


HADER: (As Barry) I'm going to take you to Chicago to see your relatives.

DEGGANS: And she kicks his butt.


HADER: (As Barry) Get off me.


DEGGANS: Yeah, that's him getting hit with a pot.


DEGGANS: (Laughter).


DEGGANS: I mean, all you have to hear is just the clanging. And he's apologizing. And she's still, you know, jumping all over him. And she eventually stabs him. And then...

CHANG: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: And through all of it, you get the sense that Barry's not quite as good at that job anymore because he's been asking these elemental questions about himself. And he's afraid that if he shows that he's too good at killing that that will mean that he truly is a psychopath and he's beyond redemption. So in addition to all this great physical comedy and this wonderful sort of bonkers, you know, physical action sequences, there's a subtext to it that makes the whole episode much more poignant.

WELDON: Right. That's how you stage a fight scene right there.


CHANG: Oh, that is Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic, and Glen Weldon from NPR's Arts desk and the Pop Culture Happy Hour with their highly specific best-of lists. May neither of you run into a weaponized 12-year-old in the new year. Thanks to both of you.

WELDON: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.