Best TV Performances of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

The extra-special-bonus Best of the 2010s lists keep arriving all this week! Yesterday, it was the Best Film Performances, now we’re moving to the small screen with the top TV Performances. And while the screens were smaller, the roles were arguably bigger, at least in terms of running time.

Regarding eligibility: all Lead and Supporting (but not Guest) performances from any show that aired at least one full season between 2010 and 2019 was eligible. Actors who played multiple characters in the same show were considered one performance. Actors who played the same character across multiple shows were also considered one performance.

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‘The Turning’ is a Workmanlike Piece of Gothic Horror Until It Is Overcome by an Astoundingly Abrupt Ending

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CREDIT: Patrick Redmond/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten, Joely Richardson

Director: Floria Sigsimondi

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for General Spookiness, Fantastically Rude Children, and Artfully Composed Bathtub Shots

Release Date: January 24, 2020

Take a classic gothic horror tale, pair it with a director of classic music videos, and what do you get? Almost certainly a spooky atmosphere. But will the narrative be just as effective? The Turning is based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw and it’s directed by Floria Sigismondi, who is best known for colorful clips like Katy Perry’s “E.T.” and Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer.” Perhaps that rock ‘n’ roll background is why The Turning is set squarely in 1994, with the death of Kurt Cobain serving as one of the last moments that Kate (Mackenzie Davis) experiences in the outside world before descending into a pit of terror. She has been hired as a live-in tutor and nanny for a couple of orphans in a perpetually autumnal mansion that looks at least as old James’ story.

Kate is immediately haunted by ghostly visions, and while she generally trusts her own eyes, she has reason to believe that she is just dreaming or that the kids are playing tricks on her. While the younger of the two, Flora (Brooklynn Prince), is mostly sweet, the older one, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), is the epitome of disaffected, possibly sociopathic adolescence. The Turning is most effective as a portrait of how hate can linger and infect an entire household, whether or not the phantom sightings are real ghosts. Miles was apparently close with the former groundskeeper, who died in an accident and is described as a brute of a man. Meanwhile, the housekeeper (Barbara Marten), who looks like she’s been there since the house was built, is aware of all of these dynamics but is more concerned about keeping everything difficult under wraps.

For the most part, The Turning is a fairly straightforward, patient (perhaps to a fault) tale about how difficult it can be to escape a toxic environment, even when it is so clear that you must get out. It seems to be heading towards a conclusion that works perfectly fine for such a setup, but then it is interrupted by one of the most puzzling endings I’ve ever seen. This hardly qualifies as a spoiler because it is nowhere near clear what this finale actually is. It’s enough to make you suspect that the last reel of film is missing. (Or, since we’re now in a digital projection era, I suppose the error would’ve been that the last 10% of the file didn’t convert properly.) The closest comparison I can think of is the famously nonsensical ending of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but in that case, it is clear that it was tacked on after the fact and thus easy to dismiss as not really part of the rest of the movie. I would be willing to do the same with The Turning‘s ending, but it very much feels like it is there for a reason. Alas, it’s a reason that never reveals itself. It’s just plain baffling, and thus hard to call this movie anything but incomplete.

The Turning is Recommended If You Like: Leaving five minutes before the ending

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Dead Fish

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Stands Out From Its Predecessors in Mostly Superficial Ways

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CREDIT: Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures

Starring: Natalia Reyes, Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, Gabriel Luna, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Diego Boneta

Director: Tim Story

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: R for Signature Time-Travel Nudity, Yelling Profanity at Killing Machines, and Throwing Punches and Explosions and Gunfire at Metal

Release Date: November 1, 2019

I’m going to be straight with you, folks: as far as Terminator sequels go, I think Genisys is kind of okay! At the very least, it’s fascinating, as it attempts to assemble a sort of synthesis out of a knotted mess of time travel and criss-crossing timelines. But I am perfectly fine, at least theoretically, with the fact that the next edition, Dark Fate, ignores the events of Genisys (as well as Salvation and T3), instead opting to be a direct sequel to the first two, generally-agreed-upon-classic Terminator flicks. When making a Terminator sequel in this day and age, you have the advantage that the premise of this series allows you to ignore as much of what’s come before as you see fit. But you also have the disadvantage that the premise of this series allows you to ignore as much of what’s come before as you see fit. The makers of Dark Fate seem to understand this paradox, but they don’t do much to mitigate it. So we end up with a film that is decently thrilling, but not terribly interesting.

Up until now, every Terminator film has focused on some variation of Sarah and/or John Connor and an Ah-nuld android. But the future run by Skynet has officially been prevented, although another, very similar artificial intelligence has risen/will rise in its place. So Dark Fate at least mixes up the formula by giving us a new messiah of humanity in the form of Natalia Reyes’ Dani and a new time-travelling future fighter in the form of Mackenzie Davis’ Grace. And of course we get a new Terminator prototype in the form of Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9, who can pull off the admittedly cool trick of temporarily separating his bio-synthetic husk from his robotic endoskeleton. It’s a nice idea to see how the looming apocalypse affects someone else for a change, but this is all ultimately a story we’ve seen played out before.

CREDIT: Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures

Of course, the real draw here is the return of Linda Hamilton to the role that made her an icon nearly thirty years after she last played her. She hasn’t missed a beat, which is important because the world keeps demanding that she kills Terminators. She is ready to dig into the emotional meatiness, but the script is not doing her any favors. There are lots of instances of characters dropping variations of the f-bomb, which is no replacement for the Spanglish sublimity of “Hasta la vista, baby.” Weirdly enough, or perhaps totally unsurprisingly, the weightiest moments come courtesy of Schwarzenegger, who has never completely left the franchise, and yet somehow he is still able to spin new golden variations as a sort of legacy act.

The underlying problem with Dark Fate is that while it makes sure to take care of the action choreography, it never figures out what it really wants to be about. There is a feint towards some sort of metaphor about automation taking over human workers, but that doesn’t amount to much of anything. And there is a key sequence of traversing the border from Mexico to Texas, which is plenty meaningful on its own but is never really incorporated into anything relevant to the looming apocalypse. Maybe the real-life version of the rise of the machines was just a never-ending addiction to Terminator sequels all along?

Terminator: Dark Fate is Recommended If You Like: Action set pieces doing their best to paper over weak spots

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Apocalypses

This Is a Movie Review: Does Motherhood Gradually Get Better for Everyone? I Don’t Know, But Let’s Watch ‘Tully’ in the Meantime

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in May 2018.

Starring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston, Mark Duplass

Director: Jason Reitman

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: R for PG-13-level Profanity, a Wish-Fulfilling Sex Scene, and Some Nudity (Mostly Breastfeeding-Related)

Release Date: May 4, 2018

“How could anyone possibly want to be a mother?” I find myself thinking multiple times while watching Tully. Sure, kids can be bundle of joys for folks who are parentally inclined, but the purgatory of pregnancy and postpartum malaise that Charlize Theron steeps herself in conveys unequivocally the crushing sacrifices required to assemble a happy family. Now, not every mother or mother-to-be is as susceptible to depression as Theron’s Marlo is, but creating another life inside your body pretty much guarantees a transformation of your sense of personhood. So what a blessing it would be to have someone devoted to helping with that transition, and I think we can all agree that a smiling, eager Mackenzie Davis on our doorstep fits the requirements perfectly.

Davis’ titular nanny, hired to take care of Marlo’s new baby overnight so that Mom can get some much-needed sleep, shares a lot of DNA with Manic Pixie Dream Girls, that oft-bemoaned breed of rom-com stock character designed for the express purpose of making the lead character discover the joy of loving life. But the Manic Pixie Night Nanny, or at least this particular one, avoids being similarly frustrating, because taking care of all of Marlo’s needs is kind of in her job description. She comes across as a real, layered person because some people really are that expertly enthusiastic about childcare, and she is granted a life and concerns of her own outside her employment. But as Tully proves to be the most perfect nanny ever and starts to become a friend and confidante, the questions arise: just how is it possible that she is this perfect? How long can, and should, this arrangement last?

In her third collaboration with director Jason Reitman, screenwriter Diablo Cody takes plenty of piercing (but loving?) digs at the sort of suburban bougie lifestyle that accompanies the concept of a night nanny. According to Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass, so often playing the embodiment of bougie entitlement), this may be the sort of indulgence only rich assholes get to have, but at least these particular rich assholes are of the unwittingly hilarious kind. The New York crowd at my screening cracked up heartily at a dog named “Prosecco” and the reveal that an elementary school kid’s talent show talent is “Pilates.” (Distressingly, though, I was the only one laughing at a sneaky reference to a certain ’90s cartoon.)

I feel that I must now get into a spoiler alert, which I want to be careful about, because the fact that there is a spoiler alert is already a bit of a spoiler, as this is not the type of movie you would expect to have secrets that need protecting. But because of the nature of what is spoilable, it feels irresponsible not to mention that it could be traumatic to mothers who have experienced pregnancy-related mental health issues. Tully ultimately reveals itself to be a different movie than it initially appears to be – not worse, but a lot heavier. It is something I cannot get out of my head, and I think that is a good thing, as it offers an approach to certain facts of life that is well worth digesting.

Tully is Recommended If You Like: Bougie Suburban Satire (like that of Beatriz at Dinner), Young Adult, The Babadook

Grade: 4 out of 5 Milk Spills

Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 Review: An Under-the-Radar Gem Solidifies Itself as One of the Best Dramas of the Decade

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CREDIT: Tina Rowden/AMC

This post was originally published on News Cult in October 2017.

Network: AMC

Showrunners: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers

Main Cast: Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Lee Pace, Toby Huss

Notable Guest Stars: Anna Chlumsky, Annabeth Gish, Kathryn Newton, Susanna Skaggs, Carol Kane

Episode Running Time: 42 Minutes

SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses significant plot details of all four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire. Read only if you have watched the entire series or don’t mind being spoiled.

I have heard the appeal of Halt and Catch Fire described by some of its viewers in a manner reminiscent of that of Lost. Like those who said that the latter was not really about the island and all its mysteries, there are those who would have it that HaCF is not really about the technology industry but rather the people who just happen to be employed by it. To which the correct response is: of course the characters are great, but the reason they are so compelling is because of their relationships with computers. All four of HaCF’s principals – Gordon the tinkerer (McNairy), Donna the explorer (Bishé), Cameron the restless (Davis), and Joe the visionary (Pace) – know that their destiny is inextricably bound by tech. But really, what they are all searching for is connections with other human beings. In the fourth and final season, the indelible impact they have made on their audience is proof of their success.

Each season has served as a fictionalized examination of the major developments in technology. Season 1 concerned the personal computing revolution, Season 2 brought to life the birth of online gaming, Season 3 detailed e-commerce and computer security, and now Season 4 brings it all together with the expansion of the World Wide Web. Gordon and Joe have reunited for a new venture as an internet service provider, but they ultimately convert to a focus on search, almost by accident, when Gordon’s teenage daughter Haley (Skaggs) tools around the office on her own personal website. Gordon and Joe fall in love with what she’s up to, and bring her onboard for the re-tooled company, now called Comet (as in Halley’s Comet), which is basically a highly curated predecessor to Google. But the thing about being a predecessor, as so often befalls this crew, is that your ideas end up ahead of your time while your implementation somehow ends up behind the times.

The driving momentum of this final season is the reunion of the core four. After years of manipulation, both real and imagined, Joe and Gordon are finally on fully equal terms, passionately working towards a shared goal. Elsewhere, Donna and Cameron make more halting efforts in being drawn back into each other’s orbit. Recently divorced from Gordon, Donna finds herself overseeing another search website, and accordingly struggles to attain personal success as a professional rival to her ex-husband and daughter. Cameron reunites romantically with Joe; their relationship at the beginning of the series was a tad abusive, but after years of healing and a pivot to total honesty, they confirm that they do indeed have real respect and love for each other. But any efforts for Donna and Cameron to reconcile with each other are much more halting, their wounds more recent and bitter.

About halfway through the season, the reunions are not complete, but everyone is closer to inner peace than we ever have seen them. This sense of contentment is on full display in “Who Needs a Guy,” which represents just about the perfect day for Gordon. But anyone who knows how writers effectively manipulate viewers’ emotions should view such an instance with concern. That hour of television ends with Gordon passing away, finally succumbing to the toxic encephalopathy he was diagnosed with in Season 2. The end of this episode, and the entirety of the following one (“Goodwill”), are incredible reflections on how it feels to lose someone so young who has just found inner peace. At this point, it does not matter at all that this is a tech show – the truth and bittersweet satisfaction it conveys are all just about being human.

I have on multiple occasions made the perhaps crazy claim that a great TV show can be enjoyed no matter what order you watch it in. I (inadvertently) tested that theory with Halt and Catch Fire, having watched the first half or so of Season 1 when it originally aired but then gave up on it, only to hear that it got significantly better in Seasons 2 and 3. So I jumped right into Season 4 for its initial airings while concurrently catching up on every episode I had missed, finishing Season 3 just before the series finale. So when I watched “Who Needs a Guy,” I had yet to see the episode with Gordon’s diagnosis, so his death surely hit me harder than it did most viewers. I enjoyed experiencing Season 1 and Season 4 sort of back-to-back, as they work as mirror versions of each other. Furthermore, with HaCF’s frequent time jumps (including one at the start of Season 4), it is designed to be easily jumped right into more than the average show.

Here now is where I make room to praise the supporting and guest characters. The Clark daughters, Joanie and Haley, were always adorable kiddos in earlier years, but in Season 4, they are now teenagers, with correspondingly beefed-up roles. Kathryn Newton and Haley Clark have the obsessive minds and deep wells of feeling necessary to fit in and thrive with these people. Anna Chlumsky comes onboard easily and delightfully as Comet’s chief ontologist and as a new, perfectly matched love interest for Gordon. Her quick departure after his death captures the ephemerality of some of the best things in life. And then of course there is Bos, who is some combination of mentor, therapist, father figure, and best friend to everybody. Toby Huss’ portrayal of him is and has always been the embodiment of the perfect dadgum Texas folksiness.

In an immensely satisfying finale, HaCF calls back to a credo expressed in Season 1: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.” The purpose of all the technological breakthroughs these people have been chasing has never been the point in and of themselves, but rather, the personal connections that they forge is the point. For a moment, it seems like everyone is about to go their separate ways and miss out on the opportunities to hold onto those connections. History is threatening to repeat itself, but then … that repetition is embraced. The patterns of the computer industry, and life, are unavoidable. We end where we begin, hopefully wiser and corresponding ready, and eager, to start all over again.

Best Episodes: “Signal to Noise,” “Miscellaneous,” “Who Needs a Guy,” “Goodwill,” “Ten of Swords”

How Does It Compare to Previous Seasons? Halt and Catch Fire is practically symphonic in how its conclusion wraps around to its beginning. It fulfills the promise that was always there, maybe even confirming that a brilliant plan was in place all along. Thus, Season 4 is the show’s most hopeful, most peaceful, and best.

Halt and Catch Fire is Recommended If You Like: Silicon Valley but want something less cynical, Mad Men but wish every character were the Peggy

Where to Watch: Seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix, and Season 4 is currently on AMC.com.

Grade: 4.7 out of 5 Things

This Is a Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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CREDIT: Stephen Vaughan/Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros.

When I write pre-release reviews, I include a list of similar titles, genres, etc. to indicate whether or not the movie being reviewed is worth recommending. I do not usually do that for my quicker reviews, but I feel compelled to do so for Blade Runner 2049. To wit: Blade Runner 2049 is recommended if you like Fringe, Orphan Black, the Futurama episode “A Clockwork Origin,” and of course, the original Blade Runner. They all play around with questions of identity and being godlike in the creation of new life. I wonder if they influenced Denis Villeneuve and company. Of course, they were all probably influenced by the original. Except for Blade Runner itself. Although that would be an interesting philosophical claim to say that a movie influenced itself.

I loved the hologram sex scene.

I give Blade Runner 2049 80% Existence out of 100 Replicants.

This Is a Movie Review: Always Shine

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always-shine-mackenize-davis-caitlin-fitzgerald

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald

Director: Sophia Takal

Running Time: 85 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But Keep an Eye Out for the Psychosexual Drama

Release Date: November 25, 2016 (Limited)

In the psychological thriller Always Shine, two actor friends (MacKenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald) take a coastal weekend trip to Big Sur, but the real journey is in their heads. For hardcore cinephiles, this simple premise is worth getting excited about due to its similarity to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic Persona. In both films, two women vacationing essentially fuse into one identity, both through psychological attachment and the suggestion of cinematic visual language. In Persona, the two are an actress fallen ill and her attending nurse; Always Shine is like a postmodern update (of what was already a postmodern concept), since its vacation buddies are both actors. The multiple layers of performativity pile up and swallow each other.

A pair of introduction scenes set the tone for Always Shine. Both consist of intimate, practically invasive close-ups of the two leads as they converse with a man off-screen. Beth (FitzGerald) nervously survives an audition for a role that requires nudity. She kind of knew that might be a possibility, and the director gives her a perfunctory assurance that she will be treated appropriately, but her face betrays every disappearance of dignity. Anna’s (Davis) scene is both more intense and more mundane. She fights an unfair bill from a mechanic, insisting that she will not pay for it. She gives the performance every ounce of energy, but in fact this is not an audition. She really is having car troubles, and her commanding energy is being wasted on the indignities of daily life.

Davis gives the better performance of the two, but to be fair, much of that has to do with her playing the better actor. It is worth considering the possibility that FitzGerald is worse on purpose. If so, she is admirable for sacrificing herself for the greater good of the film as a whole.

Always Shine is a tiny release, but it feels like it could be hugely influential because of how directly it tackles the state of women in film. Thus, I recommend that everyone with the means to do so seek it out, if only to just provide support and thereby prevent folks like Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald from devouring each other in real life.

Always Shine is Recommended If You LikePersonaSingle White FemaleMulholland Drive

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Jealous Scowls