Ranking the films I saw in 2022

This has been a slightly odd year in cinema. Covid related production delays and studios still figuring out how best to combine releases in cinema and on streaming services. Indeed, this got downright frustrating at times. For much of the summer and autumn, it felt like not only was there nothing good to watch, but there wasn’t really anything to watch full stop. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that four of my bottom five films of the year came out in between April 1st and September 31st. By contrast, only two of the films in my top 10 came out in that six-month window, and one of those went to straight to streaming. Hence, for a long stretch it felt, without being too melodramatic, like cinema might never recover from Covid. An absolutely cracking November did dispel that impression somewhat. And even if it’s not been the strongest year for cinema, there were still plenty of good films, that I’d still like to highlight for anyone on the lookout for something to watch.

As always, I’m defining films as coming out in 2022 if their wide release date in UK cinemas was this year, or if they didn’t have one based on when they first arrived on a UK streaming platform.

There are mild spoilers for a few films on the list, but I have tried to keep them mild.

Oh and I also watched the first twenty minutes of Turning Red until I remembered how viscerally unbearable I find second-hand embarrassment, but that seemed pretty good. I also saw ten minutes of Men before being like “I’m absolutely not in the mood for this.”

35. Bullet Train

A film whose appeal seems to be entirely predicated on you reacting to a celebrity cameo, the way a particularly avid twitcher will to the sight of an especially endangered bird. If your like “I saw that person in another film last month” and hence not very fussed that they’re on screen for twenty seconds, then this film has very little to offer you. The plot is convoluted. Running gags – notably one about Thomas the Tank Engine – are flogged till they’re desiccated, and it’s painfully obvious that not a single frame of this film set in Japan, based on a Japanese book, which puts the name of a Japanese institution it its title, was actually shot in Japan.

34. Jurassic World: Dominion

A thought-provoking film that provokes thoughts like “maybe it was for the best that JJ Abrams directed Rise of Skywalker rather than Colin Trevorrow after all”.In the original Jurassic Park, there’s a scene where the approach of a t-rex is revealed by vibrations in a cup of water. If that had been in this film, a character would have said “there’s a t-rex coming”. Truly an insult to the intelligence of all involved, especially the audience.

33. Licorice Pizza

There’s something almost perversely impressive about the ability of some critics and filmlovers to ignore the problems with a film revolving around a romance between a 15 and a 25-year-old. Even if you set aside the obvious moral concerns, it means you are – or at least should be! – rooting against the film’s central relationship. Even ignoring that a lot of this film’s appeal seems to rest on your nostalgia for the San Fernando valley of the 1970s. If you don’t have any nostalgia for that time and place, because say you weren’t born for another decade and have never been to the US West Coast, then you’re out of luck with this one.

32. Operation Mincemeat

Ben Macintyre’s compelling book on espionage history is adapted into one of the year’s dullest films. You might think the story of WWII British spies fooling the Germans about their war plans by contriving for a body dressed like a British officer to wash up on shore carrying fake battleplans would be inherently interesting. However, there are two fundamental differences between the book and the film.

The book’s protagonist is essentially the lie itself and the character perspective shifts fluidly as it goes from offices in Whitehall all the way to Hitler’s desk. In the film, our point of view is stuck in London. The most gripping sections of the book, where British agents in Franco’s Spain try to ensure that the fake plans get shared with the Nazis, whilst pretending to do the opposite, is mostly dramatised via the main characters in London issuing agitated instructions down the phone to the guys on the ground in Spain.

Equally importantly, though mostly told from a British perspective, the book is really about how the Germans fell for the illusion rather than how the British fooled them. This becomes significant when the subject arises of their being a faction within German military intelligence that by the point these events took place, actively supported an Allied victory – and would shortly thereafter try to assassinate Hitler. In the book, this is the capstone to the story, the final piece that completes the whole. In the film, it creates the unfortunate implication that our heroes’ efforts didn’t in fact matter because even if the ruse is discovered, the Abwehr was going to give Hitler intentionally dud advice anyway.

31. See How They Run

There’s a popular internet saying, which I’ll adapt to be more apposite for a whodunnit, that goes “if you decapitate a goat, it doesn’t matter how ironically you did it, it’s still dead and you definitely killed it”. The filmmakers behind See How They Run seem to believe that their formulaic, unimaginative plot doesn’t matter if they wink and nod ironically about the plot being formulaic and unimaginative. This makes something tedious annoying as well. They also attempt to trade on nostalgia for Agatha Christie’s work, whilst being quite condescending about it. Kept off the bottom of the list by the always watchable Saoirse Ronan.

30. Confess, Fletch

Hollywood seemingly doesn’t know what to do with Jon Hamm: a talented actor with classic leading man good looks, but who seems most drawn to quite goofy roles. Confess, Fletch does genuinely seem like the role he’s been best suited to since his breakthrough on Madmen. That said, this comedy mystery would benefit if the jokes were funny or the mystery intriguing. Also, why are the Italian roles played by two Americans and a Chilean?

29. Minions: Rise of Gru

Of all the films this year to star Michelle Yeoh and feature a running joke about a googly eyes stuck to a rock, this is definitely in the top two! Does improve after a strikingly joke free first act. However, it consistently has too much plot and too little story. Lots of characters and subplots are introduced only to go nowhere. Action scenes that should be the set up for some slapstick, instead degenerate into largely pointless noise. The franchise seems to have also acquired its own lore, which the filmmakers regrettably feel they need to gesture towards. Kept worth watching by its warmth and the inherent humour of the minions, but this franchise feels like it needs to rest until someone has fresh ideas about what to do with it.

28. The Anthrax Attacks: In the Shadow of 9/11

This documentary leans a lot on dramatic reconstructions. Which to be fair, it puts a lot of work into, not least by casting Clark Gregg to play the prime suspect. In the process, it demonstrates that a documentary leaning on dramatic reconstructions is nearly always a bad idea. It also takes a very narrow view of a case that more than almost any other should invite a broader perspective.

27. Hunt

For the past few years, one of the most consistent markers of cinematic excellence has been a Korean language film which made its way to British cinemas. Hunt demonstrates that Koreans do in fact make films that are basically ok but nothing more. This 80s set thriller about a plot to assassinate South Korea’s president is diverting and well-acted, but also messy. The plot is too complicated. The action sequences are mostly noisy and formless. Its evocation of the darker aspects of Korea’s modern history, notably the 1982 massacre of student protestors in Gwangju, weighs down the story, without leading to the sort of deeper exploration which might justify their inclusion.

26. McEnroe

This documentary profiling the tennis legend has a lot to recommend it. It does an admirable job of dropping you into 40-year-old matches for a minute or two, and yet making you feel the same tension and the stakes as someone watching at the time. That said, some of the stylistic choices, notably illustrating large chunks of the film with footage of McEnroe walking around New York at night, feel contrived. More importantly, it’s not altogether clear that it has anything especially deep to say about McEnroe as either an athlete or a person.

25. The Gray Man

Two facts loom over the Gray Man (sic): 1) its name was a hostage to fortune for a film which became a by-word for bland competence, and 2) it is the most expensive Netflix production to date costing over $200 million. Obviously, this is a lot of money. And not just for me or you, but also for a Hollywood studio. Last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, C.O.D.A, had a $10 million budget. John Wick started an action franchise (and didn’t exactly look cheap) at a cost of $20-30 million. Indeed, even though the cost of the films has increased as it went along, the Gray Man probably cost comfortably more than the whole Wick trilogy to date. This year’s break out blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick had a $170 million budget to cover amongst other things hiring actual fighter jets from the USAF for tens of thousands dollars an hour. Speaking of real planes, the Gray Man’s $200 million budget matches that of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which depicted a 747 crashing into a terminal by … well … crashing an actual 747 into an actual terminal and filming it. Given this enormous expense, many viewers and critics were underwhelmed by a final product that will probably be most popular with people looking for something diverting but not engrossing they can iron to.

Which is to say it does have its merits. The cast is strong, especially Chris Evans as an ostentatiously obnoxious villain. The action sequences have a pleasing problem-solution quality. Henry Jackman’s score is a lot of fun. But none of that changes the fact that when the budget is the most memorable thing about a film, that’s a problem.

24. Thor: Love and Thunder

This got a rough ride from critics, who seemed to have grown weary both of its director Taika Waititi and of Marvel. And to be fair, it was nowhere near the triumph of Thor and Waititi’s previous appearance in the MCU in Ragnarök. The long comedic sections, notably at the beginning with the Guardians and in the middle with Russel Crowe playing Zeus, were overdone. The same criticism could reasonably be made of Waititi’s rather self-indulgent overuse of Korg, who he plays himself. Nonetheless, the backlash felt overdone. The comedy not working is somewhat offset by the greater sincerity behind the drama. Chris Hemsworth rises to the emotional demand of this material and turns in his strongest performance as Thor so far. There’s also a creepy yet compelling villain in the shape of Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher. And if nothing else, there’s a visually spectacular action sequence set in the ‘shadow realm’ which uses new lighting and camera techniques to blend in and out of monochrome.

23. RRR

Saying this film is ‘over the top’ is like saying the voyager space probe is ‘above head height’. It is a visually spectacular historical epic, packed with gobsmacking action, multiple lavish musical numbers, and a 3 hour plus runtime to accommodate it all. It begins with one of its heroes taking on a mob of hundreds in unarmed combat and winning, immediately followed by the other hero doing the same with a tiger.

It’s hard not to be impressed. That said I think I liked this a lot less than many people. That may partly reflect my unfamiliarity with the conventions of Indian cinema, but I found the sheer scale of everything made it tough to emotionally invest in. It is clearly sincere in its storytelling, yet its style often feels more exaggerated than many parodies. Plus, despite the story gesturing towards bigger things, the basic mechanics of the plot are rather thin given the elongated runtime. It probably doesn’t help that Netflix gives you the option of a Hindi or English dub but not the original Tamil dialogue. You might expect this problem would disappear when you reach the English language sections of the film. However, they serve to highlight that in a film featuring some of the biggest, most charismatic stars of Tamil cinemas, the British villains are played by V-list Anglo-American actors turning in the sort of performance one might expect from an 00s computer game cutscene. The contrast is jarring.

That said, even if you don’t watch the whole thing I’d still strongly recommend seeking out, say, the first hour. It’s definitely an experience.

22. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

This is a lot of fun. Nicolas Cage’s on- and off-screen persona is a pretty deep well of comedy to draw from. Resting the film on an on-screen bromance between Cage’s fictional alter-ego and a wealthy Cage superfan played by Pedro Pascal is a great decision. Both Cage and Pascal are eminently watchable, but in quite distinct ways. There’s also a strong supporting cast including Sharon Horgan, Tiffany Haddish, and Ike Barinholtz.

However, to love rather than like this, you would probably need to be a Cage aficionado on the scale of Pascal’s character. The final act tips the balance of this action-comedy way too far into action – and rather boring action at that.

21. Elvis

Very mixed. The first act is this oddly overstylised retelling of Elvis’ Wikipedia page. However, it becomes far more compelling when it settles into the story it wants to tell about how Elvis’ relationship with Col Tom Parker ultimately destroyed him. It’s a film that plays into both director Baz Luhrmann’s strengths and weaknesses. His ostentatious flair smothers the proceedings at time. To give one example, because he’s constantly cutting between scenes, in every conversation all the participants dive straight into the meat of what they’re going to say in a way that becomes conspicuously artificial. He also seems weirdly insecure in his own abilities as visual storyteller, throwing in voiceover and exposition, to tell the audience stuff he’s already ably illustrated on screen. But it’s hard to imagine any other director convincingly recreating the electricity of an Elvis concert.

20. Don’t Worry Darling

I feel like the off-screen drama has maybe pushed people into having stronger opinions about this than it merited. It’s neither a triumph nor a disaster. It’s a bit on the long side and doesn’t really break fresh ground. But it drew me in and seemed to spark plenty of discussion amongst my fellow cinema goers on the way out.

19. Top Gun: Maverick

There’s a glib version of reviewing this film which goes something like ‘the characterisation is a bit thin, it’s basically sponsored content for the US Navy, and the climactic action sequence is ripped-off of George Lucas, but also planes go wush and pew, pew. So, five stars’.

The primary appeal of this film does indeed undeniably lie in the stunning ariel sequences shot using actual planes and requiring the cast to learn to pilot them to make the shots from inside cockpits look realistic. However, that sells the filmmaking short. There’s a version of this film where the scenes on the ground detract from the action. Indeed, we need not imagine. Just look at Jurassic World: Dominion, a film that begins by recapping the events of the previous instalment of the franchise via several minutes of clunky exposition disguised as TV news report, which sounds nothing like any new report ever made. By contrast, Maverick rather more elegantly and economically has the camera linger over some photos its hero has pinned above his desk, which serve to key us into the key facts about the character dynamics from the original Top Gun which will play into the sequel.

That said, as much as I admire the filmmaking here, the choice to make the film’s antagonists nameless, faceless, and objective-less is jarring. Like we are supposed to be bought into the righteousness of military action without cause or context. If one were being uncharitable, one could also suggest that this does also perhaps reflect the difficulty American culture sometimes has in the recognising a world beyond the US exists. Also, the characterisation is a bit thin, it’s basically sponsored content for the US Navy, and the climactic action sequence is ripped-off of George Lucas.

18. The Woman King

Impressive both as a historical epic and a bloodthirsty action film. There’s a training sequence which involves characters scrambling though bushes of thorns, which is probably the most wince-inducing thing I saw on screen all year – all the more so for apparently being grounded in historical fact. The Woman King also passes what I’m calling the ‘the Widows Test’ – wherein you know a film has a really good ensemble if they can avoid being acted off the screen by Viola Davis in the lead role. Also, I wish Marvel would hire some of the behind the camera talent from this film to consult on how to shoot action sequences set at night where the audience can see what’s happening.

Two things stopped me placing this higher. Firstly, a lot of the dialogue is rather on the nose. Secondly, making resistance to the slave trade into the moral crux of the film, even though the fighting force it’s based on owed their existence in part to their kingdom’s participation in the trade, robs the film of some of its power.

17. The Batman

Given that this is, by my count, the 15th feature with Bruce Wayne as the lead character, and comes barely a decade after Christopher Nolan delivered what is probably the definitive adaptation of this material, it is a remarkable achievement that the Batman can even justifies its existence. Robert Pattinson’s take on the character is genuinely different – younger, wrestling not with the spectre of mania, but of depression. The danger is not that be becomes like his villains, but the more insidious threat that he will sink into apathy. The choice to turn the Riddler into a Zodiac-style serial killer, not only provides a different kind of antagonist, but also shifts the feel and story structure of the rest of the film. Also, I must mention Michael Giacchino’s score, which is probably the best of the year.

If I was going off my initial assessment, this probably would have wound up higher on the list. However, I found it maybe didn’t stay with me the way I expected – especially given how much I’ve listened to the score.

16. The Banshees of Inisherin

This is probably the film where my subjective personal reaction and my attempt at an objective assessment of a film’s merit, if such a thing exists, differ most wildly. By any reasonable measure, this is a masterpiece. It is fantastically written and acted, thematically rich, and it evokes the relatively contained world of a small island off the coast of Ireland in a way that feels thoroughly convincing. It is bracingly original. The story is never predictable, except for when you are supposed to feel dread about what you know is coming next.

That said, I hated it. I was in a bad mood when I went to see it. Its thoroughly bleak worldview weighed me down even further. Hence, I have put it in the lowest position I can possibly justify placing a basically perfect film in.

15. She Said

A subtle and sensitive gut punch of a film. This is less a story about finding the truth – as characters point out multiple times, the outlines of Weinstein’s crimes were widely known prior to being made public and multiple outlets had tried to report them only to be silenced. Instead, our hero’s central struggle is to persuade enough people to speak out together that they can break the story. That foregrounds character over plot. This works due to some of the best performances of the year. Samantha Morton should really get a supporting actor Oscar nomination for the single scene she’s in, where she plays a former assistant at the Weinstein company, who recounts the price of speaking up when her friend was assaulted.

About as far from a fun watch as you’ll get, but a journalism film like this coming along every few years feels like an important reminder of the significance of an independent media and of investigative reporting.

14. Living

This is a tricky film to write about because so much of its success is grounded in restraint. That most especially applies to Bill Nighy’s central performance as a deeply private man, who is understated to the point it becomes pathological. This isn’t even a case of keeping things small to heighten the contrast when the acting goes big. There’s an artful (and commendable) commitment to expressing everything in a way that is no less powerful for being subtle. Unfortunately, this slightly dissipates in the final act, which becomes more about telling than showing. However, up to that point it is excellent.

13. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

The desire to build up another film on this list – which better lives up to the billing “multiverse of madness” – led to a fair amount of depreciation of this film. Which was a) unnecessary and b) missed quite how much there was to like about this instalment of the MCU. It is remarkable that even working within the confines of the largest film franchise ever, horror maestro Sam Raimi was able to produce something that not only reflects his personal visual style, but is also weird and in places rather messed up. That said, I do share the criticism that where we find Wanda at the beginning of this film and where we left her at the end of Wandavision, and that her arc is a bit retrograde. Even given that, Elizabeth Olsen turns in a classic villain performance.

12. The Northman

There’s a point in this Viking epic when two occupants of a remote outpost in Iceland comment on the fact that several towns to the south have begun worshiping “a corpse nailed to a tree”. This moment points to how writer-director Robert Eggers uses this film to take us into an unfamiliar, pre-Christian moral universe. Let me illustrate this point with a comparison to Gladiator. Both films are super-macho historical dramas about a warrior seeking vengeance for his family. However, in Ridley Scott’s film, Russell Crowe’s Maximus is seeking to kill an unpleasant and cruel man who by rising to become Caesar has risen to a position where can tyrannise both Rome and his own family. Hence, in that story ethical values align. The post-enlightenment audience readily and indeed necessarily accepts the righteousness of Maximus’s mission. The Northman makes things far more complicated, and, therefore, interesting.

Less high-mindedly, while Gladiator certainly delivered big, brutal fight scenes, it didn’t have, say, a stark-naked sword fight to the death on the lava flows of an active volcano. So, in the macho action stakes the Northman is victorious.

11. Nightmare Alley

You know how you know Guillermo del Torois a genius? He gets you to gladly submerge yourself into this bath of bleakness.

10. Belfast

As my top TV series this year included a comedy which showed the end of the Northern Ireland Troubles from the perspective of Catholic Secondary school girls, it seems fitting that this list features a film about the start of the Troubles as seen from the perspective of a Protestant primary school boy.

That Belfast reflects writer-director Ken Branagh’s own experiences growing up in the Northern Irish capital during its darkest times, shows through in how real and immersive the period setting feels. Indeed, when a set of readings about Northern Irish Protestant communities came up as part of my politics masters, I recognised some of the dynamics they outlined from this film.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film directed by a celebrated actor, the performances are impeccable. Ciaran Hinds as the central character’s grandfather is especially affecting.

9. Aftersun

Basically, take everything I said about Living, apart from about it having a somewhat misjudged final act, and double it for Aftersun. Paul Mescal gives a performance that is if anything even subtler and sadder than even Nighy, despite coming after a career a fraction of the length. You could also make a comparison with Belfast in drawing on the creator’s own childhood to conjure a world that feels authentic and lived in. A similar use of a child’s perspective also makes this a sweeter and more poignant story than it otherwise would be. However, there’s also the interesting choice to make the viewpoint character a child who is now old and smart enough to see that despite her father scrambling to maintain a façade, he is deeply unhappy.

8. Prey

The consensus on Prey seems to be that it’s the best Predator film since the original. I demur. In my view, it’s the best including the original. For all its evident strengths, the first Predator’s roided up, OTT machismo tips over into cheesiness. It also rather undercuts the film’s more high-minded aspirations to draw a distinction between the Predator for whom killing is a sport and Arnie’s solider for whom taking life is only ever justified as a necessity. Without getting into spoilers, the mirroring between this film’s Predator and our protagonist, a young Comanche woman seeking to become a hunter (Amber Midthunder), is much cleaner.

This should be a star-making turn for Midthunder. She is seldom off-screen, often acting alone or opposite a guy in a suit, whilst providing the film’s emotional core, frequently having to deliver exposition through non-verbal cues, and executing a bunch of intense stunts.

My suspicion is that had this gone to the cinemas, rather than straight to Disney+, it would have been a breakout hit. This was a particular missed opportunity as it came out right in the middle of the summer lull. In any event, I suspect this may wind up being the film on this list I rewatch the most.

7. The Worst Person in the World

I’m not sure I can parse why this film works so well, but it does. There’s perhaps something about the way it steadily morphs from seeming like a series of episodes into something more like a coherent arc, which arguably is how memories of our own lives go over time. Or perhaps it’s something to do how the characters are as far as one can get from being stock characters. In any event, this is perhaps the definitive millennial film.

6. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Knives Out seemed like such a singular (and complicated) concoction that, as exciting at the prospect of a sequel was, it inevitably invited the question of whether Rian Johnon could repeat the feat. It turns out I needn’t have worried. While for my money, Glass Onion is not quite as ingenious as its predecessor, it is still near perfectly executed. It finds a fresh way to offer you the same things you liked about its predecessor. It manages to be both one of the year’s most entertaining films and deliver quite a satirical bite.

5. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Even in a year with RRR, this manages to be the most epic, extravagant film of 2022. But whilst its story transcends the multiverse, it is also grounded in the intimate, apparently mundane reality of one family. Even allowing for the so mad it’s genius premise, the outrageous action, the even more outrageous humour, and the astonishing visuals, it is these characters – and actors playing them – who are the key to the film’s success. The performances in this film are all the more impressive given that all the core cast are essentially playing multiple roles.

4. Decision to Leave

The label “Hitchcockian” mostly refers to filmmakers who want to make films like ‘the Master of Suspense’. However, Park Chan-Wook actually makes films which measure up to Hitchcock’s. This twisty cat and mouse tale of a detective pursuing a suspect – or is it the other way around – is as smart as it is compelling. Cinematographer Kim Ji-Young delivers probably the best-looking film of the year. He conveys energy crackling across the screen, whilst maintaining the chilly aesthetic of a neo-noir. In the process, he deploys perhaps the biggest innovation in showing phones on screen since Sherlock. English speaking viewers should also be thankful for the truly excellent subtitling. One of the central characters is a Chinese immigrant speaking Korean as a second language and that fact is central to the story. The subtle distinctions in how she uses Korean and how Koreans speak to her are lovingly rendered into the subtitles. Honestly, had I not found the very ending a bit unconvincing, it would probably be my film of the year.

3. The Menu

A phenomenally effective mix of thriller, horror and satire. It is almost perfectly cast, featuring amongst others Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, and John Leguizamo. It also relies on the very careful deployment of the etiquette around gourmet food to evoke a kind of social horror about being exposed for what you really are. It seems to get lumped in with films exposing the evils of rich people. This, however, is to unduly simplify a film of substantial thematic richness, that should genuinely challenge its audience.

2. Nope

Speaking of thematic richness, Jordan Peele’s latest film, a horror western is a bewilderingly dense latticework of ideas. Peele seems to delight in his capacity to do without the crutches that many horror writers rely on. In particular, he avoids characters making idiotic, reckless choices to power the plot. Indeed, the verisimilitude of the characters is a consistent strength of the film. The interplay between co-leads Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as a brother and sister is expertly drawn. Real thought has clearly been given to both how they grate on each other and the ways that under the right circumstances they complement each other.

1. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

This is a monumental feat of a film, even before you factor in that it was shot in a pandemic following the untimely death of its leading man. It manages to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman, whilst also showing that Wakanda’s story can still continue. It also reflects that there being a new Black Panther must fundamentally alter that story. Boseman’s T’Challa was a man, both literally and figuratively, born to be both monarch and the Panther. Letitia Wright’s Shuri finds both mantles unnatural and her discomfort, exacerbated of course by her grief, is a source of dramatic tension.

Her internal turmoil is mirrored by the political turbulence affecting her kingdom. This is a truly grand plot. The clash of two mighty kingdoms and a succession crisis is the sort of material many fantasy show would spin out across whole seasons. Naturally, Wakanda Forever also continues using the idea of an African superpower to hold up a mirror to the power politics of the real world.

This is all brought together with great skill. The dialogue in a lot of blockbusters is embarrassingly bad – Jurassic World: Dominion being a prime example – but the writing here moves easily between being punchy, funny, moving and rousing. It also helps that there’s such a strong cast to deliver it. There’s deserved talk of Angela Basset getting an Oscar nomination for powerhouse performance. And naturally, a lot turns on Wright being able to show us Shuri in a very different role, whilst also convince us she’s the same character we saw before. I’d also particularly highlight how Winston Duke successfully plays both the film’s main comic relief and a voice of quiet authority simultaneously. Wakanda Forever is also technically impressive. Though Marvel is rightly criticised for poor quality of the effects in a lot of its films (and even more so its TV shows), and the definitely related issue of overworking VFX artists and giving them unrealistic deadlines, and there are some problems in Wakanda Forever, notably the muddy looking night-time sequences, in the main it looks fantastic.

Between Creed and now two hugely successful Black Panther films, Ryan Coogler is absolutely at the pinnacle not only of blockbuster cinema, but of cinema overall. I do hope he’s willing and able to keep returning to Wakanda. However, I do also hope that, that studios look at the precedent of Christopher Nolan’s career after directing a hugely successful set of superhero films, and start viewing him as a talent they can give latitude to explore projects they might not otherwise find too risky.

The best books I read in 2022

A pet hate of mine is the extent to which our culture conflates being a ‘book lover’ with being really into novels. This view tends to erase the literary merit of non-fiction. I would submit that the ten books on this list, all of them non-fiction, illustrate that nearly everything one could want from a novel can be found in non-fiction. There are compelling narratives that transport us through time and around the world: from our emergence as a species, to a China fighting its way out from under imperial domination, to the coffeeshops of Vienna during its heyday as the intellectual capital of the world, to the “North Korea of Europe”, and also right back here to the UK. We also have characters who were they not real, few authors could conjure: Robert Maxwell, Iris Murdoch, Chiang Kai-Shek and Ludwig Wittgenstein to name just some. We also see more apparently normal people – librarians, miners, printers, advertising executives, an aristocrat fallen from grace, and a schoolgirl – confronting what seems like the end of their world. Most of all these books have people making dramatic, in both senses of the word, choices: between their nation’s heritage and the demands of modern technology, about how to make sense of the horrors of Nazism, as to if it’s acceptable to take money for a good cause from bad people, over who to sack, and whether to let your enemies take your cities or to burn or flood them instead.   

In terms of what I’m counting as a “2022 book”, I’m taking it as a book I personally read this calendar month rather than one that was published this year. This is the opposite of what I do for TV, films and podcasts. However, I think it’s probably truer to the less immediate way we read books. That said I try to pick reasonably recent releases to avoid getting into “this Truman Capote guy has a really good turn of phrase” territory. Hence, the oldest book on the list is from 2016.

10. Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through: The Surprising Story of Britain’s Economy from Boom to Bust and Back Again by Duncan Weldon

It’s not exactly an original observation that 2022 has been one of the more eventful years for economic policy making in the UK. Though Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through was published last year, it nonetheless speaks to what has happened since. It points to the limitations of hoping that the country’s economic trajectory can be fundamentally altered through drastic policy changes. As Weldon demonstrates, both the challenges we face and the scope of the solutions to them are deeply rooted in our national history. They cannot be shrugged off or willed away. Without a proper grounding in this history, we have little chance of making the right economic calls in any year.

= 8. The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of Vienna by David Edmonds and Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhail and Rachael Wiseman

I’m pairing these two books together as their subjects are intimately connected. The Murder of Professor Schlick recounts the rise of logical positivism in interwar Vienna, whereas Metaphysical Animals tells the story of how a group of four women who studied together in Oxford during World War II recreate against logical positivism and proposed a blend of reinvigorated Aristotelianism and existentialist philosophy as an alternative.

Neither school of thought would accept the idea that philosophical ideas are simple rationalisations of their proponent’s interests. Nonetheless, both Edmonds, and Mac Cumhail and Wiseman show how it was more than chance that these movements emerged when they did. The logical positivists were often liberals/leftists and/or Jews living at a time when either of those identities were more than enough to provoke violent animosity. When one of the most influential logical positivists, Moritz Schlick, was gunned down by a disgruntled student who was likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, his killer was hailed as a fighter against ‘anti-German Jewish materialism’ and wound up serving just two years in prison. In this environment, logical positivism’s dismantling of ideas lacking an objective material reality made it a strong solvent against the kind of prejudice and superstition which reached their apotheosis in Nazism.

However, for the Oxford quintet, this went too far. The logical positivists had pared back our intellectual armoury to the point that they had lost the ability to say that Nazi atrocities were objectively wrong. Mac Cumhail and Wiseman also convincingly show how it was only possible for a group of young women to spearhead this counter-movement, because of the World War II. Oxford’s young men were conscripted en masse. Hence, at a stroke the acolytes of A.J Ayer, who by 1939 were the dominant force in the philosophy department, were removed. Left behind were older dons, shaped primarily by traditions which predated logical positivism, to teach philosophy to a student body of which young women were now a much larger part. This cleared space for the protagonists of Metaphysical Animals to pursue their interests in fields like ethics. And crucially, to do so not in terms of better parsing the language used to describe them, but on the assumption that they were studying something real.

It is worth mentioning that Metaphysical Animals is one of two books this year to tell the story of the same four philosophers. There was also The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics by Benjamin Lipscomb. Which is interesting and as a work of straight biography probably superior. However, I felt it did not engage sufficiently with the ideas of its protagonists, which meant, for my taste, it didn’t give enough sense of the significance of the lives it ably chronicled. For my money that makes Metaphysical Animals the superior book.

7. How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures by Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist best known for “Dunbar’s number”, the idea that our brains can only handle 150 friendships. He must be one of the few people with the breadth of expertise and skill as a science communicator to tell this story which stretches across the whole of human history. This does a remarkable job of highlighting the commonalities between what on the surface seem like wildly different manifestations of religious practice.

It also had, for me at least, some genuinely new ideas. For example, the central of role of synchronicity in religious practice is something that once flagged you’ll see everywhere – from hymns sung together to the choreographed bowing of Friday prayers at a mosque, from the shared silence of a Quaker meeting to the tribal rituals which use dancing to the same beat to induce trances.

The thesis that religion has evolutionary origins is something that many believers may be suspicious about. It might seem like an attempt to debunk faith. That concern is basically misguided. If one believes the universe has a creator who intended its inhabitants to one day recognise him, then it would make sense an instinct towards religion but be built into us. More fundamentally, if religion serves such a core psychological and social purpose, then maybe the question is not whether we have religion but what kind.  

=5. Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China by Jing Tsu and A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language by David Moser

These two books both tell the story of the evolution of the Chinese language. A Billion Voices manages the remarkable feet of detailing its 3,000-year history in barely 100 pages. Kingdom of Characters instead focuses in on the recent history of written Chinese and the struggle to marry a system based on thousands of characters with technologies like the typewriter, telegram and dictionary which were envisaged with Latin alphabet’s 26 characters in mind. It further zeroes on in the people who made it happen and makes tangible what was at stake for them in this endeavour.

I confess I have put them on this list despite not having finished either. However, they are making an interesting pair as they seem to be heading towards contrasting conclusions. Moser seems to view China’s twentieth century modernisation as a missed opportunity to follow Korea and Vietnam in adopting a phonetic alphabet, whereas Tsu appears to view the same story as an example of tenacious innovation preserving a vital piece of China’s heritage into the present.

4. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter

The topic of this book is both remarkable in its own right and for being so little know in much of the world. The steps China’s Republican government took to prevent the invading Japanese army consolidating its hold on the country are also unimaginable. They fight not only the Japanese but a large collaborationist army with minimal (and often unhelpful) Allied support, they move their capital further inland multiple times as the multiple cities are captured, they flooded larges sections of the country to literally bog the invaders down, consented to the American firebombing of occupied Wuhan to prevent it being used a base by the Japanese, and, crucially and fatefully, put on hold their hostilities with Mao’s communists.

Mitter is an admirable guide through this tale. It involves genuinely epic history, encompassing some of the twentieth century’s most consequential events, yet Mitter manages not only to recount them, but also reflect their human consequences, and all in a single, medium-length book.

It’s worth reading Forgotten Ally in conjunction with Mitter’s recent book China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism, which looks at how these same events are commemorated and the political ends to which they are put.

3. Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston

Like anyone who’s spent time in Oxford, Maxwell often felt like a background character in my life. His grand house on Headington Hill became Brookes’ law faculty, people who’d worked in publishing long enough were frequently still not over what he’d done, and I even studied with someone rumoured to be a relative of his. And yet, while I knew about the pension fraud that prefigured his probable suicide, maybe accidental death, just possible murder, until I read Fall I had no idea of the the full extent of his life (and crimes).

Preston is unsparing about the fact that Maxwell is a bad person. He lies, cheats, bullies, manipulates, steals, is wantonly cruel, narcissistic, turns scientific publishing into a racket, and, in the early chapters, even commits war crimes. This is one of the few narratives in which you’ll be rooting for Rupert Murdoch.

Despite all this, Preston’s Maxwell is never less than a flesh and blood man with thoughts and feelings as human as anyone else’s. Almost despite himself there is something admirable about a refugee tenaciously clawing his way from nothing to the top of British society despite hostility, often rooted in antisemitism, from members of the establishment. There’s also something emotionally vulnerable or even sensitive about him at times. Preston makes a particular effort to uncover the extent to which Maxwell was a product of a foundational trauma: the loss of his entire family in the Holocaust. Clearly this neither excuses nor explain what he later did. It should go without saying that the vast majority of Hitler’s victims who survived WWII did not go on to commit grand corporate fraud. However, it is hard not to see his near sociopathic acquisitiveness – not only of money but of status, esteem and power – as at some level trying to balance out the extent of his early loss. Preston recounts one particularly telling moment, when Maxwell’s son arrived at Headington Hill Hall to find his father stooped over the telly, his face almost touching the screen. The BBC was showing a documentary which featured phots taken at Auschwitz and he was hoping if he looked hard enough, he might catch a final glimpse of his parents or siblings.

2. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

Before reading this, my view would have been that Radden Keefe’s previous book Say Nothing, a Shakespearean tale of death, intrigue, compromises and secrets set amidst the Northern Ireland Troubles, was likely an unmatchable achievement. Well, it turns out literary lighting does strike twice.

Empire of Pain argues that the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from the US opioid epidemic can be traced back to one family: the Sacklers. Across generations they have built a pharmaceutical empire, which came to rest on sales of oxycontin. This drug that was supposed to eliminate chronic pain, but instead created millions of addicts. Radden Keefe traces how much successive generations of Sacklers knew and how directly involved they were in the crucial decisions. Indeed, one of the most infuriating parts of the book is the notes on sources, which is full of details on how the Sacklers tried to obfuscate the truth and bully people into not telling it. That said, more than a story of direct guilt, it becomes one of complicity, of how people and institutions in the orbit of the Sacklers find themselves corrupted by the lure of the family’s wealth.

1. Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi

There is a famous feminist slogan: “the personal is political”. Free demonstrates that the inverse is also true. Lea Ypi was born in Albania, when it was still known as the “North Korea of Europe”. Her school days are filled with lessons on the genius of Enver Hoxha’s brand of Stalinism. She implicitly accepts that Albania is the one true hold out of socialism, and is unphased by her family darkly mentioning people going away to “university” for long periods for unspecified reasons, and even whispered rumours that the Soviet Union has collapsed. Then one day in 1994, it is suddenly announced that one party communist rule will end and Ypi is forced to confront the fact her government, her country, and even her own family are not what she thought they were.

Ypi is a professor of political theory at the LSE and though the book follows a narrative structure, there is also a cogent argument weaved throughout it. She wishes to challenge a triumphalist narrative that the fall of communism marked Albania’s liberation. This is not to say that she is apologising for Hoxha’s regime. She is unflinching about its repression. However, she presents the arrival of capitalism in the country as a destabilising force. The security of a planned economy was replaced by rapacious impersonal forces out for private gain – corrupt officials, criminal gangs, and the managers of newly privatised firms looking to cut costs. This marked the start of the exodus of Albanians to Western Europe that continues to the present and the country was only pulled back from the brink of a civil war by the deployment of thousands of Italian soldiers.

However, what makes this book so special is that even if you don’t agree with Ypi’s thesis, and personally I find a loss of state capacity a more convincing explanation than marketisation for the travails of post-communist Albania, it still transports you into a particular moment of history. To continue a theme, Ypi has a skill for manifesting people, places, relationships, and moments on the page which rivals that of most novelists. And it is used in service of conveying experiences which are clearly etched into the author’s memory. You thus get these rich subplots like how because her mother is part of a family that was politically influential in pre-communist times, a committed Thatcherite, and, apparently, rather formidable, her father winds up being elected as an MP for the right-wing anti-communist party, despite his socialist instincts. This contradiction only grows more acute once he is given a minister portfolio with responsibility for overhauling the nation’s ports and must grapple with the expectation that he will make them economically viable, even if that means laying-off the bulk of their primarily Romany workforce. This at once draws on the understanding Ypi has instilled in her readers of her father’s character and the dynamics within her family, whilst also guiding us through Albania’s recent history and pushing us to ask questions about our political principles.

The portrait of Albania which emerges by the end of Free is not a happy one. The recent stories throughout the British press about Albanians trying to cross the English Channel in small boats have unfortunately also probably contributed to the impression that it is a depressing place. However, Free also underlines what a deeply fascinating place it is and what a rich and complicated history it has. Mostly as a result of reading it, I wound up visiting for the first time. Between beautiful old Ottoman cities, the impressive mountains of the north, the vineyard and olive tree filled countryside of the south, and peculiar relics of the Hoxha era – not to mention people who seem to genuinely welcome visitors – it is, in my opinion at least, one of the best destinations in Europe. Hopefully Free will be a way into its history for many more people.

My favourite podcasts of 2022

News and politics

Probably my favourite discovery of year has been the Ballot Box. It is essentially, a tour of elections around the world hosted by a trio of political scientists. It has a number of distinct appeals. Firstly, understanding an election outcome generally means having some grasp of the place where it happened’s history, social divisions, constitutional setup and most pressing issues. So, it functions as a good introduction to many of the countries covered. As well, as going deeper on races which were heavily covered in the English language press, such as the French and Brazilian presidential races, it also explores elections in places like Angola or even the Faroe Islands which were basically ignored.

Secondly, it is far less solipsistic than much Anglophone international coverage. It recognises that elections are generally driven by domestic issues rather than international ones and avoid the terrible “Bernie Sanders of the Pacific Islands” kind of analogies unless they actually illuminate something.

The hosts’ academic backgrounds help with putting individual elections in context and connecting them to wider trends. It also makes the whole thing endearingly nerdy, featuring episodes ranking electoral systems and constitutional quirks. There is also something reassuring about their consistently analytical approach. At the best of times, consuming too much news can feel like drinking from a fire hose. Over the past few years, more like drinking from a flame thrower. Though the discussions on the Ballot Box do reflect that the stakes in some elections are incredibly high, it is primarily interested in helping you understand rather than in provoking you. Asking how and why is one of the more emotionally healthy way to approach the present state of global politics.

By contrast, If Books Could Kill is very definitely trying to provoke you. If you’ve heard co-host Michael Hobbes on Maintenance Phase or You’re Wrong About, then you will be familiar with the entertainment value of this savage approach to debunking charlatans and the intellectually lazy. The targets of this new podcast are airport bestsellers of the past. Which generally get sold to thousands, are packaged and presented as authoritative and learned, yet generally do not receive even the most basic fact checking. Hence, David Brooks can make sweeping generalisations about segments of American society based on visits to places where he walks around without even interviewing anyone. While Malcolm Gladwell can indite the whole of Korean civilisation as disastrously deferential to authority on the basis of the safety record of a single Korean airline that only had more crashes than its competitors because the ROK’s communist neighbours kept bombing or shooting down their planes.

In a similar format but with a strikingly different tone is Origin Stories.If you have heard the Remainiacs podcast, which became one of the largest in UK politics following the 2016 referendum, you might be expecting Origin Stories, which comes from the same production company and whose two hosts were both Remainiacs regulars, to follow that show in being, by design, stridently opinionated. However, itis a surprisingly different beast. An engagingly thoughtful and, though clearly coming from a particular position, exhibiting an admirable curiosity about and generosity towards opposing viewpoints. These deep dives into where taken for granted ideas in politics, like “centrism” or “freedom of speech”, come from are always illuminating and touch on interesting topics I’d never have thought to look into like how the Weimar Republic dealt with questions of freedom of speech when confronted with Hitler’s hateful rhetoric.

On a more niche but, for me endlessly fascinating front is Unclear and Present Danger, a podcast looking at the politics and international relations of the 1990s via its thrillers. This is extremely my thing. This is one of my favourite genres and a lot of the films it looks into – Hunt for Red October and The Fugitive – are ones I must have watched dozens of times. It does have a couple of drawbacks. It suffers a little from “America is the protagonist of world history” syndrome and has also left me with a prevailing nightmare that through some terrible confluence of events I might someday have to watch Steven Seagal’s 1994 film On Deadly Ground. Despite that, the 90s are an especially interesting period to have explored in 2022, because as chronologically near as it is, the prevailing assumptions of American invincibility and geopolitical stability now seem so remote.

Speaking of geopolitical instability, War on the Rocks has been indispensable this year. The invasion of Ukraine has led to a cacophony of confusing commentary on the conflict. Given this, the series of regular discussions War on the Rocks has hosted with Michael Kofman, the head of Russia affairs at CNA, have been a valuable north star for layperson looking for sober, sensible overview of an emotive, uncertain situation that everyone needs to understand.

Business and Economics

In 2022, it is somewhat artificial to separate this category from “news and politics”. This has been the year that the economy became a first order driver of both politics and news in a way it has arguably not been for a decade. A podcast that has spanned that divide admirably is Ones and Tooze. It is mostly a platform for the economic historian and author of the Wages of Destruction and Crashed to talk through one topic from the news and one more random (and usually lighthearted) one from an economist’s perspective. Tooze gives the somewhat disconcerting impression of having a well-informed, carefully considered and clearly articulated understanding of everything from the protests in Iran to the skiing industry.

Bloomberg’s Odd Lots has had a notable year. Not least because Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of FTX – the massive crypto exchange which declared bankruptcy in November, seemingly admitted in an episode from April that he was running a Ponzi scheme.

Also, from Bloomberg and even harder to classify than Ones and Tooze is In Trust. This mix of finance, history, politics and true crime, reported and presented by journalist Rachel Adams-Heard, is essentially Killers of the Flower Moon crossed with Empire of Pain and Yellowstone. It tracks where the oil money stolen from Osage Indians during the so-called “Reign of Terror” in the 1920s is now. The answers keep leading back to the Drummonds, a large ranching family, one of whom was elected Attorney General of Oklahoma during the podcast’s run.

True Crime

It has not been a banner year for true crime podcasts. There have, however, still been some gems.
Against all the odds, Project Unabom finds new things worth saying about a case that has arguably been overcovered. For example, the story of the members Dungeons & Dragons meeting which for years was believed by the FBI to likely include the bomber amongst its members, is a bizarre yet riveting new angle to the case.

A case that is far less notorious in much of the world but apparently totemic in Ireland is covered in Obscene: the Dublin Scandal. Narrated by Adrian Dunbar no less, it tracks the events that followed a 1982 killing spree which was guaranteed to go down in history by one single fact: when the police eventually tracked down the culprit, they found him staying as an invited guest at the official residence of Ireland’s attorney general.

Suspect: Vanished in the Snow is not an easy listen, centring as it does on the disappearance and murder of a child. However, it is some of the clearest, best written, and dramatic, yet sensitive storytelling, I’ve heard in a long time.

On a far lighter note, but not without some pathos, is Stealing Superman. The story centres on the theft of a copy of Action #1, the first comic to feature the Man of Steel, now worth millions of dollars, from Nicolas Cage’s mansion. Appropriately for a podcast in which the Hollywood A-lister who describes his acting method as “nouveau shamanic” and from whom the Mongolian government seized a t-rex skeleton displayed in his house, the whole thing is pleasantly bananas. Both a heist mystery and an at times moving study of why this fictional character means so much to people. Highly recommended.

Film and TV

The hiatus between Kermode and Mayo’s BBC show and their post-BBC show pushed me to seek out other film and TV related podcasts. The Big Picture, the Watch, Empire, and Pilot TV have all been good company and helped me to find a lot of films and shows I’d otherwise have missed.

Podcast still going strong

Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales has continued to be one of the brightest lights in the podcast firmament. Though its basic format is always the same – Harford narrates the story leading up to a disaster and explores the lessons that can be learned from it – the places they go to are wildly different. There’s the tragicomic tale of the British entrepreneur who released a line of EVs decades before Tesla – and found the world wasn’t ready. But there’s also the harrowing and frankly downright grisly tale of how scurvy contributed to the failure of Scott’s expedition to the Pole, 100 years after it had been discovered the condition could easily be prevented by ingesting lemon. Most powerful of all is the story of a 1995 heatwave in Chicago. The effect of which is likened to “a 737 full of passengers exploding on the runway at O’Hare airport every day five days in a row”. At the time Harford was mostly using this as a mirror to look at COVID, but just weeks later the UK was hit by a heatwave that reached almost exactly the same temperatures.

Podcast no longer going strong (or weakly for that matter)

Finally, this year marked the end of Reply All, which I think has decent claim to be the best podcast of all time. Truth be told, its time had come. It has been a shell of its former self, ever since it lost both its long time co-host and producer to a scandal where they reported a story about high-status workers at a food magazine resisting a unionisation drive, when they had done the same in their own company. There were the odd flashes of the old show. Like an episode about a chicken appreciation FB group, which serves as a metaphor for crypto taking over the internet. However, most episodes seemed like a knock-off of the old Reply All and almost always lacked the strong driving narrative of the classic episodes. That said, the final episode was a fitting and well-judged tribute, especially given that one of the two voices which had defined the show’s long run was necessarily absent.

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EarPods_derecho.JPG

My top 10 TV shows of 2022

A collage of still images from the TV shows on the list

Obligatory preamble

For the purpose of this list, a show counts as a 2022 show if the majority of a season was released in the UK this calendar year.

I’m just a guy watching shows while eating dinner after work, not a professional critic. Hence, there are heaps of stuff that people rave about – The White Lotus, Severance, Succession, House of the Dragon, the Dropout, For All Mankind ­to name just some – which are not on the list because I haven’t had a chance to watch them. Even some shows, I really loved previous seasons of – notably Dead to Me and Staged have new seasons out I’ve not got round to yet.

I also don’t log TV shows I watch, the way I assiduously do with films or books I’ve read. So something might have fallen through the cracks. Though if it did, I suspect that indicates it wasn’t that great.

Despite, all those caveats, if you like the sort of TV I like, this has been a pretty impressive year for the small screen, and I’m excited to talk about what’s out there. Indeed, the mathematically minded of you, may notice, that I am so excited that my top ten includes twelve seasons of eleven shows. In my defence, one show did have two seasons in 2022 and I genuinely feel my two #10s are on a par with each other.

=10. Sandman, Season 1 (Netflix)

What it’s about:

When a show is described as ‘high concept’ that’s usually in reference to its premise. However, in this adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s classic cycle of graphic novels, it’s the characters who get that label, as many of them are celestial embodiments of abstract notions like desire, death or despair.

Our protagonist is Morpheus (Tom Surridge), the guardian of our nocturnal hours. After escaping decades of imprisonment by a sinister Edwardian occultist (Charles Dance), he must undo the damage done to the waking world by the decay which has taken hold in the dream realm during his absence. However, this brings him into conflict with a literal nightmare named the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a man with a pathological hatred of dishonesty and a wish granting amulet (David Thewlis), and members of his own family of immortal beings.

[It may not come as a shock to discover that I wrote this post back-to-front and might have chosen a different structure if I’d realised that the first thing I was going to have to do was describe the plot of the Sandman].

Why I like it:

I can relate if, based on that synopsis, the show strikes you as either intriguing or insufferable. However, I do hope it gets across how ambitious and distinctive it is. In the wake of Game of Thrones becoming the biggest show on earth, we’ve got a lot of shows that, at least to this non-fantasy afficionado, seem to run along similar Lord of the Rings inspired lines. That of course includes a GoT and a LotRs show. The Sandman is a different and altogether stranger sort of fantasy.

It is not a uniform success. Sometimes the weirdness makes it hard to relate to. Making it intentionally disorientating is valid stylistic choice given the material, but sometimes off-putting. The most compelling characters – Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Death, Gwedonline Christie’s Satan, and Jenna Coleman’s gender-flipped John Constantine – are often ones who only appear in a single episode. And it’s split into two arcs, the second of which lacks the power of the first.

And yet, there is something invigorating about the Sandman. Even when it isn’t working, it’s always interesting. That it exists in a world whose rules though consistent are so winding and different from our own, makes it like a queen on a chess board, moving freely between tones, themes and emotional registers that are great distances apart. Laying behind it all is an admirably sincere defence of the value of imagination. In showing us why Dream’s mission matters, it justifies the need for all of us to be able to dream.

=10. Moon Knight (Disney+)

What it’s about:

The less you know about this MCU series inflected with Egyptian mythology going in the better. [Indeed, if you haven’t seen it and are planning to you might want to skip over the rest of this entry and avoid watching the trailer above]. However, we can say by the end of the first episode, that a British Museum gift shop assistant named Stephen Grant (Oscar Isaacs) is not only suffering from insomnia and losing stretches of time from his memory, but seems to be having run-ins with a mysterious cult leader (Ethan Hawke) and is apparently being haunted by visions of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the Moon.

Why I like it:

Though, it certainly has its detractors, I found it a lot of fun watching it toggle between gothic horror and Mummy/Raiders style swashbuckling, whilst staying very rooted in the personal journey of its protagonist(s). I’d particularly highlight what is I think to date the best depiction of mental illness in a mainstream superhero story we’ve seen on screen. Which is all the more notable for coming on the heels of the Batman’s retrograde depiction of the patients of Arkham Asylum. Also, to address perhaps the most controversial aspect of the show, I appreciate Oscar Isaac noticing that Londoners have accents besides RP and Cockney.

9. Only Murders in the Building, Season 2 (Disney+)

What it’s about:

The unlikely trio of crimesolving podcasters (Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez) investigate the murder of another of fellow resident of their New York high rise. Only this time with the police treating them as suspects.

Why I like it:

Though I don’t think this quite reached the heights of the first season – it took a while to get going, it grew over reliant on concept episodes, and continues Hollywood’s unfortunate attempts to make Cara Delevigne’s acting career happen – it’s still the pinnacle of the wave of murder mystery comedies that have followed in Knives Out’s wake. For all that it delivers tea spitting farce and well observed character comedy – which it does – they never come at the expense of laying out a genuine mystery for the characters and audience alike to puzzle through, nor of giving it real emotional stakes.

8. The Bear, Season 1 (Disney+)

What it’s about:

A gourmet chef from an award-winning New York restaurant (Jeremy Allen White) returns home to Chicago to take over the deeply dysfunctional sandwich shop his brother gifted him before committing suicide.

Why I like it:

Appropriately for a show that at one level is about a group of characters working out how to make a staple into something excellent, the Bear is a marvel of execution. The setting and structure of a workplace sitcom are repurposed to house the content and themes of a drama about family, guilt, addiction, and grit. Whereas a lot of prestige TV dawdles to ponder its own extravagance, the Bear is boiled down to perfection. Episodes with short runtimes, mostly taking place in a single location, are energised by the perennial urgency of a chef’s work. The effect is propulsive.

The writers seem to have a near perfect sense of when the audience (or at least this part of the audience writing this list) is about to find some aspect of the characters overdone or predictable, and how to refresh it or shift the focus. Indeed, perhaps the show’s greatest strength is that the character dynamics are so, well, dynamic. In a lot of stories which centre a group of characters developing into a team, you start the story with them in conflict, then proverbially speaking Phil Coulson dies, and they now understand they need to work together. The Bear is a lot more subtle. The staff at the shop are visibly more of a unit in episode 5 than in episode 3. However, there’s no moment this happens. Instead, we see them imperceptibly gelling together through the progressive accumulation of lessons learned, conflicts worked through, and strengths uncovered.

7. Mythic Quest, Season 3 (Apple TV)

What it’s about:

I can’t find it now, but I’m indebted to whoever aptly summed Mythic Quest up as a workplace comedy that actually foregrounds work rather than treating it as a convenient excuse to put characters in the same space on a regular basis. It follows the contrasting personalities behind a fantasy epic computer game. Without giving any spoilers for the first two seasons, the most recent run looks at what happens when the characters wind up scattered in different directions.

Why I like it:

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve only seen seven of the nine episodes in this season. However, it would need to take a real nosedive in quality not to appear high up in this list.

Mythic Quest very much fills the Parks and Rec shaped void in my TV watching habits. It manages to strike a similar balance between having bite but also extending its characters a lot of grace. Indeed, for my money it’s actually funnier than Parks and Rec as the shorter seasons you get on streamers allow it to achieve a higher concentration of its best jokes in each episode. It is also striking how consistently good the acting is. I’d especially highlight co-lead Charlotte Nicdao, who I’d seen in precisely nothing before*, but does an excellent job balancing a character who swings between overexcitement and exasperation to comedic effect, as well as rivalling Derry Girls’ Nicola Coughlan in terms of delivering the funniest on-screen meltdowns.

The premise is also a big part of its success. It is also not incidental that the show is about people making video games. Even if you’re not a player – and I’m not – you can likely still appreciate what the characters are striving towards and how their efforts manifest themselves in the final product in a way you wouldn’t if they were working in say a paper factory. And because they are focused on a creative space, working in a medium that involves storytelling and in which the customers play an ongoing role in shaping the product. Thus, the game can not only incite plot developments in a natural way but reflect and intensify the themes and ideas underlying the story.

The third season grows in a number of rewarding ways. Two of the best but most underdeveloped characters, permanently put upon HR manager Carol (Naomi Ekperigin) and alarmingly intense PA Jo (Jessie Ennis), are given their own arcs. You also have to marvel, at the extent to which scenes almost certainly written and shot before Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, sound like they’re parodying what happened afterwards. It also continues the show’s tradition of having a format breaking bittersweet episode in the middle of the season and season 3’s is especially poignant. The third season hasn’t finished and I’m already pining for the fourth.

6. Ms Marvel (Disney+)

What it’s about:

The second MCU show to make the list. This one has a Spider-Manish set-up. Kamala Khan (Iman Velani) is a rather aimless Jersey City high school student and Carol Danvers (AKA Captain Marvel) superfan. That is until she incorporates a bangle gifted by her grandma in Karachi into her costume for “Avengers Con” and unlocks Kamala’s ability to conjure hard structures out of the light around her. Which, unfortunately, makes her a target both for interdimensional beings called the Clandestines and Damage Control, a fictional stand-in for America’s Department of Homeland Security.

Why I like it:

My reactions to the initial episodes were essentially that it was clearly exceptionally well made, with a lot of visual flair and characters who were good company, but that it skewed very YA and I wasn’t sure I was that interested in a well-meaning drama about conflict with parents and working out what to do after school, with some superhero stuff in the background. I needn’t have worried. It rapidly evolves from Muslim-American Gilmore Girls into a historical epic tracing the origins of Kamala’s powers back to the Partition of India, and then moves back again.

Arguably that shift as impressive as its results are, unbalances the a show. There are thematic reasons Ms Marvel needs Kamala to move between Jersey and Karachi (and the wider MCU continuity may require her to have dealt with her backstory before her big screen debut next year). Nonetheless, trying to include Jersey and Karachi focused stories with two essentially unconnected sets of antagonists in a single six-episode run was arguably a bit much. It might have been better if the Karachi story had been saved for a second season.

That said I’m not going to knock the show too much for being ambitious. The superhero plot is to a large extent secondary. Creating a show like this with a Muslim heroine is obviously an important corrective to decades of TV where the only time Muslim characters played a significant role is as villainous terrorists. But beyond that a large part of what makes the show works is that Kamala’s identity is very specific. She’s not just a Muslim, she’s a second-generation Pakistani-American from a particular neighbourhood in Jersey City, based on comics written by someone from the same background, who also serves as an executive producer for the series. This stands in sharp contrast to most superhero stories, which even if they are not technically set in an intentionally generic fictional place like Metropolis or Gotham, often seem like they do. Perhaps the hope is that if left devoid of specificity, the protagonist’s vague backgrounds and milieu will serve as blank canvasses for audiences to project their own experience onto. Ms Marvel demonstrates what is lost by this approach. The rooted setting leads not only to a world that feels more tangible, but also characters who seem more natural and nuanced. I would suggest that is more not less valuable in a show where the central character can harness interdimensional energy to summon shields, platforms and catch people in mid-air.   

5. Blackbird (Apple TV)

What it’s about:

Based on the real-life story of Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), a convicted drug trafficker, who strikes a deal with the FBI where in exchange for the possibility of early release from prison, he is transferred to the cell adjoining that of a suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) in the hope he can build a rapport with him and quite literally find out where the bodies are buried, before Hall is released to potentially kill again.

Why I like it:                    

If the serial killer genre has a signature scene, it’s a detective going into prison to glean insights from an imprisoned murderer. Think Jodie Foster walking along the corridor to meet Anthony Hopkins (or William Peterson to see Brian Cox if that’s more your speed). Indeed, in Mindhunter, we had a whole show built around scenes where the collapsing of the physical space between hero and villains, also portends a dangerous physic closeness. Blackbird ups both the danger and claustrophobia of this scenario by cutting off its protagonist’s means of retreat.

Egerton is fantastic as a man staring into the moral abyss and having it stare back at him. He constantly seems to be on an ethical precipice. There is a real danger that trying to build a rapport with someone whose mind has grown horrifically warped will break his own sanity, yet there is also hope that facing down that horror will enable him to outgrow his own venal tendencies.

However, it is Hauser’s performance that really stands out. He’s doing a lot of big, obvious acting – adopting a highly unusual speech pattern and distracting mannerisms – whilst also very subtly modulating how these ticks present themselves from moment to moment. In his hands, a frankly weird individual never seems less than human. Indeed, Hauser shows him as someone who generally often seems pathetic, not infrequently worthy of sympathy, and just occasionally, when we see him clearly, he turns the audience’s blood to ice. Crucially, this is not because he’s playing a manipulative or chameleon like character. These are all genuine aspects of who he is. The dramatic tension arises from whether Keene can get close enough to the threatening parts of that personality long enough to say whether he is guilty of the crimes he is accused of.

This is probably the least comfortable watch on this list. The subject matter is horrific, and the atmosphere of the prison scenes is unrelentingly oppressive. However, it is never less than compelling and is ultimately rather profound.

4. Hacks, Season 1 and 2 (Prime Video)

What it’s about:

Two comedians, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) a fading megastar stand-up and Ava Daniels, a struggling millennial writer, are drawn into an unlikely collaboration despite their near complete inability to go more than 5 minutes without exasperating or emotionally wounding one another.

Why I like it:

Hacks square a lot of circles. By being a drama centred on comedians, it gets to allow its characters to be uproariously funny in a way that never detracts from the show’s verisimilitude. And through sheer good writing, it manages to showcase one of the best supporting casts on telly, whilst also depending on the interplay between the two central characters to power the story. They both tend towards being selfish, thin skinned, and, when they feel like it, uninhibited about steamrolling past social conventions. Combined with very sharp writing and delivery, this makes for some hilarious putdowns and moments of chaos. However, this isn’t (just) a show about bad people being unpleasant. Precisely because they are so alike, Debra and Eva are able to understand each other and draw something better out of each other. This ultimately makes it a quite humane show that finds the best in its characters even when they do their darndest to hide it.

3. Derry Girls, Season 3 (Channel 4)

What it’s about:

The comedic travails of a group of Irish Catholic teenage girls (and one English boy) growing up in (London)Derry in the 90s. In the show’s final season, the girls face the end of school, their childhoods, and just maybe of the violence that has plagued their hometown for decades.

Why I like it:

A big part of the humour of the first two seasons of Derry Girls lay in how habituated the characters had become to things that would freak the hell out of most people (including one suspect the show’s mostly British and American audience). Soldiers in full combat gear carrying SA80s are almost part of the background wallpaper, bomb scares regularly punctuate daily life, and finding a member of the IRA hiding in the boot of your car hoping you’ll inadvertently carry him across the border into Ireland is unwelcome, but not wholly unexpected. Not only our protagonists, but also their parents hardly remember a time before the bloodshed.

Then in a superlative sequence at the conclusion of the penultimate episode of s.2, the shows usual absurdist hijinks – this time involving a new student from Donegal, a school prom and buckets of tomato juice – are interspersed with absolutely sincere moments of the adult characters seeing and then rejoicing at the news that the IRA has called its first ever ceasefire.

S.3 explores what it’s like to live through a moment of such profound political transition. Crucially, by recognising that whilst the quintetto of sixth formers at its heart are clearly aware of and interested in the events that will eventually lead to the Good Friday Agreement, their predominant focus is on ordinary teenage things. And being teenagers, with the attendant big emotions and dubious sense of judgement, their pursuit of what they want tends to lead to comedic mishaps.

This is not to say it’s an apolitical show. Even its name would be taken by some as a political statement, believing that the city where its set should rightly be known as ‘Londonderry’. But creator Lisa McGhee’s insight is that broad comedy allows her to be exceedingly subtle about the grander aspects of the story she’s telling. To give one example, we saw in the second season, how segregated the two communities are, through how hideously awkward the girls are when forced to spend time a weekend away with Protestant boys as part of a cringeworthy “Hands Across the Barricades” peacebuilding initiative. It is also notable for being a story about Northern Ireland that doesn’t centre armed republicans, either as heroes or villains. Virtually all the characters are working class Catholics with no links to the IRA or any other paramilitary group, and who we can reasonably infer mostly supported the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein. A perspective on the conflict as rarely culturally represented as that of the ordinary protestants shown earlier this year in Ken Branagh’s Belfast.

Three seasons of allowing history and politics to suffuse the texture of the show, but hardly ever rise to the surface, nor to negate the raw comedy of the situations it places its characters in, mean that when McGhee brings politics to the fore for the first time in the finale, it really makes an impact. Set on the day of the referendum to approve the Good Friday Agreement, it is perhaps the best single episode of telly I’ve seen this year. It not only manages to tie together the idea that both our protagonists and Northern Ireland are moving into a new era, it also shows the complexity of both transitions. For the first time, what is happening to the title characters becomes a metaphor for the wider sweep of history. Showing us how even for those who desperately want peace, the comprises of the Agreement could be difficult to take. And crucially, as always in Northern Ireland, it is not only the divisions between communities but also within them that matter. All of which is conveyed through the lives of five ordinary teenagers, whilst never going more than a few minutes without a moment of delirious comedy. A superlative and almost unimprovable exploration of universal themes through a loving rendering of a very specific place at a very specific time.

2. Andor, Season 1 (Disney+)

What it’s about:

The latest Star Wars series to arrive on Disney+. Ten years before his appearance as a spy for the Rebel Alliance in Rogue One, we meet Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) as a drifter trying to survive amidst the oppression and corruption of the Galactic Empire. When he kills two private military contractors trying to shake him down, he finds himself not only a fugitive from the Empire, but, perhaps as dangerously, viewed as a potential asset by a mysterious dissident named Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård).

Why I like it:                    

I began my review of the Mandalorian a few years back by noting how it evoked a blend of John Williams’ classic score for the original trilogy and Enio Morricone’s scores for spaghetti westerns, and how this reflected the show’s genre melding and its relationship with the wider Star Wars mythology. For the sake of tradition let me start here with Nicholas Britell’s score for Andor and its relationship with John William’s iconic work. They are two very different composers. Williams famously writes big, sweeping orchestral scores – classical musical that harken back to Classic Hollywood**. They alternate between being playful, rousing and awe inspiring, whilst consistently making a statement. The music Britell, probably best known for scoring Succession and Barry Jenkins’ films, writes is more understated and soulful. And to a striking extent, that’s exactly what he wrote for Andor. He’s not trying to imitate Williams’ Star Wars scores, nor blend those iconic sounds with something, nor even to write something in conversation with them. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed if going solely on the evidence of his Andor score, to demonstrate that Britell has ever heard the Imperial March or the main theme that accompanies the opening crawl.  

The decision to forsake the sonic glue that has held the franchise together for decades is symptomatic of just how thoroughly showrunner Tony Gilroy has broken with Star Wars’ signature style. This departure is absolutely necessary because this is a very different kind of Star Wars story. Andor is not a legend about magic, but a story grounded, if not in the real world, then what feels like a real world. It immerses the audience in the day-to-day reality of people living under – and upholding – an authoritarian system, and in the cost of resisting it. This isn’t a repudiation of Star Wars, but a fleshing out of it. This is more than a matter of familiar factions, events and planets appearing. The show’s central ideas about the interplay between autocracy and resistance have been there since a New Hope. For example, Princess Leia’s warning to Grand Moff Tarkin that “The more you tighten your grip … the more star systems will slip through your fingers” becomes the core of Rael’s plan.

Of course, this is nothing without the execution. Fortunately, nearly every aspect is exceptional. As I’ve already mentioned Britell’s score is haunting whilst being almost invisible. Gilroy’s dialogue is some of the best on TV, never mind in Star Wars. In contrast to a lot of recent Disney+ sci-fi shows it feels like real care and attention as gone into the effects and sets, and while all the cast are good, Skarsgård should be in serious contention for an Emmy.

1. The Capture, Season 2 (BBC)

What it’s about:

This techno conspiracy thriller exists at the intersection of two traditions: of British shows like State of Play and Edge of Darkness which are focused on official and corporate cover-ups and American stories like Enemy of the State and the Conversation about the unsettling potential of surveillance. The Capture’s distinct interest is in the dangerous potential of ‘deepfakes’ in a world that’s grown accustomed to treating video evidence as definitive.

Following the events of the previous season, DCI Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger) has been exiled, McNullty in Season 2 of the Wire-style, to the part of the police she least wants to be in: overseeing a team of technical support specialists, who are far too competent to need her supervision. However, she is drawn back into the world of deepfake deceptions by the case of the “invisible man”, an assassin who appears able to edit themselves out of security footage in real time and is targeting people connected with a government decision about awarding a surveillance contract to a Huawei-esque Chinese firm.

Why I like it:

S.1 of the Capture was essentially a thriller and police procedural with the slightest seasoning of science fiction. An alarmingly small amount in fact. It would be a more comfortable world if the way deepfakes were shown being used was rather further from plausibility. S.2 creates an even more compelling cocktail by imagining the destruction that could be wrought by more advanced, but by no means fanciful, versions of the technology. Given this, the show’s style is augmented with a dollop of horror. Going all the way back to H.G. Welles storytellers have appreciated there’s something profoundly unnerving about someone able to see without being seen. The footage of ‘the Invisible Man’ is always unsettling, but when characters see it in real time on the CCTV of the building, they’re in, it becomes downright terrifying.  However, the creepiest moments come when characters are confronted with deepfaked avatars of themselves. The cinematography often presents the deepfaked avatars as if they’re movie monsters. This both taps into the visceral unease most of us have at confronting ourselves as other see us – think how odd it is to hear your own voice – but also the reality that if someone can create a version of you that looks and sounds just like the real thing, then they essentially have control of your life. Especially given how much of our lives are now digitally intermediated. Strangers, colleagues and even loved ones can be convinced that you said and did things you never would, and you are powerless to refute it, because it’ll seem so obviously true – it’s on video. Hence, this season of the Capture taps into a strain of doppelganger or even body snatcher horror.

Which is far from saying it is diminished in any way as a thriller. Even once you’ve grasped that the name of game is to convince you that you’re seeing one thing, and then reveal, at an appropriately dramatic moment, that both your perception and that of the characters is being messed with, the show retains the ability to regularly execute these rug pulls. This also makes it the archetypal ‘phone down’ show.  A lot turns on small details. So you cannot afford to miss any.

It also anchored by a strong set of characters. Grainger’s DCI Carey is a brilliant detective made relatable by human flaws, but crucially not the kind of flaws that have become cliché by now. Ron Pearlman’s turn as a true believer CIA agent remains as compelling as it is disturbing. He is a man whose black-and-white worldview paradoxically facilitates a dangerous ethical flexibility. And Season 2 gives us a new set of characters mostly linked to Isaac Turner (Paapa Essiedu), a Conservative MP serving as Security Minister. I normally find on-screen depictions of politics, especially British politics, ring false. But as I already intimated, the Capture is very much in the vein of State of Play. The way it shows Westminster and Whitehall working feels realistic and well researched, avoiding either indulging cheap cynicism and romanticising how difficult and often unpleasant decisions get made.

However, what earns the Capture the top spot, what seems to me like a stroke of genius, is how it harnesses its medium to not only convey a message but to begin training us in how to respond to its implications. The point uniting all of the show’s twelve episodes is that we cannot passively absorb the digital imagery our lives are now soaked in. We must be mindful of the distinction between what we appear to have seen and what we know we saw. However, that message is not simply something we think about after we finish. The act of following this engrossing narrative requires you practice what its creators are preaching.

Random observations

  • 6 of the 11 shows streamed in the UK on Disney+. Because it encompasses what is available in the US as two separate services – Disney+ and Hulu – it has a pretty formidable output as far as British viewers are concerned. It certainly goes way beyond the kind of shows Disney+ is generally known for. That said, perhaps the most impressive showing is the two shows on Apple TV, given that I only watched two shows on Apple.
  • 2 of the 11 are about teenagers from a religious minority trying both to the deal with ordinary teenage stuff and the consequences of their homeland having been partioned upon achieving independence from the British Empire.
  • A few actors show up in more than one show on the list: Kirby Howell-Baptiste is in the Sandman and has a small role in Hacks; Ebon Moss-Bachrach is one of the core cast in the Bear and plays a significant role in Andor; and Ben Miles shows up in Andor and the Capture (i.e. my number #1 and #2 shows).
  • It’s entirely a list of fictional shows, which a) potentially reflects a lot of the non-fiction TV I watch being rather mediocre true crime and b) balances out my reading habits which are almost completely dominated by non-fiction. That said trying to discover some better documentaries, should probably be a mission for 2023.
  • At least 6 of the 11 series look to be getting further seasons. Which is encouraging.
  • I didn’t intend it this way but I’m taking some patriotic pride in the fact that even though it’s mostly a list of American shows, #1-3 were all primarily filmed in the UK.

Thanks for reading and do let me know if you have any recommendations for things I’ve missed.

*Turns out this is an exaggeration as she plays a background character in Thor: Ragnarök

**The Jaws theme is a conspicuous exception

Goodfettas

As entertaining as the The Book of Bobba Fett sometimes is, it ultimately has too many ideas for its own good.

*Full spoilers for Book of Bobba Fett and the rest of Star Wars Canon*

Book of Bobba Fett is a tough show to generalise about. My reaction constantly cycled from “this is really cool” to “this is really dumb”. Whilst the story veered so wildly that the only way I can really discuss it is by breaking it down into into chunks.

The first two episodes pick up from the stinger at the end of the Mandalorian season 2 in which Bobba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) seize control of the Jabba the Hut’s criminal empire. We see them managing that empire, whilst fending off challenges from those who would have liked to have seen the status quo on Tatooine remain. This is intercut with flashbacks to the aftermath of Bobba’s escape from the Sarlac Pit, in which he falls in with Tusken Raiders. The ‘present day’ (as it were) sections meandered without obvious stakes or directions. The flashbacks were far more successful. As the Native American writer Jordan Maison argues in an excellent essay for Gizmodo, these episodes provide “the single most genuine look at Indigenous cultures in a galaxy far, far away to date”. They also give Morrison a chance to re-establish Bobba as a resourceful, stoic figure. The Tusken’s lack of English also makes room for some visual story telling.*

However, Bobba’s time with the Tuskens is wrapped up at the very start of episode 3 with their untimely fridging. For a couple of episodes that leaves us to track how events develop on Tatooine in the ‘present’. We might expect this to allow for the pace to build. Instead, we get several strange digressions. Most jarringly the introduction of the “Mods”, a group of Quadrophenia inspired yoofs driving bright coloured speeder bikes around Mos Espa. A pair of Hutts turn up and then leave again. Finally, we reach the gasp subduing revelation that the big bads of the series are the fish-themed Pyke crime syndicate from Solo.

Then the Book of Bobba Fett takes a surprising shift away from being about Bobba Fett. Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) is reintroduced for what is essentially s.3 ep.1 of the Mandalorian. And for one glorious episode it all just works. Even though the events it shows are almost mundane, we see how heartbreakingly adrift Din is without Grogu. Slotting an episode of Mandalorian into the Book of Bobba Fett like this worked. However, fitting in a second one becomes awkward. In the penultimate episode, we meet Grogu, Ahsoka and Deepfake Luke Skywalker again, whilst Bobba is upgraded from absent to a non-speaking role in his own show. The consequences and weight of the Mandalorian s.2 finale is essentially wiped out by Grogu choosing his attachment to Din over being a jedi. The same scenes also demonstrate that these CGI replicas of characters work fine for individual moments, but are offputting and unconvincing when they hang around and are no substitute for a human actor in scenes where they have to convey nuance and generate empathy.

Then we are on to the all action denouement in which Bobba and his allies fight the Pykes for control of Tattoine. This features a rancour saving the day, Grogu and Din being reunited, the Mods and the people of Mos Pelgo reaching an understanding, and the ruthless bounty hunter Cad Bane getting his comeuppance.

None of this is bad but it is messy. The show felt lackadaisical in the moment and then rushed in hindsight. Characters and plot threads are built-up, dropped and sometimes picked up again seemingly at random. We jump from Book of Bobba Fett into the Mandalorian with just a bar of music to warn us. An arc which should have taken Grogu a whole season is done in part of an episode. We are given enough time with the Mods for them to be distracting but not long enough to become acclimatised or attached to them. Despite being the co-lead of the show, Fennec is not given an arc or even a coherent motivation.

Nowhere is this confusion more obvious than in how the series deals with its central character. Morrison ably depicts Bobba as a man of warmth, compassion and honour. In short, very much not the guy Vader singles out for a warning against disintegrations! The Tuskens are presented as the agents of this redemption. His time with them supposedly teaches him that “everyone needs a tribe”. However, the script doesn’t sell this transformation. We don’t see him trying to be the ruthless old Bobba and this backfiring amongst the Tuskens, nor do we see scenes where he has to wrestle with his new intentions and his old instincts. His face turn just sort of happens through rapid onset osmosis.**

It is also a shame given how central the Tuskens are set up to be that they essentially disappear from the start of episode 3 onwards. Their absence leaves a thematic and emotional void at the centre of the show, which it only fills by cannabilsing the Din/Grogu relationship from the Mandalorian.

The lack of focus is not fatal. Too many ideas are probably preferable to too few. However, the Book of Bobba Fett left me with the uncomfortable sense that solid storytelling had been replaced with an onslaught of accumulated cool things. This approach is not sustainable basis for an ongoing franchise. To keep going Star Wars needs to open up dramatic possibilities as quickly as it explores them. Regrettably, the Book of Bobba Fett did the opposite.

* It’s perhaps to be expected that Star Wars is at its best when its storytelling is primarily visual. It’s relationship to dialogue has often been strained. Think “somehow Palpatine returned” and “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere”!

** Just a thought but maybe they should have left Bobba as a villain. He could serve as an antagonist and dark mirror to Din Djarin.

Ranking every new film I’ve seen since lockdown began

It’s been a terrible almost two years but at least we have had some good films right? I’ve been lucky in looking at this list, there’ve been no films I’ve actively disliked or regretted seeing.

I’m counting a film as eligible for this list if it came to cinemas and/or streaming services in the UK after the announcement of the first lockdown on March 23rd 2020.

Mild spoilers ahead!

42. Mank

This isn’t a bad film but nonetheless I didn’t take to it. It feels self-indulgent, the stakes are unclear, and it feels like most of the runtime is the lead mansplaining things. There are also some pretty big issues with historical accuracy. All the indications is that Mankiewicz did not fall out with Hearst over politics but that Hearst fell out with Mankiewicz over his drinking, and that Welles did not try to usurp credit for the film. While it makes sense for filmmakers to have a fair amount of creative licence when dealing with real events, if the twin ideas powering the story are both wrong, then why not just tell a fictional narrative?

That said the minute or less where Hearst (played by Charles Dance) quietly and without drama totally and completely casts Mankiewicz out is chilling and almost justifies the film in and of itself.

41. In the Heights

This was probably a victim of my expectations because I came to this having recently discovered Hamilton. Still the songs are mostly forgettable and the different plot threads don’t really tie-up in a satisfying way.

40. An American Pickle

Does have some good jokes and touching moments. However, it’s mostly for naught because this film raises big questions about family, faith, tradition and the immigrant experience, without having anything to say about them.

39. The Suicide Squad

There is the core of a much better film buried inside this rather childish one.

38. The Green Knight

Craft over substance. Though admittedly the craft is impressive.

37. Happiest Season

This feels like it would be a better film if it didn’t feel constrained by the need to stick to the conventions of a feelgood Christmas film, which ultimately pushes it towards a rather facile conclusion. That said it’s not really for me and Dan Levy steals scenes with panache.

36. Free Guy

If you’d described this film to me, I’d probably have expected to hate it. So, it’s something of a minor triumph that the reviews and word of mouth were good enough to get me to the cinema to see it, albeit only using my Odeon unlimited card. It still wasn’t really for me but it had its moments.

Also, worth noting that CGI heavy action sequences work an awful lot better if they’re supposed to be set in a computer game!

35. Eternals

My takeaway from this film was that I’ll forgive Marvel almost anything because their films are so entertaining. This one wasn’t and that made the flaws really stick out. I especially missed the usual Wedonesque quippy dialogue, the absence of which was conspicuous enough that I didn’t feel like I was watching something from the MCU. I did enjoy spending time with some of the Eternals, unfortunately just not the characters the film ultimately spent the most time with. Ultimately, I think the problem is that whilst Chloe Zhao has a really strong and interesting directorial voice, it doesn’t really gel with the MCU.

34. No Time to Die

I found this rather antiseptic. It didn’t help that repeated delays for Covid meant that the marketing had to keep being ramped up and down, meaning that virtually all the big action moments were in the many trailers. That said I felt it would have been really lifted if there had been an action set piece that really hit home.

A more fundamental problem, is that having established a world populated by 3D characters whose motivations matter, it gives us a villain whose personal stake in the story feels jarringly detached from his generic mwa ha ha ha evil plot.

33. The Matrix: Resurrection

Did I like this film? It’s hard to say! Did I understand what the hell was happening? No. Does it deliver impressive or even legible action sequences? No. Does it have a cracking cast? It sure does! Does it make good use of them? Alas not.

Despite all the ways it fails as a conventional film, there is something compelling weird about it. Plus, the long meta section at the start where Lana Wachowski uses a Warner Bros film to have a go at Warner Bros handling of the Matrix franchise is entertaining.

32. Don’t Look Up

For my money, this is the best of Adam McKay’s informal trilogy of satirical films. Whereas the Big Short and Vice would have been better as one of John Oliver’s presentations on Last Week Tonight, this fictional story feels a better fit for a feature film. Pus the central conceit of imagining if the world responded to the plot of Armageddon the way we have to climate change is pretty biting. That said I imagine the decision to intermix that with a broader satire on populist conservatism means it will alienate anyone it might of convinced and will be left preaching to the converted.

31. The Vast of Night

A neat little sci-fi story about UFO sightings in small town America in the 50s. Does seem like someone took the script for a radio play and filmed it instead. The visuals do feel pretty superfluous and it would probably feel more atmospheric without them. Maybe consider putting a towel over your TV screen!

30. Those Who Wish Me Dead

Taylor Sheridan has what I think of as the ‘Aaron Sorkin problem’. He’s a good enough screenwriter that he gets to direct his own scripts despite being a rather workmanlike director. This thriller set amidst forest fires is still diverting though.

29. Gunpowder Milkshake

At this point, John Wick knockoffs are basically a genre in and of themselves. And this won’t be the last example on this list. This one is slightly elevated by its impressive cast. That said apart from one refreshingly strange sequence where the central character has to fight-off a group of assassins despite having had her arms paralysed, Gunpowder Milkshake isn’t really bringing anything new.

28. The Mauritanian

Speaking of Aaron Sorkin, another Guantanamo set legal drama rather overshadows this film. However, if you can look past this, this rather quieter story based on real-life is worth your time.

27. Black Widow

It’s cliché to say that MCU films tend to start strong and then sag a bit when they get to their CGI third act. Black Widow takes this disparity to a whole new level. The opening sections are essentially an extended Bourne pastiche mostly shot on location and, best of all, introduces Florence Pugh as a new Black Widow. Then we get a very strange set of green screen nonsense where nothing seemsreal, least of all Ray Winstone’s Russian accent. I also found the thematic arc sat rather poorly with what we’ve seen of Natasha’s story up till now. Still a good film but not vintage Marvel either.

26. Raya and the Last Dragon

The orphaned heroine of this film must find five pieces of a shattered gem, so dragons can be resurrected in order to defeat monsters known as Druun and the five tribes of Kumandra can be reunited into a sort of child-friendly Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. As that short synopsis probably indicates Disney wasn’t exactly breaking new ground in terms of plotting, themes or characters. That said it is very competently done and it’s nice to see Disney drawing on South-East Asian mythology and aesthetics for a change.

25. The Courier

I wrote a fuller review of this here but I think it’s a pretty effective meditation on things left unsaid.

24. Tenet

I’ve slightly cooled on this since I first saw it on account of the rather convoluted plot. That said watching its set pieces on imax was quite a reintroduction to cinemas after they’d been closed for months.

23. Dune

Unquestionably, the most visually spectacular film of the year. Delivers a completely convincing rendering of strange alien worlds. Will have you swearing that its footage of giant sand worms was shot by the BBC Natural History unit and not something made by a visual fx team. The rest of the film almost keeps up but doesn’t quite. The tone can sometimes feel a bit chilly and some fairly key aspects of how this sci-fi universe works are left unexplained. Those quibbles aside it’s still a phenomenal achievement by Denis Villeneuve.

22. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

There’s a rather jarring mismatch between how this film is directed and shot, which might charitably be described as “stagey” and less charitably as “cheaply” and “badly”, and the quality of the performances it showcases, especially from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Their depictions of two people who stubbornly refuse to compromise with the world to very different effects are as awe inspiring as any of the visual effects in Dune.

21. Candyman

Gloriously unsettling.

20. Nomadland

A worthy Best Picture winner, mixing incredibly naturalistic and understated performances, many of them from non-professional actors, with spectacular vistas of the American countryside. That said I would personally have preferred something which plotwise had more of a beginning, a middle and an end.

19. Spider-man: No Way Home

This live action remake of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (I jest, mostly) is a continuity challenge even for Marvel as it involves keeping things straight not only within their own cinematic universe but several others as well. The reward is that they can tell a story which is at once bigger than anything they’ve done before without being any less personal. I have gripes, including the perennial complaint about it degenerating into a messy CGI heavy third act, but they mostly land it despite everything that could have gone wrong.

It’s to its credit that even though I saw a lot of spoilers whilst waiting for my booster to kick-in, this still had plenty of surprises for me. Likewise, it managed to pick-up plotlines from films I didn’t really care about and get me to emotionally invest in them. Finally, having a film where the aim is to save not defeat the villains is quietly subversive.

18. Palm Springs

Covid lockdowns where every day just seemed to repeat itself were arguably the ideal time to revisit the Groundhog Day-esque time loop sub-genre. This one manages to be sweet but not cloying whilst managing a sort of mellow humour thanks in no small part to its very likeable leads.

17. Soul

Pixar does what it does. Long may it continue!

16. Les Misérables

Not based on the Victor Hugo novel but set in the same part of Paris a hundred and fifty years later, where now everything is great. JK! This is pretty much like an antidote to Emily in Paris as far as depictions of the French capital go. It’s a pretty harrowing account of police corruption and brutality inspired by events leading up to an actual riot. The banlieue where it takes place is depicted in grim terms, neglected by anyone outside its boundaries, and exploited by corrupt local politicians who are vying for influence with organised criminals and the thuggish police. A local Islamic organisation which may or may not be the Muslim Brotherhood is shown as the only half-way benign force at play.

In case, you’ve not already guessed, this is definitely not a film to watch if you’re looking for something light or cheery.

15. Last Night in Soho

Anything Edgar Wright does is worthy of attention and this high-concept horror is probably his best film since Hot Fuzz. This story of young woman facing either madness or glimpsing the past is a wonderfully visceral exploration of the dark side of nostalgia. Also, notable for featuring the final performance from the late, great Dianna Rigg.

14. Tick, Tick… Boom

This adaptation of Rent author Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical could be a tough sell for anyone not as immersed in Broadway history as it is. Yet even if you miss the easter eggs as consistently as I did, there’s something magical about the way it uses songs to be contemplative and sombre without ever really slowing down. It’s also a testament to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction that even though this is based on a stage show, it not only doesn’t seem like a play on screen but is actually hard to imagine without the options film provides.

13. I Care a Lot

Rosamond Pike’s icy performance carries this acid burn of a satire about the world of guardianship fraud, which tbf sounds about as dodgy as the film makes out.

11. Nobody and 12. Riders of Justice

In both these action-comedies, middle-aged dads respond to their families being victims of crime by starting a war with a crime gang, which rapidly spirals out of control.

Nobody is set in the US and from the John Wick team, deploying a similar action style but with Bob Odenkirk at its centre. He effectively evokes both a past his prime and aimless suburban guy and a remorselessly effective special ops assassin within the same character. Lots of details like his stubble or wiry frame can in different contexts a guy whose gently fading away or one whose tougher than he appears.

Whilst Nobody feels very precisely made and dependably entertaining, Riders of Justice is – and I don’t mean this as a criticism even though it sounds like one – all over the place. Mads Mikkelsen’s central character is not immediately relatable. His cold, robotic, pragmatic demeanour is exactly not what his daughter needs following the death of her mother, but makes complete sense when you see him in action scenes. The strange group of IT nerds he finds himself allied to are dysfunctional in a way which shifts from lovable to annoying very quickly. The humour is very dark and very strange. What makes the film such a delight though is seeing all these very different elements come together into something delightful.

10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The MCU has been the largest fish in the movie pond for a decade now. That had naturally leads to occasional speculation about when it might slip from its perch. 2021 could perhaps look like evidence of that beginning. Eternals and Black Widow were fairly underwhelming. No Way Home is a huge hit but is basically backward looking. Yet Shang-Chi is pretty compelling evidence in the opposite direction.

Not only did it bring a new hero to the screen for the very first time and used a relatively contained story to take us into a fresh corners of the fictional universe, it also showed signs that Marvel is continuing to refine its formula and address its weaknesses. Tony Leung’s electric performance as the Mandarin is one of the best examples of the work they’ve done creating villains with depth. Plus, it has the best choreographed and most grounded action scences we’ve yet seen from Marvel and it’s not until the very end that they let themselves go and lapse into OTT CGI.

Undoubtedly the most fun film on this list.

9. The Man Standing Next

This spy thriller stars Lee Byung-hun, last seen (or more accurately unseen) in Squid Game, playing one of the most controversial figures in Korean history. In 1979, Korea’s spy chief, Kim Jae-gyu, shot and killed his boss and mentor, General Park Chung-hee, the country’s military dictator. The Man Standing Next produces an incredibly tense and claustrophobic interpretation of what led Kim to his desperate decision.

An excellent film even if the English subtitling leaves something to be desired.

8. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place the same summer as Woodstock. Yet despite a line-up including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, it was basically forgotten about for decades for reasons that seem to have had everything to do with race. Summer of Soul uses tapes literally found in a draw to not only recreate these remarkable concerts but evoke the times that produced them.

7. Minari

I suspect that even if you didn’t know that this story about a Korean-American family trying to make farming work is grounded in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own experiences, you’d probably sense that in how real it all feels. He manages to convey the toughness of this situation without lapsing into melodrama or creating an obvious villain.

5. One Night in Miami and 6. Judas and the Black Messiah

The obvious reason to bracket these two films together is that they deal with similar themes and take place in roughly the same period of history. However, I think the most noteworthy thing about them is being able to convincingly depict charismatic historical figures.

To illustrate why this is both difficult and important, let’s return to Mank, which I promise I do not have it in for. For most of its runtime Welles is treated like the Prince in Hamlet. It’s not until the very end he appears. At which point he appears played by Tom Burke. It’s not a bad performance, you believe and understand his motivation. But it doesn’t give you any sense of what about him beguiled not only audiences but also studio execs to the point that they gave a guy in his early twenties who’d never made a film before, free reign to make Citizen Kane.

By contrast, in Judas and the Black Messiah, you absolutely see why Fred Hampton was so inspiring for his followers (and so terrifying for the FBI). In her directorial debut, Regina King, manages to do the same thing four times over, convincing you that you’re in the presence of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and NBA player Jim Brown.

4. Another Round

This features, against some very stiff competition, probably the best performance of Mads Mickelson’s career. This story about a group of teachers trying to maintain a minimum blood alcohol level could easily become an inditement of drinking but Another Round captures its appeal as well and ultimately leads to a very ambiguous ending.

2. A Quiet Place Part II and 3. the Sound of Metal

Even though they are incredibly different films, they both use sound (and silence) in a similar way not only to build tension but also to how the world appears to someone who can’t hear easily.

1. Memories of Murder

[Technically this was released in the UK back in 2004 but it does seem like thanks to Parasite’s Oscar win its 2020 release was actually the larger of the two.]

The implicit set-up of most detective stories is that you will see a brilliant investigator track an equally capable criminal. Memories of Murder gives us a more frightening proposition: what if there is a serial killer on the loose and the police supposed to be protecting you from them are a bunch of useless knuckleheads, hired not for their ability to apprehend criminals but because they are game for beating up the student protestors challenging the military regime. If you’ve seen Parasite you won’t be surprised that Bong Joon-ho ably balances horror, intrigue and farce.

As an aside, since the film was made the perpetrator of the real-life murders which inspired this film has been revealed through DNA evidence. A development which has only served to underline the failures of the police at the time.

Memories of Murder is not a comfortable watch but it is a deeply compelling, evocative and provocative. So, it’s my film of the past two years.

In Soviet Russia, secrets keep you

The Courier is a very talky film, I suspect you could mostly follow it with sound turned off.

This commitment to visual storytelling is a product of its storytelling and setting. The film takes place in the early sixties and follows Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a middle-class, middle aged, British machine parts salesman. A combination of his regular business trips to the Eastern Bloc and generally unassuming nature draw the attention of the CIA and MI6. They have a prized source: high-ranking Soviet military intelligence office, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who is offering them invaluable information on Khrushchev’s nuclear strategy. To protect Penkovsky, rather than using one of their own officers to contact him, the British and American spies turn to Wynne, a self-described “amateur” at espionage and a reluctant one at that. He uses his work trips to Moscow to inconspicuously meet with Penkovsky and bring back troves of secret files.

The social media ads for the Courier have branded it “a slice of James Bond action”. This is borderline false advertising. It lacks any fighting or shooting, is mostly sombre and is decidedly unglamorous. It may be from the same era as Connery’s early outing. However, it is set in the spartan surrounds of Soviet Moscow and a London of beige business suits, white bread sandwiches, gold courses and Powell-Pressburger pronunciations. The focus on human drama and the psychic toll of spying more obviously recalls Le Carré (RIP, legend). However, to my surprise the contemporary writer it most reminded me of was Terence Rattigan: the supreme playwright of stifled emotions and uncomfortable silences.

Part of why this comparison occurred is likely that chunks of the Courier are basically family dramas. Yet the comparison still holds for the scenes set in the Soviet capital. Indeed, especially in them. The emphasis on things unsaid only heightens, when the pressure to avoid speaking openly not only comes from social convention or character flaws, but also the KGB’s listening devices and lip readers. Hence, even though there is plenty of exposition, the more salient a story point is the more likely it is to be shown visually.

We literally see that Penkovsky is deeply enmeshed within the Soviet system. The film opens with him fulsomely applauding a speech celebrating the USSR’s strides in missile technology. We see that amidst the sea of faces in the audience for the Bolshoi, it is Penkovsky’s that Khruschev recognises and with whom he exchanges a nod of recognition. Yet when we see him alone, we witness small signs of his contempt for the system he serves surfacing. Crucially, we can also see how repressive that system is in the incredible caution he shows about before allowing even these subtle lowerings of his mask as a loyal apparatchik. Whilst, this is all eventually conveyed in dialogue between Penkovsky and Wytte, these conversations do not take place until about halfway through the film. By this point, it has already been communicated to the audience much earlier by things we see on screen.

This is a smart approach, which makes use of the excellent cast, that includes not only Cumberbatch and Ninidze, but also Jesse Buckley, Rachel Brosnahan, Zeljko Ivanek, and Anton Lester. It takes skilled actors to strike the balance between sufficiently minimising the expressions and movements which reveal what their character really thinks and feels to the point they are hidden from the other characters in the scene, yet are still distinctive enough to be what their characters reveal, such that visible to an audience seeing their expressions and movements and gestures in close-up on a 250 m2 screen.

[As an aside on the topic of casting: it was refreshing to see the Soviet characters played by actors from the former Soviet states speaking to each other in Russian, rather than by Anglophone actors delivering English dialogue, whilst affecting somewhat Slavic accents.]

[Yes, I have seen Black Widow. Why do you ask?]

However, for all that I think emphasising visual storytelling was the right decision for the Courier, its execution definitely could have been better. The camera work can lack subtlety and originality. For example, in a scene where Wytte is a passenger in the back of a car being driven from Moscow Airport, his sense of being under oppressive surveillance depicted by him seeing his driver studying him in the rear-view mirror.

There are other weaknesses too. The tension tends to dissipate whenever the plot returns to this side of the Iron Curtain. Hence, it probably would have been a better film if it had centred Penkovsky rather than Wytte. It is also not done any favours by the obvious comparisons in terms of setting and subject to films Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the Lives of Others. This company makes the Courier’s otherwise respectable thematic depth, feel underwhelming.

That said it is still an engaging film about an important piece of history performed by a talented cast. The emphasis on letting us see events play out gives it a cinematic edge. Indeed, I would suggest that if you have a story like this one that could be told in a podcast or a book, then making full use of the visuals is a major – perhaps the major – reason to still put it on the big screen.

Nolan Time to Die

In Tenet, celebrated director Christopher Nolan adapts for the big screen a previously unknown novel co-authored by Ian Fleming and Rod Serling. Or at least you could be forgiven for thinking that.

After an unnamed American special services agent (John David Washington) is almost killed during a mission by a bullet that appears to fire out of a wall and back into a gun, he is pulled into a conspiracy centring on “inversion” – the ability to make objects travel against the flow of time.

This set-up allows Nolan to de facto realise his aspiration to direct a Bond film. This is a tale of espionage that shoots between glamorous locations on different sides of the world, whilst going long on smart suits, gadgets and, most of all, action.

That said whilst it is obviously a pastiche, it is never just one. We may be watching tropes which have been deployed many times before, but by hurling high-concept sci-fi at them, Nolan shatters any sense of familiarity they might engender. You may be able to trace the influences on the fight sequences, gun battles and the truly astonishing car chase through Tallinn. However, none of those feature participants moving opposite ways through time. That is something genuinely novel and, given Nolan’s technical mastery, spectacular.

Indeed, they may be the best action set pieces he’s ever produced including “the bat bike” sequence in the Dark Knight.

I am not sure if it has the thematic richness of some of his other work, precisely because it often takes multiple viewings – and hearing about other’s interpretations of the film – for that richness to reveal itself. However, even if it does not, I will hardly be disappointed. I think we all deserve a bracing blast of premium popcorn cinema about now.

The king is dead, long live the king!

Boseman’s version of T’Challa is so powerful that it will endure undiminished, even despite his death

 A colleague responded to the news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer aged just 43 by posting to Instagram of her son – who’s maybe eight or nine and white British – in costume as the Black Panther giving a crossed-armed Wakandan salute. This is one of many reminders, that the role of T’Challa had not merely made Boseman famous: it had turned him into an icon.

His face, his character and his costume are recognisable the world over. Of the five highest ever grossing films at the US box-office, 3 featured Boseman playing T’Challa. There was a time when Black Panther was the only film ever to have a cinematic release in Saudi Arabia. One of its central action set piece was filmed in Korea whilst I was still living there. In the run up to the film’s release it seemed like the country was plastered with the image of Boseman in the Black Panther armour astride Busan’s Diamond Bridge.

That an African-American actor playing an African character, drawing inspiration from comics authored by the most influential African-American intellectual in decades, amongst an overwhelmingly black cast, brought to the screen by a mostly black crew became such a global phenomenon shattered Hollywood’s assumption that whiteness was uniquely universal. Therefore, T’Challa will have had a special resonance for black audiences seeing someone like them not only take centre stage, but do so in our culture’s mightiest epic. However, that’s not my experience to explain but I want to note that it’s there and that it matters – a lot.

That said, as I’ve already discussed this portrayal had abundant appeal to non-black audiences as well. I hesitate to speak for all white people, but I doubt many of us spent much of Black Panther wishing Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross and his dodgy American accent had been given more screentime. The film – and Boseman starring role in it – demonstrated that blackness and Africaness  were only a barrier to mainstream appeal if studios made it one.

Boseman was crucial to making this possible. Marvel’s original plan had been to have the Wakandans speak with British or American accents, until Boseman – perceiving that this would rather uncut the idea of the kingdom as a part of Africa that had been allowed to develop free of the stain of colonialism – told the studio this was a “dealbreaker” for him.

Indeed, Boseman played an unusually decisive role in shaping his character. T’Challa made his first appearance in the MCU in Captain America: Civil War which was shot before Ryan Coogler was chosen to write and direct Black Panther. The Russo brothers, Civil War’s directors, were reluctant to impose their vision on the central character of someone else’s film. Therefore, they asked Boseman to read some of the comics and then relied on his interpretation of T’Challa. It is, therefore, to Boseman’s considerable credit that T’Challa not only immediately felt like a fully rounded character but that his evolution across three further films felt perfectly natural.

(*Spoilers begin*)

That evolution is interesting and unusual because it is as much ethical as it is emotional. The young king is reliably noble, but his sense of this demands of him shifts. In Civil War, he goes from seeking retribution for the murder of his father, to seeing a parallel between this motivation and that which has propelled the film’s villain to commit his atrocities. In his stand-alone film, he is initially guided by the inherited assumption that as king his role is to ensure Wakanda stays isolated from the violent world around it. This is very directly challenged by the return to the kingdom of a cousin who the previous king and Black Panther – T’Challa’s father – had abandoned in the US as child to experience the cruelty and injustice that American society visits on people with dark skin. T’Challa rejects his cousin’s demand that Wakanda conquer the rest of the world, but accepts his charge that its isolationism has been an act of moral cowardice. He responds by opening the kingdom up to the world and sharing the fruits of its technological and social progress.

(*spoilers end*)

A different actor might have depicted T’Challa with an effortless suave or swagger. Boseman was more subtle than this. He always injects a note of unease into T’Challa’s interactions. The earnest young king feels the weight of his kingdom upon him and is reluctant to relax lest he let it slip.

Paradoxically, this makes it easier for us in the audience to imagine him commanding the authority necessary to see off a dangerous demagogue, rallying people for an apparently hopeless fight against an alien invasion and undoing millennia of aloofness from the outside world. There’s a whole sub-genre of management advice devoted to the benefits of leaders showing vulnerability. And Boseman’s T’Challa is a perfect fictional representation of this. He is nervous because he wants to do the right thing, hence it functions as a visible sign of his moral convictions. Similarly, his guardedness is a sign of his honesty. We instinctively know that character like Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark deply glib, frenetic, oversharing as a defence mechanism, grabbing attention away from unacknowledged feelings and unsavoury motives. Boseman thereby uses dignified reserve to convey trustworthiness.

This not only adds credibility to his character, but makes their dramatic arc work. If a character’s evolution is primarily about shifting ethical values, then for the audience to feel this has dramatic weight, they must sense that morals are crucial to the character.

*Spoilers begin*

Hence when having been almost killed by his cousin, T’Challa finds himself on the ancestral plane and confronts his father about abandoning a child, we are not only getting the personal drama of a man whose spent his life fearing that he will fail his father, realising that in fact his father has failed him, but Boseman shows us the drama of a statesman making the historic decision to embrace a shift of moral paradigms.

*Spoilers end*

I submit that it is no coincidence, that the two films in which Boseman’s T’Challa plays the largest role – Civil War and Black Panther – are also the smartest and most thematically rich entries in the MCU canon.

The subtlety, humanity and gravitas of his acting, combined with an inherently interesting character to create a magnificent performance. His death will inevitably mean it is viewed with a twinge of sadness. However, none of its power will be diminished. If anything it is likely that Boseman will now become even more emblematic: the James Dean of generation that feels some of the weight of responsibility that T’Challa does and rebels with cause.

Thanks to Boseman, T’Challa will be a name to conjure with across the globe and down the generations.

All your friends are right about how amazing Hamilton is

A hit

In 1789, Alexander Hamilton became America’s first Treasury Secretary. That presented him with the immense challenge of enabling the new republic to repay the immense debts it had wracked up winning the Revolutionary War against Britain. These came to the enormous sum of $75 million. In order to avoid a default, he not only raised a huge range of taxes, but introduced policy innovations which some credit as laying the foundation for America’s Federal Government, banking system and industrial economy.

In 2020, Disney struck a deal with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the right to put a live filming of his hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton on their streaming service. It cost the House of Mouse the enormous sum of $75 million.  

This equivalence between an entire nation’s debt and the royalties for a play speaks to two things: 1) inflation and 2) what an enormous success Hamilton has been. Even though its premise sounds like the basis for a Producers style fraud, it won 11 Tony Awards, endorsements from world leaders and runs in Broadway and the West End which only coronavirus could break. However, this hype had perversely made it rather inaccessible. Demand for tickets to the stage shows was so great that you had to book them months in advance at a price one could only afford via financial engineering worthy of the show’s protagonist. However, its arrival on Disney + brings it to an even larger audience.

As part of that latter group, I am immensely grateful. Yes, there is certainly a loss of intensity and immediacy relative to seeing the show live, but even on the TV screen it is still entrancing. I’m not musically literate enough to tell you how Miranda manages to deliver banger after banger, but he absolutely does.

Hip-hop history

However, if I may engage in some ill-informed speculation, Miranda’s counter-intuitive decision to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story using hip-hop, an art form which didn’t emerge until almost two centuries after his death, gives Miranda’s work a range of advantages.

Some of these are practical. To see one of them, compare Hamilton with Les Miserables. Both plays regularly require characters to deliver exposition about history and politics through lyrics. However, in Les Mis this sounds cringeworthily out of place. Hamilton can almost entirely avoid this distracting dissonance between form and function because the gap between rap and regular speech is narrower than that between speech and song.

Rap is also an apt vehicle for depicting the more combative side of politics. Public debate in eighteenth century America was at once more refined and nastier than it is today. Yes, it was an era when politicians were often classically trained rhetoricians who communicated through erudite essays and pamphlets. However, as the historian Alan Taylor observes: ‘We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”’ Taylor tops this point off by noting contemporary reports that three-quarters of duels arose from political disputes. 

Rap is of course also rich in poetic pugilism. A denunciation and a diss track, or a debate and a rap battle, are fundamentally pretty similar. In fact, two of Hamilton’s best tracks depict meetings of George Washington’s Cabinet as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

However, the greatest advantage of having eighteenth century characters rapping and singing hip-hop is that it is so anachronistic. It immediately and totally disabuses the audience of our preconceptions about what a period piece will be like. Freed from these constraining expectations, Miranda can create a musical of astonishing brio and bravado. It is defined by its big dramatic moments but is also wickedly funny. This latter quality is perhaps best depicted by a set of tracks which depict King George III (played by Jonathan Groff AKA Special Agent Ford from Mindhunter) as America’s psychotically entitled ex delivering lines like: “And when push comes to shove // I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”

It is also a wonderfully multi-layered. Take just one line. “I am not throwin’ away my shot”, which first appears as the chorus line for the third song and then recurs multiple times throughout the show. At different points ‘the shot’ represents: a single bullet in a dueller’s pistol, a shot of spirit, Hamilton’s ambition, the narrowness of the new nation’s path to survival and a nod to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.

The room where it happens

Obviously, for all its richness and complexity, it cannot possibly convey the same historical detail as the 800-page book it is based on. Plus, it is historical fiction rather than history. And even when it is dealing with historical facts, its representation of them is frequently abstract rather than literal; as we have already mentioned no one in the 18th century rapped. There does seem to be a bit of a dispute about the interpretation of history it presents. I have not really studied this period in any detail, so mostly avoid that discussion. That said, I do want to say two things in its favour on that score.

First of all, it is commendably sophisticated in the way it thinks about history. Indeed, at points it manages to deal with historiography as well as history. As it recounts past events it also comments on how they are remembered. Indeed, there are two tracks built around gaps in the documentary record. Both serve not only to acknowledge this uncertainty to the audience, but also illustrate important moments for characters.

 In addition, having worked in politics for a while – admittedly at a rather less elevated level than the characters in Hamilton – the depictions of politicians ring true. For example, Jefferson and Maddison gleefully throwing copies of the Reynolds Pamphlet into the audience, captures well the unsightly joy of a team of politicos realising their opponent has screwed up. I suspect this feeling of authenticity is why it seems to resonate so much with politicians.

There is also a substantive question underlying all the theatrics: Hamilton is a musical meditation on the place of personal ambition in politics. Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton is a pathological striver. This serves to make him into a great man but also a tragic figure.

The drive to distance himself from a childhood in St Kitts and Neves marinated in bereavement, humiliation and disaster propels him not only to travel all the way to New York, but to rise socially; it also imbues him with the desperate energy which makes him so charismatic; and ultimately it is what leads him to become a Founding Father: in a new nation, to command the ship of state, he first had to build it.

Yet Hamilton’s own sister-in-law explicitly likens him to Icarus: a figure whose non-stop ascent destroys him. Growing up amidst constant death and loss leaves him haunted and conditioned to expect not to survive. This fatalism in turn feeds into recklessness. He is wracked by survivors’ guilt and crushed by the weight of his own and others’ expectations; too harassed to ever be comfortable or content. His opponents are able to exploit these doubts and drive him to catastrophically bad decisions. These repeatedly put him in conflict with Aaron Burr – who is depicted as sharing Hamilton’s hunger for power but not his ideals – with disastrous results for them both.

The eye of the hurricane

In a celebrated lecture delivered in Munich in 1919, the great sociologist Max Weber, addressed an audience of students. He spoke to the backdrop of a world overturned by the First World War. People were rising up, empires were falling, and young, scrappy and hungry countries were being born. Like Hamilton and his drinking buddies singing “My Shot”, these students could be forgiven for thinking: “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me”. Therefore, Weber turned to poetry to instil realism in them:

I wish I could see what has become of those of you who now feel yourselves to be genuinely ‘principled’ politicians and who share in the intoxication signified by this revolution.

It would be nice if matters turned out in such a way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102 should hold true:

Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.

But such is not the case. Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness

What Miranda manages in Hamilton is to somehow turn Weber’s dictum that “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards” into a musical romp where the hope for the growth of riper days and the polar night of icy darkness and hardness both get their dues.

Bonus:

This version of Hamilton as sung by the Muppets is a pure joy