Not since an occultist real estate quirk transformed Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis into The Gatekeeper and The Keymaster has there been such a confluence and comedy and entertainment in one New York apartment block. The inhabitants of The Arconia in this wonderful 10-part series developed for Hulu are as acerbic as one would expect from Big Apple natives yet there is real heart - and real laughs - to be found in this swanky Upper West Side locale, too. Steve Martin (co-writer), Martin Short and Selena Gomez star as Arconia residents who begin their own true crime podcast after a neighbour is found dead. The three leads are fantastic; they swap cross-generational jokes at each other's expensive amid unravelling character exposition and a Hardy Boys-esque mystery. Musician Sting shows he's a great sport by playing himself while reminding us his acting hasn't improved any. The wardrobes, set design and colour palette are all gorgeous.
Murray Bartlett, take a bow. As Armond, the manager of the titular Hawaiian holiday resort in Mike White's Frangipani-infused evisceration of Anglo-Saxon privilege, the Australian actor implodes in spectacular and grotesque fashion. Just as Laura Dern did with self-appointed corporate martyr Amy Jellicoe in White's criminally underseen and underheralded HBO series Enlightened, Bartlett brings us to a state of desperation, then holds us there. Armond's addictive-personality bookend is alcoholic guest Tanya McQuoid, played by Jennifer Coolidge. Coolidge's whirlpool of blithe self-absorption is subtle and masterful. It's remarkable just how much satire White packs into six episodes. So much ugliness amid so much beauty. Those trips to Bali should never be the same again.
Turns out creator/writer Jesse Armstrong was foxing all along. Season three of HBO's dramedy following the vicissitudes of the foul-mouthed Roy clan was in real danger of stalling in a game of dynastic chicken between patriarch and corporate titan Logan Roy and his kids. Then came the stunning finale. All season, Jeremy Strong's heir-apparent-gone-rogue Kendall was where the (lack) of action centred. We watched Ken's doomed, albeit very funny, gambit for succession spiral out of control, divide the sibs and land Waystar Royco in an even more precarious position than it was when we found it several weeks ago. But just when Kendall finds some much-needed humility, a state which seems to unify the insufferable and entitled young Roys, all hell breaks loose. Shakespearean satisfaction.
Just as she did all the way back in 1999 when she inhabited an Australian woman and an Australian landscape in Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, British actor Kate Winslet does it again in HBO's Mare of Easttown. This time, Winslet is the very embodiment of America in decline. She isn't just a small-town Pennsylvanian detective in Craig Zobel's riveting whodunit, she is the coal state itself; tough, bedraggled and struggling with an existence in which the good times have become a smudge on the rearview all too quickly. As we become engrossed in the search for the killer of a 17-year-old single mother, we're just as captivated by Mare Sheehan's past and present. We're on a slow-drip of revelation, the tragedy and pathos metered out with great care and skill. This year's best dose of unadulterated drama.
Speaking of Jane Campion ... Just when it was beginning to look like streaming platforms, as far as films went this year, anyway, had become incubators to further the ineluctable career trajectories of Ryan Reynolds and The Rock, along comes this sly, two-hour masterpiece from the New Zealand auteur. Although set in 1920s Montana, Campion filmed her adaptation of Thomas Savage's novel in Otago's Hawkdun Ranges, lending the late-period western an otherworldly quality, wrong-footing the viewers; gaslighting them as successfully as Benedict Cumberbatch's bullying rancher Phil Burbank does with his new sister-in-law Rose Gordon, played by Kirsten Dunst. As Rose's enigmatic son, Peter, Australia's Kodi Smit-McPhee is impossible to pin down in this exquisite rumination on masculinity which leaves an indelible brand on your hide.
Talk about addictive. For several weeks there, we were all binging on this candy-coloured death trap of violence, gore and off-kilter South Korean capitalism. Like a 10-year-old hepped up on too much dalgona, we (forming part of a 90 million global audience) went nuts for this stylised morality tale. Make no mistake, there is true genius at work here. As if subjects of some Pavlovian experiment, we respond to stimulation (colour coding, geometric cues) and salivate every time the penurious players hitch up their tracky-dacks and head out to the schoolyard to fight tooth and nail for a shot at the piggy bank. There is also audacity in the derivative nature of the show; from Turkey Shoot to Cube to The Hunger Games, we've seen all this before, not that we care. Christians and lions at the Colosseum never gets old.
Sometimes, we just need a laugh, which is great, but do we really need to wet our pants? Such is the likelihood of explosive incontinence when watching this sketch show of superb, surreal silliness it really should come with a warning. Co-creator, writer and star Tim Robinson is perpetually on the edge of tears as one of his combative, inappropriate characters turns a situation from mildly uncomfortable to completely incomprehensible (and quite possibly dangerous). Season two parachutes us into even more inhospitable territory, as we're assaulted by brutish, yet weirdly poetic, meme-generating dialogue ("sloppy steaks", "expensive, complicated shirts") and wonder if Robinson might not be some kind of conduit between our world and another as he stuffs us down ever-deepening rabbit holes of hostility and confusion.
OK, eight hours is a lot to wade though, even for super fans of the Fab Four, but so overwhelmingly privileged does one feel to be a fly on the wall while John, Paul, George and Ringo create, director Peter Jackson can be forgiven for delivering an epic even greater than his Tolkien catalogue. Blessed/cursed with 60 hours of unseen cinema verite footage shot for the making of Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1970 film Let it be, Jackson spent years in the editing suite bringing the making of The Beatles' final album of the same name (Abbey Road was made after, but released before) to the screen. It's all George and Ringo can do not to yawn as Paul, on deadline and desperate for content to fill the new album, sits before them in sumptuous colour and strums hit single Get Back into existence. A magical history tour.
The show that spawned Armpit-gate. The world couldn't get enough of Oscar Isaac's olfactory interrogation of Jessica Chastain's left flank as the stars of this HBO mini-series walked the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival in September. Onlookers were agog at the intimacy of the gesture, yet a bit of pheromonic fornication is nothing compared with the familiarity generated by the actors on screen ... and we all know what familiarity breeds. The domestic supernova under the Boston roof of Isaac and Chastain's upwardly mobile couple is raw and, at times, infuriating. We get a front-row seat as two people tear each other apart, recover, the repeat the carnage. Hagai Levi's reimagining of Ingmar Bergman's TV series of almost 50 years ago is undoubtedly gripping, yet his fourth-wall breaking decision to film the performers entering and leaving the (COVID-compliant) set seems surplus to requirements.
Given the quality of scripted, episodic TV over the past 12 months, 2021 could be considered the year in which we finally forgot the reality genre, but it's hard to forget the images from this Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle. Indeed, it may take many years of therapy to be rid of them completely. The couples who turn up for this expansion of Paltrow's online wellness company are diversity personified (different ages, races, orientations) yet they all have hang-ups in the bedroom. Enter Paltrow's team of sexual healers. As if Marvel mutants (one is even equipped with Wolverine's claws), each therapist comes with a special skill set which is - often manually - applied to their credulous charges. Essential oil viewing.
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