II haven’t written a ‘Best’ post at the end of the year since 2012 (maybe?) because I dislike Best Of lists. I’m writing this specific post because I want to highlight one episode of Frontline. Other things struck me and surprised me this year. Do read on.
BEST THINGS I WATCHED THIS YEAR
FRONTLINE’S CHILDREN OF SYRIA
While the mainstream media has finally become aware of the horror, hardship, and atrocities happening in Aleppo, as they question why Westerners ignored Syria until this week (and, hey, mainstream media, don’t project your shortcomings on the general public; some of us have followed this story for years), as Assad’s forces and the Russians push the rebels out, Frontline broadcast a documentary made by Marcel Mettelsiefen in April 2016. One will not see the documentary make the multiple ‘Best Of’ lists of the most notable TV critics in the United States. It aired one Tuesday night. Newsweek was the lone outlet to publish an article about the documentary describing it as ‘deeply moving’. Christiane Amapour called it “extraordinary”. Children of Syria was the best thing I watched this year and maybe ever. It’s an immeasurably moving and touching documentary of one Syrian family, from Aleppo, the Kassmou famly, that struggled to live through the civil war and ISIS occupation (ISIS kidnapped the children’s father, and they never saw him again, except for Hala Kamil, the mother and his wife, who received a photo of his dead body, but she denied that it was him) as they leave Syria behind for a new life as refugees in a quiet, small German town.
The United Nations featured the documentary, its director, and the Kassmou family, at a special event for World Humanitarian Day in August. I wish that every American whose vote for Trump was motivated partially or primarily by fear of Syrian refugees would watch Children of Syria. We’re all the same. Our cultures and our religion have differences, but no one should be abandoned in a living hell and left to die because Americans have been led and brainwashed by fear-mongering politicians who would welcome another Kristallnacht before they offered Syrian, Iraqi, Somalian, and Yemeni refugees any measure of salvation, of rescue, of refuge.
The documentary features many stirring moments, including when Hala receives the photo of her husband, the eldest daughter becoming the teacher of her siblings, the eldest daughter’s momentary anxiety-ridden paralysis on her first day of school in Germany, the German students lovely welcoming of their new classmates, the son’s list of what he’ll miss about his home, his Syria, but no moment is more stirring to me than when one of the younger daughters says, “We love you Syria, forgive us” as their van turns a corner and out of the van window we see three small boys playing, or looking, around the rubble and the trash.
I think Children of Syria essential viewing. Frontline has produced a number of recent episodes about Syria, including an episode titled “Inside Assad’s Syria” in which we see Assad promote the country as if he hasn’t killed thousands and thousands of his own people. The scenes of Damascus, particularly, are surreal, or the areas of the country Assad has made for tourism. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the rise of ISIS, the fight against ISIS, and on December 27, they will air an episode titled “Exodus” about the reality of the global migration crisis.
Watch the episode https://vimeo.com/178249464 or on the PBS website.
The series concluded on Wednesday night. Critics have already christened it ‘The next Wire’ because few people watched the series. I most agree with Sarah D. Bunning’s opinion about the finale. It had the defect of Ray McKinnon being too aware that it was a finale and that he needed to satisfy an audience. The season had some wonderful stuff overall, and no scripted series came close to Rectify’s quality even if past seasons were stronger overall.
No, this post isn’t restricted to things released in 2016. It is about things I watched in 2016. I recently watched Room and thought it was masterful. In this era of overstuffed streaming shows, I liked the reminder given by Room that the silver screen still has something special to give.
I loved the film’s cinematography, especially the framing , composition, and natural lighting. I also marveled at The Revenant’s cinematography during a sickly day last month. The common thread between both movies? Natural lighting. Eggers and his D.P. Jarin Blaschke used an ARRI ALEXA to shoot the movie. Watching the movie returned me to my younger dreams of making gorgeous movies and TV. I wanted to make my own coming-of-age TV series for TheWB in the early 2000s. Nikki Reed had written and co-starred in Thirteen when she was 14, the same age as me, so I wondered why I couldn’t become a creator, show runner, lead writer, and director of my own coming-of-age TV show. Also, I wanted to act as director and cinematographer on my episodes. I had a fantasy of me drinking Orange Juice and arriving to set on a Monday morning and completely running the set with wonderful ease.
A fun note about The Witch, via an IndieWire article: Blaschke wanted to shoot on film, but logistics made that impossible. I’ve spent months researching digital cameras. He explained that he chose the Alexa because it’s the only digital camera he can stomach. I looked at the rental price for an Alexa on LensRental. No, I will not shoot the ocean or the wilderness with an Alexa anytime soon.
I never expected to like High Maintenance. It seemed like another one of those NYC/Brooklen set hipster half-hour comedies about flawed, directionless twentysomething hipsters. I watched the second episode first, randomly, late on a Friday night (It aired at 11). The first half of that episode followed a young Muslim woman who wants a normal college experience; the second half is set at a birthday party. I knew only that I never saw anything quite like High Maintenance before on TV as I watched that transfixing episode. The next week’s episode, “Grandpa”, was even better.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta was funny, bizarre, and similar to Louie in that it experimented weekly and did not care about any kind of ‘grounded reality’. The Tavis Smiley esque talk show episode was a highlight, as was the Justin Bieber episode.
I watched some of PBS’ Nature documentaries this year. “The Soul of the Elephant” and “The Thin Green Line” stood out to me. “The Soul of the Elephant” showed, among other aspects of their interesting lives, how elephants mourn the dead. “The Thin Green Line” showed how impactful modern society is on every creature, their ecosystems, and nature at large.
THE X FILES-“Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster”
The X Files revival was worth it for this Darin Morgan episode. Amazingly, the three episodes written and directed by Chris Carter were among the worst things I watched in 2016. Season 11 hasn't happened yet because of Carter's currently playing Matthew Modine playing Dr. Brenner on Netflix's Stranger Things.
BETTER CALL SAUL
Now that Rectify has ended, Better Call Saul becomes my favorite scripted show. I love the cinematography, the production design, the writing, and the acting. The writers and the entire crew haven’t made a bad episode yet.