6 Favorite Books, Movies And TV Shows Critic John Powers Didn't Review Every year, Fresh Air critic John Powers is haunted by all the terrific things he didn't get a chance to talk about on air. As 2016 winds down, he "un-haunts" himself with these six recommendations.
NPR logo

A Critic's Year-End 'Ghost File': Books, Movies And TV Shows He Didn't Review

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/505402219/505579839" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Critic's Year-End 'Ghost File': Books, Movies And TV Shows He Didn't Review


Arts & Life

A Critic's Year-End 'Ghost File': Books, Movies And TV Shows He Didn't Review

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/505402219/505579839" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says there are so many interesting movies, shows and books these days he just doesn't get around to talking about them all. Now that 2016's ending, he wants to tell you about some things he loved this year but didn't get around to reviewing. Here's John.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's the great pleasure of my work that I get to spend my days watching and reading. It's the great frustration that every year I'm haunted by all the terrific things I haven't talked about on FRESH AIR. I call this collection of things my ghost file. And as 2016 comes to an end, I want to unhaunt myself by sharing six of my favorite ghosts. They range from the cosmic to the comic.

Filmmaking doesn't come much more cosmically ambitious than Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1989 "Dekalog," one of the towering cinematic achievements of the last half-century which was finally released on DVD and Blu-ray. Each of its 10-hour-long films takes place in an unlovely Polish housing block and tells a story that offers a modern look at one of the Ten Commandments. For instance, "Thou Shalt Not Have Other Gods Before Me" centers on a man who worships science then must confront personal tragedy in a world he believes to be godless. Brilliantly made and often shattering, Kieslowski's masterwork is about nothing less than the nature of morality and the human soul.

The spiritual stakes are equally high in "The Vegetarian" by the South Korean novelist Han Kang. It tells the mesmerizing story of Yeong-hye, a seemingly ordinary housewife who, after a disturbing dream, decides to quit eating meat. This decision sounds simple enough, but it unleashes crazy consequences in every direction - shattering her family, offending the patriarchy, inspiring an erotic film and driving Yeong-hye to seek to transcend her own flesh and blood body. When I tried to review "The Vegetarian" back in January, this unsettling fever dream of a novel was so simple and yet so surreal I couldn't figure out how to do it justice without spoiling it. Since then, Kang and her book went on to win the Man Booker International Prize - and rightly so. This is one novel you won't forget.

You find an alienated heroine of a very different sort in "Fleabag," a salaciously funny, strangely touching British TV series available on Amazon. Written by and starring the lanky, lovely Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show centers on a wisecracking cafe owner called Fleabag who struggles with being young and single in London. Fleabag's messy life includes her floundering business, her headlong bed-hopping, her Machiavellian stepmother, her hyper-successful sister and, making things even trickier, her own desire to be a good feminist. Here, late in a miserable night, the despondent Fleabag bangs on the front door of her father, an emotionally distant man played by Bill Paterson.


PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) All right, dad?

BILL PATERSON: (As Dad) What's going on?

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Oh, I'm obviously fine.


WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) I just...

PATERSON: (As Dad) Yeah?

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Oh, it's nothing. It doesn't - it's...

PATERSON: (As Dad) You know, it's nearly 2 o' clock in the morning.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) OK. Yeah, OK. I want to - I'm going to - I have a horrible feeling that I'm a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist.

POWERS: Spiky and smart, "Fleabag" works cultural terrain first staked out by Lena Dunham's "Girls." But Waller-Bridge takes the conflicting pressures of modern womanhood in her direction all her own.

So does "Search Party" from TBS, which is one of the year's best new shows. It stars "Arrested Development's" wonderful, curly-haired Alia Shawkat as Dory, a dazed post-collegiate Brooklynite with a lousy job, vacuously self-absorbed friends and a boyfriend so annoying you want to clobber him. Likable but lost, Dory doesn't know what she wants. But when she spots a poster about a college classmate who's gone missing, she grows obsessed with finding her, although it's pretty clear she's actually searching for herself. Even as it sympathetically follows Dory's quest, the show offers a funny, bracingly nasty portrait of our narcissistic culture in which direct human feeling is replaced by snark, social media and iPhone photos of strangers fighting on the street.

Still, "Fleabag" and "Search Party" seem benign compared to the addictive mystery and suspense novels of Margaret Millar, who died in 1994. Nine of her best books are included in the first two volumes of "Collected Millar" from the Soho Syndicate, and boy is she good. Millar's mysteries are filled with clever twists, yet what makes them special is her surgical approach to her characters' inner lives. She's got an eagle eye for the juicy stuff lots of mystery writers still ignore - questions of class, status, sexual desire and the difficult position of women. This last was something she knew about first hand. Millar's work was long overshadowed by that of her husband, detective novelist Ross MacDonald. In fact, her best novels, like 1955's "Beast In View," have a ferocious edge that make him look rather tame.

After so much darkness and alienation, I'm delighted to end by talking about "Aquarius," the life-affirming new film by the superb Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho that's currently playing around the country. Brazil's legendary Sonia Braga plays Clara, a widowed music writer who's the last remaining resident of a gorgeous old apartment building along the beach. A racist young real estate guy wants to replace it with a bigger one, but Clara refuses to sell. "Aquarius" is a movie about history and politics and how we deal with passing time.

What brings it alive is Clara, who, in Braga's deeply lived-in performance, becomes something miraculous in today's movies - a woman in her mid-60s who's portrayed in all her rich, complicated fullness. We see her go out to clubs with her girlfriends, admit her maternal failings to her grownup kids, drink wine and dance in her living room, make love with a handsome young boy toy, and fight the money men and politicos who want to chase her from her home. "Aquarius" may conclude my ghost file, but Clara is anything but a ghost. She's the most alive person in a movie positively brimming with life.

DAVIES: John Powers is TV and film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. You can find his ghost file for 2016 on our website, freshair.npr.org.

In 2011, the CDC declared a prescription drug epidemic, the result of doctors overprescribing painkillers to patients. On tomorrow's show, we talk with Dr. Anna Lembke about her new book, "Drug Dealer, MD." It's about how well-meaning doctors can prescribe pills that kill their patients and how patients can become addicted to pills meant to save their lives. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Roberta Shorrock is our senior producer. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.