Right now, looking back on 2016 is preferable to looking forward to 2017 -- and the First Year of Trump.
I had a pretty great 2016 – minus the election results. Here are a few of my favorite memories from a good year that ended badly:
BEST MOVIES: "FENCES" and "LA LA LAND" and "MOONLIGHT"
At the end of the year, I saw three movies that I really like. One I expected, one I sort-of expected, and one came from out of the blue.
FENCES is the filmed version of a great play, cast with famous actors. But that doesn't guarantee anything good: (cf. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY). But in this case, they got it right. Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and the rest of the cast that performed August Wilson's play on Broadway in 2010 have captured this great work of the theatre and made it into an emotionally involving, very watchable movie.
For a movie, FENCES is verbose. Only stage characters talk this much. But it would have been crazy to change August Wilson's magnificent play. I think they just trimmed it a little. (Wilson wrote the screenplay, but he died in 2005, and Tony Kushner gets a co-producing credit on the film. I imagine that Kushner helped Denzel with the final shooting script.)
Wilson wrote beautiful dialogue for the stage, and his actors run with it. Denzel as Troy Maxon, the baseball player who was born too early for the major leagues and is now a garbage collector, has many great moments in this movie. The part of Troy has been called, quite rightfully I think, the black Willy Loman, and Denzel is a great Troy.
Obviously, one thing that makes this movie so good – besides the brilliance of the writing – is that Denzel, Viola Davis, and most of the cast performed the play 114 times on Broadway, and they are completely grooved into their characters. Both Denzel and Viola Davis won Tonys, and you see why. These are deep, detailed, committed performances the likes of which you seldom see in a movie. I'm glad they were preserved for posterity. I was first amazed by the beautiful acting of Viola Davis in Lynn Nottage's wonderful play "Intimate Apparel" at the Mark Taper in LA in 2005. And I've admired Denzel since "St. Elsewhere," not to mention "Glory" and "Philadelphia," two movies the TG worked on. These are two of the best living actors.
Unfortunately I didn't see the legendary original 1983 production of FENCES with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice, but I did see an excellent staging of this wonderful, wounding play in 2006 with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett at our nearby Pasadena Playhouse. (I thought that one was going to Broadway.) It was so good that I saw it twice. Once alone, when the TG was out of town, and once with her, because I thought that she should see it.
This is a great play, now part of the American canon as August Wilson's most accessible play of his ten-play "Pittsburgh Cycle." And now it's been properly filmed.
FENCES – Trailer #1
FENCES – Trailer #2
Two versions of a great scene – James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington – "How come you ain't never liked me?"
Denzel and Viola – "What about my life?" – two magnificent actors
Denzel and Viola – on "Good Morning America"
Denzel – talks to "The Hollywood Reporter"
LA LA LAND
I was a big fan of WHIPLASH, Damien Chazelle's first movie, so I expected something good from him the next time around, but nothing like this absolute charmer. I had some problems with LA LA LAND. I wish the songs were better (the score isn't anywhere near as good as the obvious avatar, Jacques Demy's THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG), but all that doesn't really matter. This movie has such heart and passion and humor and love on multiple levels -- love of romance, love of movie musicals, love of singing and dancing, love of living your dreams, love of the magic of Los Angeles – that it quite sweeps you away.
You can carp that Emma Stone isn't really a singer in the way that movie stars in the Golden Age of movie musicals could sing. And her dancing with Ryan Gosling is "clunky" compared to the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse numbers that the movie homages. But Stone is so winning and is such a convincing actress that her singing, just as it is, is more than good enough.
There are many high points in this movie: the already famous beginning production number on the ramp from the 105 Freeway East to the 110 Freeway North (the same ramp that Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock jumped over with their bus in SPEED) ... brilliant use of "Rebel Without A Cause" and the Observatory in Griffith Park ... and an ending sequence that borders on genius. Really. No spoilers.
I want to see this movie again, if just for the ending.
I grew up on musicals, love them, and still listen to them. (How good is HAMILTON?)
LA LA LAND not perfect, but perfect doesn't really matter. It does what all great musicals do: it lifts the heart, as only a great musical can.
LA LA LAND -- trailer
LA LA LAND – "Dreamers" Trailer
LA LA LAND – "City of Stars" – Ryan Gosling sings and hoofs
LA LA LAND – Emma and Ryan make good, old-fashioned movie magic in the Hollywood Hills in "Lovely Night Dance"
MOONLIGHT comes as a surprise. It's a classic indie that comes out of nowhere to find a wide, adoring audience.
MOONLIGHT was made by and cast with people totally unknown to me (except for R&B singer Janelle Monae, whom I only know as a name), yet it hit me with an emotional force similar to the much more famous FENCES.
In comparison with FENCES, the screenplay of MOONLIGHT is terse. Nonetheless, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins has created a movie that probes the human heart with sensitivity and compassion. The structure of the movie – using three actors to play a character named Chiron at three different stages of his life: child, teen, and young adult – pays off for the audience better than I thought it would. It gives this little film an almost novelistic depth as you see the big arc of a person's life unfold.
The acting is superb, especially from Mahershala Ali, who plays Juan, a crack dealer who mentors the young Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron. Cambridge-educated Naomie Harris who plays Paula, Chiron's drug-addicted mother, is probably going to get an Oscar nomination for three days of actual filming, fit into the publicity tour she was on for SPECTRE, the James Bond movie in which she played Miss Moneypenny.
I want to see this movie again. I have a strong feeling that it will be even better a second time.
"MOONLIGHT" – the movie's website
"MOONLIGHT" – Trailer #1
"MOONLIGHT" – Trailer #2
A scene from "MOONLIGHT" – with Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris
Another scene with Mahershala Ali
BEST STAGE PERFORMANCE: ANTONY SHER in "KING LEAR" and SHERIDAN SMITH in 'FUNNY GIRL (tie)
Here was another case of expected and unexpected pleasures
I fully expected Sir Antony Sher, coming off a highly lauded Falstaff, to be a great Lear in Stratford-on-Avon, but I didn't even know who Sheridan Smith was when the TG and I saw her in London in a part that is completely defined by Barbra Streisand.
I blogged about these two performances before --
-- so click on this for more detail.
Both performances still resonate in my mind. The more times I see "King Lear," the deeper my appreciation grows. I have the Peter Brook/Paul Scofield movie on my bedroom DVR. I wish I were back in London seeing the reportedly brilliant Lear of Glenda Jackson.
And I really didn't think I'd even like "Funny Girl" that much after all these years. Not only was it a pretty good musical, but it introduced me to the wonderful Ms. Smith, a complete surprise.
Sir Antony and Sheridan Smith showed me that there are many ways to play a part. No one interpretation is the final word.
SIR ANTONY SHER
His KING LEAR
Cuts from the London Cast album – Sheridan Smith can't sing like Barbra, but she can act rings around her.
Sheridan as Cilla Black in a 2014 TV movie singing a killer "Anyone Who Had a Heart"
BEST TV: "THE CROWN"
I have a hard time keeping up with all the great or supposedly great TV series out there, but I did watch Netflix' "THE CROWN" and enjoyed it as much as anything on the tube this year that wasn't the World Series.
With consistent, intelligent writing from Peter Morgan and the most sumptuous production design since "Downtown Abbey," it was good viewing on several satisfying levels. The TG and I took a tour of Buckingham Palace when we were in London, and "The Crown" makes it look like they used the real locations.
The acting is of a very high standard, with a host of actors I love from their previous work. Claire Foy as Elizabeth anchors the whole series. She was wonderful as Anne Boleyn in "Wolf Hall," so it seems she has this "queen" thing down pat. She's going to be doing this part for the next few years, that's for certain. The plan is to do one season for each decade of the Elizabeth's reign.
The rest of the cast – John Lithgow in an award-bait performance as Churchill, Ben Miles whom I saw in "Wolf Hall" on Broadway, and the great Eileen Atkins – is uniformly excellent. The first few episodes are stolen by Jared Harris (he of "Mad Men," son of Richard Harris) as Elizabeth's father, stuttering King George VI. Harris stands apart from the shadow of Colin Firth's great performance of the same character in "The King's Speech" and creates an indelible figure.
There are problems but they are mainly omissions: lots of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and nothing about their Nazi sympathies? Scenes in Kenya and nothing about the Mau Mau Rebellion. It's very much a celebrity's story of triumph. Even though Elizabeth is born a princess and becomes a queen, she is still an "underdog" in the series. Plain. Under-educated. Ill-prepared for her job. A young woman in an old man's world (she gains the throne at the age of only 25). Her father's second favorite daughter. But Claire Foy makes you root for her even though she is the richest, most famous woman in the world and, at least theoretically, "has everything."
I'll need comfort viewing for the next few years, so I look forward to the next seasons of "The Crown" as they go decade by decade, telling Elizabeth's story.
"THE CROWN" – Trailer for Season 1
John Lithgow and Claire Foy on "CBS This Morning" – see how attractive the real Claire Foy is
The Coronation of Elizabeth II
BEST CLASSICAL PERFORMANCE: STEPHEN HOUGH playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall
The TG and I saw quite a few concerts this year, but this one stands out. Before this concert, I had never really known Stephen Hough, one of the most talented people on the planet. But now I do.
Hough's all-around brilliance as pianist, composer, essayist, poet, painter, teacher, and the first classical performing artist to win a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, cannot be denied. He's a modern day wonder.
I blogged about this concert before – http://peterseth.com/blog/197-three-living-musicians.html – so click on this for the full details.
Since the concert, I've been listening to the meagre Stephen Hough choices on Deezer, one of the music services I use. There are a few goodies I go back to. His "Piano Album" and others.
Check out his delightful piano transcriptions of some Richard Rodgers classics:
"My Favorite Things"
"March of the Siamese Children"
Stephen Hough playing Rameau – from "Live at Lincoln Center" – like Glenn Gould playing Bach -- really
Stephen Hough – Chopin Piano Concerto No.1 – Edo de Waart conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Stephen Hough – Rachmaninov – Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Stephen Hough – on the practice of practicing – lots of wisdom for non-musicians
Stephen Hough – on Chopin and Debussy
Hough is now part of my regular listening. I customized my "Martha Argerich" Pandora station to include more Stephen Hough. Pretty easy. Maybe too easy.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: KEITH JARRETT at the Walt Disney Concert Hall
I blogged about this concert, and what a frustrating night it was.
Even before Jarrett sat down, some idiot snapped TWO pictures of him, essentially ruining the concert for us all. Jarrett is notoriously prickly about things like that.
Here is his famous tirade at the Umbria Jazz Festival in July, 2007
It became so well-known in jazz circles that it was set to music by The Industrial Jazz Group
Fortunately, there is a lot of first-class Keith Jarrett out there –
"I Loves You, Porgy" – live in Japan – absolute magic
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" – live in Japan -- ditto
"Summertime" – his up-tempo version
"Danny Boy" – just beautiful
and prickly Keith's speech the NEA Jazz Masters Awards in 2014
Actually, the biggest disappointment of 2016 was – hands down – the result of the presidential election.
And the catastrophes have not yet begun.
But people are contemplating action: here is a link to INDIVISIBLE: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda