Holiday Screen Guide

Welcome to the 5th Annual Last Word On Nothing Holiday Screen Guide, where people of LWON share their TV and movie recommendations for those cozy winter hours warmed by the flicker of the computer screen.

Jenny: Have I raved before about The Great British Baking Show? Well, anyway, I’m chuffed that Netflix has put up lots of new episodes including a warm and gingery Xmas twofer. Who would have thought watching other people bake without throwing food at each other would be entertaining, especially when you can’t smell or taste the final products? But I love joining these ridiculously polite, often-goofy Brits in a warm tent as they whip up puds that in some cases don’t even appeal to me–go figure. The comedian hosts are perfectly silly, and even the “mean” judge is really a kind soul. (Why isn’t he fatter, though? Unless he’s spitting off screen, the man should be ginormous.) While they all fuss over stodgy sponges and soggy bottoms, I slide into my cuppa and dream of sweeties.

Meanwhile, I’ve only just begun another food-related show–Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat–but I already love it. The host is a real human being whose travels/tastings are like the best classes you took in college.

And finally, if TGBBS is just too damn cheerful for you, watch Wallander and see Kenneth Branagh do his serious-acting thing. The hour-long stories are heavy life-and-death stuff (he’s a loner cop in Sweden investigating the ugliest homicides), but each is beautifully done, really as much about his own slog through life as about the criminals. (I recommend alternating with episodes of TGBBS, or old Bugs Bunny episodes, to avoid entering a slow-drip depression.)

Helen: I don’t see many movies in the theater, but I went to see Free Solo, a documentary about a guy climbing a very, very large rock in Yosemite Valley without equipment. It is beautiful and gripping and (spoiler) I knew the guy survived – he’s still alive – and it was still incredibly stressful to watch. If you can’t find it in a theater, find the filmmakers’ earlier effort, Meru, streaming on Amazon.

Sally: That reminds me of my experience of watching Man on Wire! If you want to have a “I know he survives but I’m still watching this behind closed fingers” double feature, put these two back-to-back, and voila! – the lazy person’s holiday stand-in for a trip to the gym.

Richard: The primary TV obsession in my household for the past several months has been the BBC quiz show Only Connect. As its title suggests, the content is brainy (the Forster reference) and the form is lateral thinking puzzles. My favorite puzzle so far: What connects these four words? First clue: Bach. [Hmm. Music. Classical.] Second clue: Arias. [Definitely classical music. Opera. Bach operas—not a personal area of expertise, alas.] Third clue: Mills. [Wait—maybe not Bach operas. Or operas. Or classical music. Or music.] Fourth clue: Ono. [So…music after all? Or something else altogether? Or…just put me out of my misery!] Answer: The surnames of the Beatles’ second wives. The production values are minimal—a running joke for presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell, a witty writer in her own right—and the connections are often impossible for non-UK audiences—consecutive stops on the London underground Bakerloo line, for instance. But those seeming disincentives are no match for the cathartic sound of synapses snapping, whether the contestants’ or your own–and at 14 seasons and 283 episodes, you may find yourself bingeing on it well into 2020.

Jessa: Particularly for the Americans in our readership, the documentary Active Measures is an essential guide to what the Russians have done to your democracy. I don’t pretend to know how you get out of this one, but presumably it starts with a clear understanding of where you are.

Something lighter, but not as vapid as it appears in trailers, is a film known alternately as Tea with the Dames and Nothing Like a Dame, where Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright compare notes on their experiences with Laurence Olivier and generally reminisce on their careers. I recommend it for its insight into film history and how traces of their era persist in today’s TV world.

Christie: A friend of mine from Wyoming recently recommended Wind River (streaming on Netflix), saying that it was perhaps the only movie she’d seen that offered an accurate portrayal of her home state. It paints a bleak picture. The opening credits say that the film was inspired by true events, and the story follows an FBI agent from Las Vegas and a wildlife tracker from Wyoming Game and Fish as they attempt to solve the murder of a young Native American woman, found barefoot and dead in a remote, snowy field. It’s an imperfect work, with a couple of ridiculous and unnecessary shoot ‘em up scenes, but it is also the rare film that explores male grief, and the problems facing residents of Wind River, Wyoming’s American Indian reservation. The particulars of this story are borne out in official statistics — rates of sexual assault and rape are 2.5 times  higher for Native Americans than for other ethnic groups, and most of the perpetrators are white. The film ends with subtitles informing viewers that no official records are kept of how many Native American women who go missing each year, and I do wish that these missing women had been more present in this film. Still, it’s worth watching. It’s not an uplifting story, but it’s an important one.

Cassandra:I’d like to second Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a travel/food series based on the cookbook of the same name. The host, Samin Nosrat, is charming AF without even trying. Her curiosity and interest are genuine. There’s not even a whiff of artifice. And she will eat anything. Really anything. (I can’t decide if I want to be Nosrat and or just befriend her.) Each hour-long episode takes you to a different country to explore one of the four keys to good cooking. Salt, for example, has her digging up pots of old miso in Japan. Fat shows her nibbling a thin ribbon of pig fat in Italy. You get the idea.

And I’m sure someone has already recommended The Good Place, but I’ll re-recommend it. I watched a couple of episodes when it first came out and thought, “Hmm. Cute.” And then I didn’t watch it again for a long time. And then my husband got me hooked and we binged like two whole seasons. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s about all I can manage in 2018. (I see last year I recommended Homeland. Now the mere idea of watching Homeland makes my heart race and my palms sweat. So stressful!)

Sally: I was going to recommend The Good Place too! You’ve done it better than I did. I have read several reviews that suggest this is a show that can actually teach people how to live morally and ethically. Given that we seemingly live in a civic vacuum right now, that may explain why the show feels so necessary and soul-feeding, and all that moral fibre doesn’t even come at the expense of entertainment. I have loved Kristen Bell since Veronica Mars, and she continues to own my heart. By the way, revisiting Veronica Mars would be an EXCELLENT use of anyone’s holiday time.

Helen: Another vote for The Good Place. There are only 25 episodes on Netflix streaming. I have seen all of them at least three times and I am not done rewatching.

Ann:  So I don’t like The Good Place.  Helen was recommending it and I always do what Helen says and to my surprise, I thought the acting was cutesy, the characters were uninteresting, the setting gave me the creeps the way malls give me the creeps, and the story wasn’t going anywhere.  But I’m sure that somehow I’m wrong because if Cassie AND Helen AND Sally like it, I have to be wrong.

Sally: How many episodes did you watch? Because I had the same reaction after the first two, but pushed through on the strength of the NYT review – and then I couldn’t stop.

Christie: Ann, I was also on your side, and asked one of the people who’d recommended it whether it was worth continuing, based on what I thought of the first half of the first season. He said yes, and I think he’s right. I mean, if you really hate it, stop watching. Life’s too short. But it gets a little more interesting at the end of season one and by then you may have grown fond of the characters, who gain some more depth as the show progresses. Also, I’ll admit to having a soft spot in my heart for a tv show that takes on philosophy.

Ann:  Add in Christie, and I’m 100 percent completely and entirely likely to be wrong.  But I do so hate bad American acting.  Maybe if I just start at the end of the first season?

Meanwhile, every single one of you, have a wonderful holiday and a splendiferous new year.

Still looking for inspiration? Do some further digging in our previous years’ recommendations (2017, 2016, 2015, 2014)

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