Big Ten

If alphabetical order, here are ten of my favorite movies of 2018:

BLACKKKLANSMAN

Spike Lee’s wildly (and disturbingly) entertaining portrayal of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who, with the help of a Jewish colleague, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and lived to tell the tale.  What Stallworth found, it turned out, was a gang of rowdy, bloodthirsty dimwits who could be fooled into believing anything so long as it was preceded by refrains like “White power!” or “America first!”  Any resemblance to current events is purely non-coincidental.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

By now, it should not be breaking news that Melissa McCarthy is a first-rate actress.  (That Sean Spicer imitation didn’t happen by accident.)  However, in case there was any residual doubt that McCarthy can do pretty much anything, as Exhibit A I offer her work here, playing a New York alcoholic who commits widespread literary fraud in order to pay her rent and feed her cat, eventually drawing the attention of the FBI.  I’d hasten to add that it’s all based on a true story, but if you know anything at all about New Yorkers, you probably figured that out already.

THE DEATH OF STALIN

If you’ve ever wondered what Veep would be like if it took place inside the Soviet Union in the 1950s, wonder no more!  Directed by Armando Iannucci—yes, the very man who created the funniest show on television—this ridiculous political farce about the jockeying for power among Kremlin bureaucrats following the demise of Uncle Joe undoubtedly carries a greater ring of truth than the official record might suggest.  Accurate or not, its cast of characters provide more demented laughs than any rogues gallery this side of the Trump White House.

THE FAVOURITE

Speaking of demented, here was a similarly-pitched historical rivalry committed ever-so-exaggeratedly to celluloid.  In this case, the competition unfolds at the throne of England’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century, and involves an All About Eve-esque usurpation of one loyal servant by another, both of whom vie for the queen’s affections with steadily-escalating, um, fervor.  The queen is played by Olivia Colman, her two suitresses by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.  The latter’s suggestion, “Let’s go shoot something!” is possibly the finest line reading in any movie this year.

FREE SOLO

Rarely am I driven to a movie theater by a New York Times opinion column, but after reading Bret Stephens’ beaming reaction to this documentary about 33-year-old rock climber Alex Honnold, I needed to know what all the fuss was about.  I understood quickly enough:  In 2017, after months of preparation, Honnold attempted to become the first person in history to ascend the 3,000-foot-tall face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope or harness—a suicide mission if ever there was one.  As Stephens wrote in his column, “In a world of B.S. artists—and in a country led by one—Honnold is modeling something else, a kind of radical truthfulness.  Either he’s going to get it exactly right, or he’s going to die.”

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

If the idea of the director of Moonlight adapting a novel by James Baldwin doesn’t get you racing to the nearest art house, I don’t know what more I can do for you.  Having made the best movie of 2016, Barry Jenkins could scarcely have chosen a richer source for a follow-up than Baldwin’s 1974 novel about love and racism in New York that, like much of Baldwin’s work, doesn’t seem to have aged a day.  That’s to say nothing of the divine lead performances by KiKi Layne and Stephan James and the gorgeous art direction, set design and musical score, the likes of which we haven’t seen since, well, Moonlight.

LEAVE NO TRACE

If a man raises his daughter right—teaching her important values, reading her fine books, feeding her healthy food—is it any business of the state that he does it in a tent in the woods somewhere in rural Oregon?  That’s the question this movie poses—in a blessedly non-political manner—and it’s to director Debra Granik’s great credit that it provides absolutely no answer.  All it offers is truth, realism and a group of people who are all doing the best they can under the circumstances.  Isn’t that what a movie is for?

ROMA

You don’t hear the word “Felliniesque” bandied about much nowadays—particularly not about a Mexican director best known for the third Harry Potter film and for launching Sandra Bullock into space.  Yet there is no more succinct way to describe Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma—a semi-autobiographical depiction of Cuarón’s childhood from the viewpoint of his nanny—than to observe how much it resembles—tonally and visually—much of the best work of Italy’s most famous auteur.  If Beale Street luxuriates in the most lavish possibilities of color film, Roma does the same for black and white.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Who would’ve guessed that Black Panther would only be 2018’s second-best comic book blockbuster with an African-American protagonist?  While I shan’t say a word against Ryan Coogler’s groundbreaking, socially-conscious cultural behemoth, this animated Spider-Man spinoff nonetheless wins the superhero sweepstakes in my mind by the sheer force of its charm, its wit and—most pleasantly surprising of all—its acute understanding of the awkwardness of being the new kid in school just as puberty is beginning to kick in.  (See Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which just missed my list, for the female version of this.)

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

I’m generally skeptical about turning human beings into saints, but if Fred Rogers wasn’t a saint, I don’t know who is.  In an age when we are (justifiably) jittery about leaving small children alone with kindly-seeming men of the cloth, here was a Presbyterian minister with a children’s TV show who proved to be exactly as gentle and trustworthy as he appeared—perhaps even more so—and who, as David McCullough once argued, probably had a greater educational impact on young people than any human being in the 20th century.

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Vice

To impeach, or not to impeach?  That, apparently, is the question.

As Democrats prepare to assume power in the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010 (if the government ever reopens, that is), they will immediately be faced with the prospect of formally censuring Donald Trump for the various high crimes and misdemeanors he has rather thunderously committed both before and during his disgraceful presidency.

As the precise nature and extent of those transgressions come ever-more-clearly into focus, the 60-odd percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s job performance should ask themselves the following:  Should Trump be impeached?  If so, when?  And if he is actually removed from office, will the whole miserable ordeal have been worth it?

The correct answers, by the way, are “probably, “not yet,” and “you bet your sweet bippy.”

Before we go any further, let us acknowledge that no discussion on this subject is complete without the immortal observation in 1970 by then-Congressman Gerald Ford that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that a term like “high crimes and misdemeanors” has any inherent, consistent meaning beyond “something a president really, really shouldn’t do.”  As any constitutional scholar will tell you, impeaching a high-ranking official is more of a political act than a legal one.  Because “impeachable offense” is such a broad and vaguely-defined term (as the Founders intended), the argument about whether a particular president has committed a particular offense is bound to be exactly that:  an argument.

Accordingly, the only meaningful circumstance under which to indict Donald Trump with a bill of particulars—let alone evict him from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—is when a wide cross-section of Congress and the American public—left, right and center—agrees that such charges are warranted and legitimate, and not merely the product of a partisan witch hunt (to coin a phrase).

It’s not enough to say, for instance, “Donald Trump paid a stripper $130,000 to conceal an extramarital affair; therefore, he deserves to be removed from office.”  Plainly, the history of the presidency would suggest otherwise.  More to the point, in November 2016 a hefty minority of American voters knew full well what kind of man Trump was (see “Access Hollywood, tape of”) and voted for him anyway.  Are we really going to overturn the results of a presidential election because the winner turned out to be slightly more of a scumbag than we understand at the time?

To my mind, the stronger case for getting rid of Trump pre-2020 concerns his various (and apparently ongoing) financial entanglements with certain foreign powers and his bottomless obfuscations of the same—a scenario that, if it’s as bad as it looks, would suggest the commander-in-chief, for purely selfish reasons, is not always acting in the best interests of the United States.  There’s a word for that, and it rhymes with “sneezin’.”

The problem is, the science is not yet in on whether Trump is guilty of any of the above, let alone of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election and/or attempting to obstruct the investigation thereof.  Robert Mueller has spent 19 months carefully and methodically trying to get to the bottom of this web of lies and intrigue, and it would seem common courtesy to let him see it through to the end before jumping to any conclusions—yes, even ones that seem perfectly obvious to the untrained eye.

Why is that, ladies and gentlemen?  Because unless the case for impeaching—and convicting—President Trump is absolutely rock-solid and airtight—such that a chunk of Republican senators are all-but-forced to vote with their Democratic counterparts—Trump will still be president at the end of the process, and presumably more bitter, more vengeful and more uncompromising toward his perceived enemies than he already is today.  If Trump views himself as above the law now, just imagine how he’ll behave following a Senate trial that finds him not guilty of all charges.

To quote Omar in The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

That leaves my third question:  Would a successful impeachment be worth it?  That is, would Mike Pence be an improvement over Trump in the Oval Office?

Sorry, liberals, but the answer is yes.

However I might have felt about the vice president on January 20, 2017—with respect to his puritanical views about women and gays in particular and his pathological dishonesty in general—what the last two years have taught me, beyond all doubt, is that the devil you know is preferable to the devil who doesn’t believe in democratic institutions and hate-tweets at 3 o’clock in the morning.

To a left-winger like me, Pence may well be the devil—über-conservative, ultra-religious and utterly shameless in his pursuit of raw power—but he also possesses the gifts of silence, self-control and subtlety, which would amount to a necessary and welcome balm on the national psyche in a post-Trump America.  As with the aforementioned Gerald Ford in 1974, a President Pence would represent such a profound temperamental shift at the top of the executive branch that we just might forget this whole Trump thing ever happened, and collectively return to a pre-2016 mindset whereby we don’t wake up every morning in a cold sweat, wondering what unholy mess the president will get us into today.

Mike Pence is no statesman, but he can play one on TV.  He may be a religious fanatic, but at least he worships a god who isn’t himself.  He may have an antiquated view of the female sex, but at least he only sleeps with one woman at a time (at most).  He may share Trump’s contemptuous attitude toward America’s counterparts on the world stage, but there’s little chance he will upend a half-century of foreign policy without so much as a heads-up to our allies and our own department of defense.

This may seem cold comfort to those who wish all presidents could be as competent and classy as, say, our most recent previous one, but we mustn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.  That, in so many words, is what got us here in the first place.

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Et Tu, Neil?

I could’ve gone my entire life without knowing Neil deGrasse Tyson has been accused of committing rape in the early 1980s, and of other sexual improprieties in the years since.  There are few public figures in America whom I hold in higher esteem or affection than the director of the Hayden Planetarium and astrophysicist extraordinaire, so the possibility that he is a sexual predator is almost too much to bear.  Indeed, when I first heard the disconcerting stories a few weeks ago, my instinct was to assume they weren’t true—based not on the evidence, mind you, as on the fact that a world in which Neil deGrasse Tyson is a bad person is one not entirely worth living in.

I exaggerate, but only just.  The fact is, supporting #MeToo is easy when it comes to obvious scumbags like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump.  But when the alleged offender is someone you always assumed was one of the good guys—in this case, the guy who taught you almost everything you know about astrophysics, and always with an enthusiasm you wish you’d encountered more in high school—well, that’s when the hemming and hawing begins.

Briefly—and in reverse chronological order—the charges against Tyson are as follows:  First, that earlier this year he made unwanted sexual advances toward an assistant in his apartment.  Second, that in 2010 he made similar—in this case, drunken—advances toward a different woman at a Christmas party.  Third, that in 2009 he reached under a different woman’s dress during a social event at a science conference, ostensibly in search of a tattoo of the planet Pluto.  And forth, that in 1984, he drugged and raped a classmate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a graduate student at the time.

Tyson has denied the rape charge—as one does—writing in a lengthy Facebook post that he and his accuser had been “intimate” on a few occasions and then went their separate ways, and that nothing even approaching sexual assault ever occurred.  No surprise there—in the absence of direct physical evidence, no man so accused would comport himself any differently.

More interesting was Tyson’s response to the more recent charges, which was to confirm that they’re true—albeit with qualifiers and clarifications.  He affirmed, for example, that one evening he hosted an assistant for wine and cheese at his apartment, at one point telling her, “If I hug you, I might just want more,” and that shortly thereafter, the woman “came into my office and told me she was creeped out” by the encounter and “viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her.”

As to the reaching-under-the-dress incident, Tyson explained that he was admiring a tattoo of the solar system across the arm of the woman in question, which led to “a search under the covered part of her shoulder of [her] sleeveless dress.”  Tyson continued, “While I don’t explicitly remember searching for Pluto at the top of her shoulder, it is surely something I would have done in that situation.  As we all know, I have professional history with the demotion of Pluto, which had occurred officially just three years earlier.  So whether people include it or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me.”

I don’t know about you, but to me this explanation makes absolutely perfect sense.  Having followed Tyson’s career for many years, I find it utterly believable that he would become so giddy over a colleague’s planetary tattoos that he would inadvertently grope her arm just to get a closer look—presumably while launching into an impromptu lecture about, say, the moons of Saturn or the Mars rover.  That’s who Neil deGrasse Tyson is:  A born showman and educator with a childlike infatuation with all things astrophysics.

Of course, this by itself neither substitutes for nor excuses a grown-up infatuation with human flesh, and if a woman claims to have been made uncomfortable by this encounter, it’s not my place to tell her she wasn’t.  Unwanted physical contact is exactly that—unwanted—and being a world-renowned public intellectual does not exempt one from behaving responsibly at all times—not least because of the inherent power differential that comes with the fame and fortune that Tyson has long enjoyed.

To a degree, Tyson has assumed responsibility for the incidents I’ve just described, writing that he apologized profusely” to his assistant the moment she informed him of her concerns, and that, with regards to the woman with the tattoo, “I’m deeply sorry to have made her feel that way.  Had I been told of her discomfort in the moment, I would have offered this same apology eagerly, and on the spot.”

Perhaps more to the point, Tyson has copped to the morally suspect position in which he now finds himself, writing, “I’m the accused, so why believe anything I say?  Why believe me at all?  That brings us back to the value of an independent investigation, which FOX/NatGeo (the networks on which Cosmos and StarTalk air) announced that they will conduct.  I welcome this.”

I don’t doubt it.  Would that more of the men ensnarled by #MeToo possessed the self-awareness and restraint to get out of their own way in this fashion—rather than, say, immediately painting themselves as the true victims and their accusers as lying opportunists and/or deranged stalkers.

As accused sexual predators go, Tyson has carried himself about as well as could reasonably be expected.  Should the pending investigation find the worst allegations unfoundedand the lesser ones as mere misunderstandingsI would feel entirely comfortable resuming my full-bore fandom of his work.

And should the rape allegation prove credible, and the accuser worth believing?  Well, we’ll always have Cosmos.

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