It’s been a depressing year for film criticism. More publications shuttered; more giants in the field lost paid opportunities to write; more outlets cut back on serious, thoughtful discussion of the arts in favor of rushed, facile coverage of whatever’s trending that week.
We, all of us, have to adapt or die. So I’ve done my best to adapt.
Rather than restrict myself to the same kinds of dwindling chance to just write 600-word movie and TV reviews, I’ve tried to forge new pathways in 2018. I developed new contacts, polished off a different set of skills, and tried to develop my voice beyond arts writing. I’ve appeared on the radio, embarked on a reporting fellowship, found a new social media audience, written new kinds of features with cross-coastal and international bylines, and developed new analytics tools for media organizations. I’ve tried to make myself a multi-hyphenate, because I’m not confident I could survive as a writer otherwise.
That’s not to say I feel at peace with my economic situation – no one in the media landscape ever is. In 2019 I’ll keep maneuvering into new channels of work, always conscious of the fact that the old channels can disappear at any moment. There are big things ahead: I’ve got several long-term projects in the works, including a podcast that I desperately want to finish, and I will be spending the majority of the year in Europe. It’s a scary world out there for writers and aspiring creatives. It’s up to us to tame it.
Some of my 2018 highlights:
It's the end of the year, and time to catch up on my output for the last six months. Because apparently I only do these posts twice a year now.
listen to me
I've been writing for NPR since 2011, but had never actually produced a piece for air... until now. For Here & Now, a nationally syndicated midday news program produced by Boston's WBUR, I talked about the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar and shared some of my (totally wrong) picks for what would make the shortlist. I predict you'll be hearing more from me soon.
My biggest and most rewarding personal challenge of 2017 was teaching myself how to produce, host and edit a podcast. By coincidence I wound up crafting the 100th episode of "The Pub," Current's show about public media. I posed the question: should public media employers be more willing to pay relocation fees for new hires, and what kind of talent are they missing out on when they don't?
The best advice I can give about the experience is: Don't try editing sound in GarageBand. Spring for Adobe Audition or something even nicer. Your full head of hair will thank you.
During a fall sojourn in the Bay Area, I hosted a live Q&A in San Francisco with the director and subjects of the documentary California Typewriter, which I reviewed favorably for NPR.
It was a great experience, and I hope to develop my skills as a live-event emcee in the future. Contact me if you have a film event that needs moderating!
czech it out
By far the coolest thing I got to do this year was cover the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for IndieWire. In early July I trekked to the Czech Republic resort town to interview honoree James Newton Howard and take a deep dive into how European cinema is wrestling with the most pressing issues on the Continent.
Also, there was a lot of sausage.
I've been writing for Michigan Alumnus for years, and I'm so excited they've recently begun to post their bigger stories online (with a spiffy site redesign, too). The magazine gives me the space to tackle bigger, more ambitious features than I get to write for my usual outlets.
This year I wrote about recent U-M Flint graduate Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran who was kidnapped and held as a prisoner of the Iranian government for nearly five years until he was released as part of the larger nuclear deal between our two countries. Amir returned home to Flint just as our eventual president was publicly disparaging his family's religion, and just as his hometown was wrestling with a gigantic, self-made public health crisis. To me, Amir's story -- from service to imprisonment to release -- circled many of the larger problems America has had to confront about itself over the last few years. Though he wouldn't grant me an interview owing to his ongoing lawsuit with Iran, I tried to do him justice all the same.
On a lighter note, I also got to write my first-ever music feature, about Ann Arbor funk band Vulfpeck. These guys have become a cult sensation without signing to a major label, and their music-world pranks (like a spat with Spotify) have made national news.
In December, "A Prairie Home Companion" as we know it ceased to exist. Before that happened, I wrote a feature on how the show (which had already been without Garrison Keillor for a year) has progressed under its new leadership. Chris Thile already had an uphill battle with this property; now his challenge has increased tenfold. We may need another update in another year.
A new hopeful PBS show is like "StoryCorps" meets "Finding Your Roots." Thomas Allen Harris spoke to me about embracing family history with "Family Pictures USA" and shooting the pilot in Detroit for the 50th anniversary of the city's civil unrest.
I reviewed Errol Morris's new docu-drama hybrid for Vulture, episode-by-episode. You can find links to full coverage here.
As always, I continued my frantic, insane one-a-week pace of film reviews. All reviews for NPR unless otherwise noted.
I haven't updated in a while. Much to share.
First, Some Goodness In The World
One year after hitting our fundraising goal, I was able to present the first annual Kavi Shekhar Pandey Arts Writer Scholarship on April 23, at the Michigan Daily's annual commencement ceremony in Ann Arbor. Shekhar's family was there with me, and I gave a brief speech.
You can read more about the event and scholarship efforts here. And, if you are feeling generous, you can donate here.
Happy 2017 to the world. In the final month of last year I continued to churn out stories at a furious rate. Though I didn't complete a Top Ten list for any outlet, I've compiled a Letterboxd ranking of the films that mattered most to me this year. There is only a granular difference in the rankings of any of my top 15 films; I will be equally delighted no matter which you make the time to see.
Here's to a new year of continued writing opportunities.
For Vulture, I reviewed every episode of the odd, fascinating, and wildly inconsistent surprise Netflix show The OA. They can all be found on the site's series page here.
Reviews to close out the year
The year is winding down, and the wheels keep turning. I've been working nonstop on one thing or another.
audio hears itself out
For Current, I filed dispatches from the 2016 Third Coast conference in Chicago, which gathered together audio producers of every stripe. Because it happened to fall immediately after the election, the atmosphere was a nonstop strain of what-now.
bleed for whatever
At Vulture (and later reblogged at Slate, so choose your favorite), I argue the sports-recovery narrative of boxing movie Bleed For This cheats its audience by concluding that serious medical injury is just another problem that can be solved by "believing in yourself."
This piece prompted an interesting Twitter debate with someone in the public TV/documentary system. I have Storified the exchange.
My weekly reviews for NPR, from mid-October to now.
I've been busy for the last three months. In addition to my work with the Chicago International Film Festival, I've been churning out stories for several places: some old haunts of mine, some brand-new. Consider this my most up-to-date work portfolio.
Chicagoans: I hope you're all making plans to attend the Chicago International Film Festival (and that you've all picked up one of my fabulous schedule guides being distributed all over town). If you don't know what you want to see, why not take the chance to watch me interview a director onstage?
This is an important step for any film critic, but a first for me: conducting live, one-on-one Q&As for a crowd, and moderating a post-screening audience discussion. Stop by and ask good questions. (And the movies we'll be talking about are excellent, anyway.) Here's my schedule, which strangely includes a lot of films from the Middle East. Descriptions come from the schedule book.
You can follow the links or call 312.683.0121 to purchase tickets, or avoid the surcharge and get them at the door. See you at the movies!
My latest NPR reviews: Finding Dory and Taika Waititi's Hunt For The Wilderpeople.
This is not my first Pixar joint for NPR -- I also reviewed their past two efforts, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. (I'd put Dory somewhere in the middle of those two. They haven't lost their magic completely yet, but there are some warning signs.)
Three new reviews to share.
For NPR, I bemoan the utter lack of Lewis Carroll illogic in the brand-deposited Alice Through The Looking Glass. But things pick up significantly as I rave about Anna Rose Holmer's stunning directorial debut The Fits. Truly audacious American indies are a rare find these days.
Then for Uproxx, I tackle the romantic tearjerker Me Before You. This is my fourth Uproxx review; the others are:
I recently updated my website to make the whole thing less cluttered. You won't find links to everything I've ever written here anymore, but some highlights are still here. And I will use this space to post about my latest activities.
My weekly film reviews for NPR.org continue. Today I dig into the gender-flipped raunch of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. If you're catching up, you can also find my recent takes on:
Let me know what you think of movies, or website redesigns, or freelance writers.