Saturday, January 30, 2021

Favorite Movies and TV Series Streamed during Covid-19 Pandemic

Here is a highly personal, quirky list of some great streaming entertainment that has distracted us and raised our spirits during this difficult pandemic. This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive!

Feature Films:


All Is Bright: If any unsung, offbeat movie should be a cult classic, this is it. Fine performances by Paul Giamatti as an ex-con trying to go straight in a crooked world, by selling Xmas trees, and Sally Hawkins as a…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Amazon.

All Together (Et si on vivait tous ensemble?): 2011 French film that features Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin with an all-star cast of French actors, about a group of aging friends who decide to live communally. Vudu.


Ammonite: English drama set in 1840s in Lyme Regis of French Lieutenant’s Woman and Jane Austen Persuasion fame. Based on true story of working-class woman who made major scientific discoveries, unearthing dinosaurs and other fossils. Great performances by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Amazon.

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite

And Breathe Normally: When was the last time you saw an Icelandic movie? Well, it’s time! A heartbreaking but uplifting drama about those on the margins and refugees in a prosperous country. Moving story, well scripted and acted. Netflix.


Another Round: A Danish movie that won the 2020 Oscar for best International Feature Film. The film is about four male teachers trying to break out of a midlife lag by staying a little drunk every day, especially at work. Great performances, thoughtful screenplay. Kanopy and other streaming services.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Sacha Baron Cohen is so hilarious, and his crashing of Republican events and leaders is brave and astounding. Amazon Prime.


Bridesmaids: Hilarious and heartfelt Kristin Wiig comedy also featuring Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolf. The type of side-splitting humor we need now! YouTube, Amazon, Hulu. 


The Cakemaker: Moving love story of a gay German baker who insinuates himself into the lives of an Israeli family. Netflix.

Captain Fantastic: Viggo Mortensen gives an outstanding performance as a back-to-the-land radical dad raising six children on what they hunt and gather in the wilderness. Gripping complications arise when the family collides with a world that doesn’t share their lifestyle. Kanopy.

The Chorus (Les Choristes): Irresistible French film about a teacher in a Dickensian boarding school and his efforts to win over his delinquent students. Gérard Jugnot is fantastic in the lead role. Vudu.

Coda: Coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who loves to sing, but whose parents and brother are deaf. Terrific performances, a bit predictable, but you’ll definitely need some tissues for this heartwarming tale. Apple TV+.


Conviction (Une intime conviction): French courtroom drama based on a true story, with stellar performances by Olivier Gourmet as defense attorney and Marina Foïs as a casual acquaintance of the defendant who gets enmeshed in the case.


Crossed Tracks (Roman de gare): French film about a bestselling mystery writer accused of murdering her ghostwriter. Many twists and turns in the plot. Directed by Claude Lelouch. Great cast features Fanny Ardant. Kanopy.


The Dig: Beautifully set in an arts and crafts English country house, this drama with Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, and a great supporting cast is a surprisingly dramatic true story of an archaeological dig in the days right before World War II. Netflix.

The Father: Deservedly praised portrayal by Anthony Hopkins. This movie puts you right inside the mind of someone losing his memory. Amazon.


First Cow: A different take on the Wild West than you’ve ever seen, this indie movie about a friendship is moving, understated, and well-plotted. Skillfully directed by Kelly Reichert. Amazon and Hulu.

First Cow

French Exit: Michelle Pfeiffer has never been better as the eccentric New York socialite who loses everything and goes to camp out in a friend’s apartment in Paris. Bravos to Valerie Mahaffey for creating the strange and fun role of Madame Reynaud. Amazon.

Girlfriends: Claudia Weill’s 1977 low-budget classic rings true today portraying a young woman trying to make it as an artist in New York, and the ups and downs of relationships. Fine performances by 25-year-old Melanie Mayron and supporting roles by Eli Wallach and Christopher Guest. Criterion Collection.

The Good Liar: There’s more than meets the eye in this classic tale of con artists where Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren elegantly spar. YouTube.


The Heist of the Century (El robo del siglo): Engaging Argentine bank robbery caper with eccentric characters and great photography. May not be currently streaming, watch for film festival showings.


Here We Are: Beautifully directed Israeli movie about a father and a grown autistic son who is too old to live at home but too scared to leave. Exceptional performances. Look for film festival screenings.


The Incredible Jessica James: Funny and moving romantic comedy about a young black woman trying to make it as a playwright in New York. Dazzling performance by Jessica Williams. Netflix.


Lady J: A French 18th century costume drama loosely based on a Diderot story. The plot involves a rake and an aristocratic widow sparring in the ring of love. Netflix.


Let Them All Talk: Steven Soderbergh mixed together Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges, and Gemma Chan and let them improvise scenes on a voyage of the Queen Mary 2, and voila! the results are entrancing. HBOMax.


The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé): Sophia Loren is still terrific at 86. But her performance is at least equaled by the fabulous young actor Ibrahima Guèye, who plays an undocumented pre-teen, orphaned in Italy. Moving, funny. Netflix.


Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed: Quirky and beautiful movie about an English teacher in Franco Spain who decides he has to meet John Lennon. The teacher picks up two teenage runaways en route and the trio’s adventures keep surprising. Amazon.


Lost in Paris: Great comedy with sophisticated slapstick humor about a small-town Canadian librarian who is hilariously sidetracked while seeking her senile aunt in Paris. or Amazon.


Love Crime (Crime d’amour): French thriller beautifully acted by Kristen Scott-Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier about office politics taken to the ultimate extreme. Great plot twists. Apple TV+ and Google Play.


The Lunchbox: From India, comes a charming and deeply moving film about the remarkable system of delivering homemade lunches to workplaces in Mumbai, and two people whose lives accidentally intersect. Netflix.


Master Cheng: Finnish movie about a Chinese chef who finds himself in a small town in rural Finland with his young son. Different and fun. Look for film festival screenings.

Minari: This story of an immigrant family struggling to survive in a trailer in Arkansas grabbed my heart. What an amazing depiction of the grandmother by Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Amazon


My Dog Stupid (Mon chien stupide): Recent French movie based on a short story by U.S. author John Fante. Great performances by screenplay writer Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are also a couple in real life.


My Donkey, My Lover, and I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes): Laure Calamy from Call My Agent is charming as a teacher obsessively in love with the dad of one of her students. She follows his family on a hiking trip to central France. Great scenery, surprising plot twists. Available at certain film festivals.


My Piece of the Pie: French movie about factory worker who loses her job and becomes the maid and confidant of a Paris hedge-fund financier. Amazon.

Nomadland: Director Chloé Zhao took a risk by casting many nonprofessional actors to play themselves in this emotional story of senior citizens living in vans and RVs. Through her excellent guidance, the risk more than pays off. Hulu.

Number One Fan (Elle l’adore): French mystery about a woman who adores a rock star, and the singer shows up at her door one night. Surprising script by Jeanne Herry, and fine acting by Sandrine Kiberlain and Laurent Lafitte. Not be confused with the U.S. film from 1995 of the same name. Kanopy.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu): French costume drama with a steamy lesbian romance, set on the coast of Brittany in the late 18th century. Amazon.

One Night in Miami…: Stellar performances by a cast led by Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and the multi-talented Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke (he played Aaron Burr in the original cast of Hamilton). Compelling story, great direction by Regina King. Amazon.


The Professor and the Madman: The remarkably dramatic and true story of how a U.S. Army captain in a U.K. insane asylum played a key role in the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Strong performances by Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. Kanopy.


Roman Holiday: Audrey Hepburn at her most charming paired with Gregory Peck in this classic romantic tale set in Italy. YouTube, Amazon.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

A Sack of Marbles: Based on the true story of a French Jewish family trying to flee the Nazis and their collaborators during WWII. Surprisingly uplifting, beautiful performances, complex characters. Kanopy.


Saving Mr. Banks: A surprisingly sophisticated and well-acted movie about P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of the movie Mary Poppins. Sympathetic performances by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. Netflix.


School of Life (École buissonnière): French movie about an orphan who is taken in by a servant couple at a manor house and learns about life from an eccentric free spirit who lives off the land. A bit of a fairytale, but an engaging one. Amazon.

Sol: The premise of this film is unbelievable, the plot predictable, and the whole idea of a French flick related to Argentine tango doesn’t hold much water, but…this is a beautiful movie. Exquisitely directed by Jézabel Marques, with deeply moving performances by Chantal Lauby and Camille Chamoux.


Someone, Somewhere (Deux Moi): In this social satire, two young Parisians face lifelong personal issues in parallel. Written and directed by Cédric Klapisch of L’Auberge Espagnol fame. Amazon and


Sound of Metal: A drummer in a heavy metal band loses his hearing and has to remake his entire world. Fantastic performance by Riz Ahmed, and strong supporting actors. You don’t have to like heavy metal. Amazon.


The Student and Mr. Henri: Bittersweet French comedy/drama based on a play, with tight plotting, complex characters, and great performances. Kanopy.

Summer of Soul: Danceable documentary on the Harlem music festival in 1969 that almost got forgotten until the film footage was rescued. Great performances by David Ruffin (of The Temptations), Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, and so many others. Hulu.

Supernova: Strong acting by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in this intimate drama of an older couple on vacation dealing with wrenching and complex life decisions. Amazon, Apple TV+, Vudu, FandangoNow.


The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe: Classic French comedy, parody on spy thrillers, cool 70s fashions. Laugh-out-loud humor. Kanopy.


Tigertail: Moving story of two generations of a Taiwanese-American family focused on the differences between an immigrant father and his U.S.-born daughter. Secrets emerge. Netflix.


The Trial of the Chicago Seven: Excellent performances from Sacha Baron-Cohen, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne and the rest of the cast in this thought-provoking recreation of one of the key moments in the 1960s in the U.S. Netflix.


The Trip to Italy: British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves traveling in the footsteps of Byron and Shelley along the Italian coast. They eat photogenic food, perform hilarious impersonations, and have wacky escapades. Amazon.


The Truth (La Vérité): Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in a brilliant mother-daughter drama about a celebrated actress who is publishing her autobiography, bringing up all of the family’s conflicts and connections. YouTube.


Uncle Frank: A fine ensemble piece about family divisions. The film takes place mostly in the 1970s, but resonates deeply with the current divide between the educated urban class and conservative rural areas. Funny at the same time it’s tearfully moving. Amazon.


The Whistlers: Elegant heist movie set in Canary Islands and Bucharest about police inspector entangled with ruthless thieves, sexy woman accomplice, and demanding police supervisor. Unexpected plot twists and a mysterious whistling language of the Canary Islands. BAMPFA streaming, Amazon, or YouTube.




Honeyland: Just in case you are in the mood for a Macedonian documentary, this is the one you should see. A deeply moving story about the last woman who collects and lives on honey harvested in the wild and her encounters with the changing world. Kanopy.


The Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. Terrific flick about the long and storied history of Jewish athletes who have played the great American pastime. YouTube.


My Octopus Teacher: Gorgeously filmed documentary that takes place in Cape Province, South Africa, about a filmmaker who develops an amazing friendship with an octopus. Netflix.


The Painter and the Thief: Surprising Norwegian documentary with intriguing characters about a promising young Czech artist whose two masterpieces are stolen by a thief. Their lives become linked in unforeseen ways. Roxie Theater San Francisco streaming. Amazon.


TV Series:

Collateral: Four-part detective series set in London and scripted by acclaimed film and theater writer David Hare. Features a pregnant detective, an engaging story line, and refugee issues. Netflix.

Genius: Aretha: An eight-part series about the life and music of Aretha Franklin, with a strong lead performance by Cynthia Erivo and an excellent team of writers led by Suzan-Lori Parks. It goes on a couple of episode too long, but very worthwhile. Hulu and National Geographic.


The Hour: BBC series about a 1956 news program that breaks all the rules to present daring journalism. Fantastic cast that features Romola Garai, Juliet Stevenson, Dominic West, Ben Whishaw, Oona Chaplin, and more. Amazon.


Lupin: French series based on classic French novels about a gentleman burgler, re-set in contemporary Paris. Beautiful performance by Omar Sy. Fast-paced, exciting, fun. Netflix.

Modern Love: Recommending certain episodes: Episode 1: “When the Doorman is Your Mainman;” Episode 7: “Hers Was a World of One.” Amazon.


My Brilliant Friend (L'amica geniale): HBO series based on the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante. Excellent cast, strong adaptation, great views of Ischia and Pisa.


Our Planet: Stylishly narrated by David Attenborough. Eight episodes on nature with amazing photography that brings you right into the wolves’ den and the humpback whale pod. Netflix.

The Plot against America: Strong adaptation of the Philip Roth novel about a highly resonant alternate reality where a fascist sympathizer becomes U.S. president. Super performances by Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, and the whole cast. HBOMax.

Schmigadoon: Fun parody of the golden era of Hollywood musicals with great songs and dancing, and a contemporary update in themes. If you like musicals, you will love this! AppleTV+.

White Lotus: A series about a fancy resort in Hawai’i that shows the class and color lines between the staff and the guests in insightful ways. Absorbing characters. You will want to know what happens next, and the show will keep you guessing. HBOMax.


Pretend It’s a City: Fran Lebowitz is incredibly funny and brilliant as she holds forth on topics from mass transit to cell phones. Netflix.


A Suitable Boy: Excellent six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth’s epic novel of India shortly after independence. Superb cast, exquisite settings and costumes, smart screenplay. Acorn TV, one-week free subscription available through Amazon.

Ted Lasso: Hilarious and moving series about a U.S. football coach who is brought to the U.K. to turn around a failing soccer team. Fast-paced, great script. Apple TV+.

The Trial (Il processo): Italian detective series about a woman prosecutor/police detective trying to uncover the murderer of a teenage girl. A plot with many layers, great setting in Mantua, good cast. Netflix.


Unorthodox: Four-part series about a young Hasidic woman who flees her claustrophobic life and marriage and seeks her future in Berlin. Brush up on your Yiddish. There are subtitles! Netflix.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Interview with Poet Linda Pastan

This installment of Advice for Writers is an interview with one of my favorite poets, Linda Pastan. Linda Pastan's many awards include the Maurice English Award, the Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumni Award, and the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The former poet laureate of Maryland, she is the author of fourteen books of poetry—the latest of which, Insomnia, won the Towson University Prize for Literature.

Q.: Who were your teachers, mentors, or role models? What were the most useful or lasting lessons you learned from them?

Linda Pastan: My only teachers, mentors, and role models were the poets I read in books. As an only child growing up in New York City, I lived far from my school in a kind of isolation, books were my company, and luckily my parents had an extensive library. (I did work for one semester, in graduate school, with the poet J.V. Cunningham.  It was a one-on-one “class” during which he assigned me various forms, and so I learned the rules before learning to break them.) The lasting lesson I learned from reading Dickinson, Keats, Auden, et al., was to be unsatisfied with what I was writing; to try and try harder!!

Linda Pastan

Q. How has the situation of women poets changed since you began writing seriously in the 1960s?

LP: When I first started sending poems out to magazines, I considered using initials so that the editors wouldn’t know I was a woman. Women were not published nearly as much, and they were hardly reviewed at all. That has certainly changed. On the other hand it still seems to be the case that when male poets write about domestic things—marriage, children, etc.—they receive serious praise, but women poets writing on the same subject are more often condescended to.

Q. Do you enjoy reading your poems to an audience? What is the difference for you between publishing your poems and reading them out loud to people?

LP: To me, the poem on the page is what matters most. Some poets read their work out loud well. Others, T.S. Eliot, for example, read them terribly. It doesn’t really matter to me. But I do enjoy reading to an audience. It helps me to realize that there are real people out there, actually reading my work.

Q. You’ve written a lot about families, marriage, and parenthood. How do you approach writing about topics that are so familiar and close to home that it’s hard to get distance on them?   

LP: I don’t think a poet should aim for achieving distance from a subject. The point is to get up close.

Linda Pastan’s most recent book of poems is Insomnia

Q. Do you see yourself as a Jewish writer? How does Jewish tradition and/or Jewish literary tradition shape your work and your voice as a writer? 

LP: I am Jewish, and I am a writer. And I do use Jewish imagery in many of my poems, imagery I learned from Orthodox grandparents. And I love writing on Biblical subjects, particularly  the book of Genesis. But I don’t consider myself a “Jewish Writer,” just a writer who happens to be Jewish.

Q. When you compiled your book Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, did you rewrite any of the earlier poems? If so, what were you looking to change or improve? 

LP: I think it was Auden who said poems are never finished, merely abandoned. I keep making small revisions on poems, even after they have been published in magazines and then books. And I am still making changes to various poems in the margins of my copy of Carnival Evening.

More information on Linda Pastan's most recent book of poems, Insomnia.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry