Love is Pure Gold and Time a Thief: My Top 15 Films of 2015

2015 was an excellent year for the cinema, although most of the best films of the year were, unsurprisingly, found in more esoteric spots: the local art house, the festival circuit, On Demand services. However, there were enough intriguing options available to make this critic and columnist head to the cinema more than 120 times in the past year.

Still, the highest-grossing title of the 15 listed below only crossed the $50 million mark at the North American box office this weekend. That is not due to the dwindling status of blockbusters, even though for each blistering ride down Fury Road, there was a bloated Age of Ultron. Instead, it had to do with the sheer number of compelling art-house choices that were available.

Nevertheless, I hope I can help introduce you to some noteworthy titles you may have missed over the past 365 days. This list is full of numerous international titles – a whopping nine countries from five continents are here – and filled with as many stories about women as men. I will count down in descending order, with honourable mentions at the bottom.

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  1. Listen to Me Marlon

Marlon Brando was an actor of such versatility, saying his name likely yields a different reaction from many. Some initially think of his brutishness from A Streetcar Named Desire, others of his patriarchal fortitude in The Godfather. Regardless of your entering point to the beloved actor, Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s enormously insightful documentary, is an essential watch. Filmmakers raided the archives of various late artists this year – Kurt Cobain, for one – but this project, making adept use of the actor’s personal audio recordings, captures the soul of one of Hollywood’s most scintillating yet troubled stars. It is vital and deeply poignant, and any offer to see it shouldn’t be refused.

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  1. Carol

The word “lesbian” is never uttered in the new, lush melodrama from director Todd Haynes. Almost every sentence is suggested, rather than said, giving each interaction a smoldering intensity. That was the norm for quiet, closeted shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara), who falls in love with a wealthy older woman, the title character played by Cate Blanchett, circa 1953. The layered performances from both actors are deeply affecting, aided by the pregnant pauses and insinuations of Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay (based off a Patricia Highsmith book). Strangely, the title has the emphasis on the wrong character: Mara gives the most accomplished turn of her career, as a woman trembling with excitement and tormented by period mores.

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  1. Amy

When Amy Winehouse was starting out in the music industry, she shrugged off thoughts of fame, saying in interviews how she worried about the emotional distress it would put on her life. Those somber thoughts are featured early on in Asif Kapadia’s documentary, almost entirely made of archive footage, and hang above the rest of the film like a spectre. Regardless, Amy is an absorbing tribute to a pop star gone too soon that captures her raw talent with verve and insight. Never veering into hagiography, the doc chronicles her creative process and collapse to substance abuse with equal fascination. Winehouse’s death may have turned her into a tragic showbiz cliché; thankfully, Kapadia’s film is just the rehabilitation the figure needed.

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  1. Timbuktu

Abderrahmane Sissako’s film about the everyday travails of an impoverished West African town could have felt like a satire in any other year. In 2015, however, a story of Islamic jihadi groups enforcing strict rules over a bedraggled community stings with the urgency of breaking news. Sissako balances amusing comic moments with a devastating emotional toll, telling a variety of unforgettable stories. In one, an altercation between a poor cow-herder and a fisherman turns unfathomably bloody. The filmmaker captures the pain of living under religious persecution alongside the deep pride of those who resist the rule. Fans of humanist world cinema would be wise to see this film, a deserving Oscar nominee for Mauritania last year.

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  1. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Almost every scene in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a gem from Israel, is confined to a tiny, drab rabbinical court. There, a woman – the title character played by co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz – demands to be granted a divorce. Her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), cannot relent. The result is a remarkably protracted legal journey, packed with comic highs and dramatic twists. Incredibly, the film’s momentum never lags. The tightness of the space and soaring volume often pushes toward an explosion of feeling. Elkabetz and her co-director, husband Shlomi, shoot like the best lawyers, ensuring the long takes press into the characters and reveal more than testimony ever could.

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  1. Sicario

One of the year’s more unconventional films to manage a wide release was the new white-knuckle thriller from our current master of despair, Denis Villeneuve. Sicario navigates the circuits of the drug war between Mexico and the United States with both a nimble pace and a feel of existential dread. Blunt gives a great turn as a steely FBI agent called upon to help destabilize a Mexican cartel. While Lionsgate promoted the film as one where a determined heroine stares down a dark epicentre of crime, a la Clarice Starling, that’s all a ruse: we are left in her shoes, having to tiptoe around red herrings and ambiguous courses of action. It’s deceptive while also riveting, bolstered by a fierce turn from Benicio del Toro and masterful cinematography, courtesy of the man most overdue for an Academy Award, the great Roger Deakins.

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  1. The Big Short

What’s more unlikely? That the best film from a major studio this year came from the director of the awful Anchorman 2? Or that one of the year’s most exhilarating trips to the cinema would be a film about the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis? Well, they’re both true. Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s business best-seller is enormously ambitious, jumping between many characters who realize, a few years before the housing crisis began, that the bubble was going to burst. Thanks to slyly packaged lessons about high finance (aided by cheeky celebrity cameos), McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph revisit recent headline news in a way that is refreshing and richly funny. Steve Carell gives a career-best turn as a cranky Wall Street suit, and the film manages to equal the actor’s high-wire energy. Yet, despite bouncing from tragedy to comedy and back again, The Big Short never feels uneven or overwhelming.

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  1. Ex Machina

Science fiction is a genre that is hard to get right: you need to balance intriguing concepts with compelling characters– or more accurately, combine convincing elements of science and fiction. Alex Garland nails it with Ex Machina, an arresting film that feels more probable by the day. It takes place in a closed-off research lab, owned by tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He has called on a milquetoast coder (Domhnall Gleeson) to test out an AI prototype, Ava (Alicia Vikander) and see if she’s good enough to reveal to the world. The result is a (mostly) three-person drama filled with intrigue and many ideas worth pondering – not just around science, but power, sex and what it means to feel human. The sophisticated science banter is engaging rather than alienating. One is left wondering what the film’s best visual effect is: the hypnotic Vikander as Ava figures out her human capabilities, or Isaac’s disco dancing.

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  1. The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino has always been a more exciting, interesting screenwriter than director: his elaborate scene constructions and twists with genre conventions are far more fascinating than his nods in homage. And while he remains in debt to the forerunners of genre, he has never been as confident or commanding behind the camera as with his newest venture. Much of The Hateful Eight takes place within one setting, a snowed-in cabin where eight ruthless Old West types are trapped for the night. The gang includes a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a captured outlaw (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a ruthless colonel (Samuel L. Jackson). The dark, daring comedy caters to the director’s strengths, full of punchy dialogue and steadily rising action. The characters spar with words and glances in the first half before getting trigger happy in part two. It’s an absolute blast: if you can handle some bloody blows to the head, it’s worth seeking out in an exclusive 70mm format.

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  1. Girlhood

Céline Sciamma’s perceptive coming-of-age drama is one of the finest films in recent memory to explore that mysterious space between being a girl and a woman. The film follows a teenager from the Paris projects named Marieme (Karidja Touré) over the span of a few years, as she blossoms from a shy schoolgirl into one of the cool kids, and even the leader of a popular girl gang. Yet alongside the film’s throbbing soundtrack (and an unforgettable, purple-hued dance scene set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”), Girlhood brims with humanity and the brilliance of female camaraderie. Sciamma captures moments of joy and spontaneity among the teen ensemble that feel unscripted. However, the star is Touré, who gives a staggeringly good debut performance. She exudes a wide range – vulnerability, aggression, sexual liberty – without losing track of the woman growing underneath.

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  1. Wild Tales

What do a doomed airliner, a case of road rage and a Jewish wedding have in common? All three are among the subjects for Damián Szifron’s omnibus comedy, a collection of six savage stories about retribution and justice. Packed to the brim with acerbic humor and searing class commentary, the various tales all build to a climactic punch. Each story, ranging from five minutes to a half-hour, provides a fine directorial showcase for the Argentina native to show off his genre filmmaking chops. There isn’t a weak segment in the bunch. The best is the grand finale, where a bride-to-be (Erica Rivas) finds out her groom has not been entirely faithful. Despite the brutal humour on display, each of Szifron’s stories is grounded in recognizable drama. We root for the characters, even as the situation spirals to unpredictable, bloody, sometimes literally explosive places.

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  1. The Look of Silence

One of the motion picture Academy’s greatest failings in recent memory is their failure to reward director Joshua Oppenheimer for his mesmerizing, masterful The Act of Killing in 2014. They have the chance to redeem those mistakes, as the filmmaker is nominated for his latest documentary, a devastating companion piece to Killing. The Look of Silence returns to Indonesia, as the director confronts the perpetrators of that country’s 1965 genocide and re-open the wounds of history. This time, Oppenheimer focuses on Adi, an optometrist confronting the notorious gangsters who killed his brother. (How powerful do the war criminals remain? A large number of crewmembers on the film are credited as “Anonymous.”) The subject matter is undeniably harrowing, but that shouldn’t matter: the film is essential viewing, especially for those who cannot stomach Killing’s grisly violence.

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  1. Spotlight

An instant classic of journalistic drama, Tom McCarthy’s new film focuses on an investigative team of Boston Globe reporters. Their story is about pedophilia within the local Archdiocese, and these scandalous revelations ultimately rocked the city (and the paper’s Catholic subscribers) to the core. McCarthy, who co-wrote the film with Josh Singer, is fascinated with the protocols of journalism. Many have mistaken the film’s drab aesthetic as ripe for criticism; instead, the blandness is a stylistic asset, making the world feel lived-in and authentic. Also helpful: the rich work of the year’s best ensemble, from Stanley Tucci (as a hectored lawyer) to the empathetic Rachel McAdams, a worthy Oscar nominee. The attention to occupational detail, alongside the taut, smoothly paced, emotionally rigorous screenplay, makes Spotlight that rare film about telling a story that works as great storytelling.

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  1. Phoenix

No actor anywhere gave a more moving performance onscreen this year than Nina Hoss, who portrayed Holocaust survivor Nelly Lenz in Christian Petzold’s complex new drama. Nelly’s face is badly disfigured in the war; returning to civilian life, she barely recognizes the new visage from reconstructive surgery. She also cannot comprehend that her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) looks at her and sees a total stranger – although one he hopes can pretend to be his wife, in order for him to collect Nelly’s inheritance. This slow burn noir gives us the time needed to observe Hoss as she explores the space of a woman aching to feel human again. Her face, ghostly pale and searching, says more than dialogue ever could. Phoenix is a psychologically rich and unsettling film about identity, memory and performance, although these themes slowly build into a tense character study. The drama’s devastating final scene is the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop, and will be talked about for decades.

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  1. When Marnie Was There

I don’t cry often enough at the cinema. I’m lucky if a single film makes me tear up each year. When Marnie Was There, meanwhile, made me audibly sob for the last 10 minutes, through the credits and as I turned into the theatre lobby. That was no fluke: a second viewing of the film released the same emotional response.

The film barely made a dent at the North American box office (earning less than $600,000) and received little critical fanfare. But it is as poignant and powerful as any film from (the now-defunct) Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, the creators of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. The drama, based off Joan G. Robinson’s novel, is about Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub), a social outcast who moves to an idyllic seaside town after an asthma attack. She sparks a friendship with Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), who lives in a mysterious house by the sea and is also searching for a friend.

As per any Studio Ghibli effort, the animation is glorious, as is Takatsugu Muramatsu’s original score. When Marnie Was There is also one of the finest films ever made about the bonds of friendship. Anna is one of the most complicated, compelling young protagonists to come along in some time, swelling with rage and sadness. She is also wary of social interaction, but craves to find a rewarding friendship. It is refreshing to see a film aimed at young women that respects its audience, understanding that youth is full of bliss and bruises. Simply put, no film this year was more wondrous or emotionally resonant.

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And… 15 Honourable Mentions: Approaching the Elephant; The Diary of a Teenage Girl; The End of the Tour; Fort Tilden; Heaven Knows What; Inside Out; Jafar Panahi’s Taxi; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; The Martian; 99 Homes; Queen of Earth; Shaun the Sheep Movie; The Stanford Prison Experiment; What We Do in the Shadows

Welcome to Peak TV: The Best of Television 2015

Earlier in 2015, as part of Toronto Film Scene’s issue on “Cinematic Television,” I wrote about how film was still superior to television. 10 years ago, nobody would have thought an essay of the sort was needed. 10 years ago, an online magazine about the big screen wouldn’t have needed to devote an issue to the small screen.

2015 was the year we reached, as FX Networks president John Landgraf said, “Peak TV in America.” By the end of the year, he estimated that there would be more than 400 scripted series on television – meaning on broadcast, cable or streaming services. It is simply getting harder to keep up with the rampant recommendations from friends and culture writers about the best shows on the small screen.

Part of this is due to the overwhelming availability of niche content. Programs do not require a big audience to be granted more episodes and seasons, just a devoted one. Not a single show compiled in my list below received more than five million viewers on a weekly basis, yet all of the continuing series will likely still be on the air in 2016. 10 years ago, most of the titles on this list would have been cancelled and destined for mere cult status due to low ratings and minimal exposure.

But the question remains: is film still superior to television? Well, both media have seen big changes in contemporary times. Just as we now watch fewer shows on televisions, fewer films are made on actual film. Television has seen big gains over cinema in some areas. For one, there is greater diversity on the small screen, with more series focusing on characters that are not young, white and/or male. Meanwhile, the insight one gleans from longer, character-driven story arcs still benefits many of television’s strongest dramas, a few of which are below. With its long-form structure and preoccupation with the word over the image, I’d argue that television is the new novel, not the new cinema.

Even if the bubble on this Peak TV era bursts, it will have meant big gains for what had been considered a lesser medium. While television’s position in comparison to cinema is debatable, that it is even in the conversation is a testament to the breadth and quality of good storytelling in the marketplace.

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Looking

A few honourable mentions from 2015 include:

  • The graphically violent, avant-garde craziness of Hannibal’s final season;
  • The emotionally astute, poignant, funny show about gay men in San Francisco that you didn’t watch: Looking (which, sadly, will not get a third season);
  • A shorter and less audacious, although remarkable season five of Louie;
  • The debut of Aziz Ansari’s compact, complex, dizzyingly funny Master of None (featuring the sublime Noël Wells);
  • Another savagely funny collection of business propositions on Nathan for You (highlights: “Smokers Allowed,” “The Movement”);
  • The sharply funny You’re the Worst, with season two embarking on an insightful dramatic detour

Furthermore, a few series I have not completed yet or plan to catch up with in 2016 include: Bojack Horseman, Casual, Fargo (season 2), Fresh Off the Boat, The Leftovers, Making a Murderer, Narcos, Review, UnREAL and Wolf Hall.

Finally, a few programs you may have loved but I didn’t quite embrace included Bloodline, The Last Man on Earth, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Mr. Robot and Wayward Pines.

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Show Me a Hero

  1. David Simon Shows Us a Hero

As a recent post of mine advocated, this was Oscar Isaac’s year. And no performance of his mattered more than his brilliant work in the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero. Beyond Isaac’s terrific portrait of beleaguered Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko, Hero was filled with excellent turns from an impressive roster of character actors, including Winona Ryder, Bob Balaban, Catherine Keener, Clarke Peters and Alfred Molina. Based on a true story about a controversial public housing project, the drama took on even more prescience in late 2015, with the arrival of refugees to North American shores. Furthermore, this was a compelling look at political pitfalls, power plays and the difficulty of diplomacy. Meanwhile, its nuanced exploration of race and class issues also absolved miniseries director Paul Haggis of the various flaws he made with his sanctimonious Crash in 2005.

  1. The Exceptional Ensemble of The Americans

There is no shortage of propulsive, addictive spy shows on television, but the best one is probably the most restrained of the bunch. (It’s also one that needs more viewers going forward.) To make up for its lack of histrionics, The Americans benefits from its strikingly good performances. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell continue to give Emmy-worthy portrayals as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the conflicted KGB officers working incognito in 1980s Washington, shielding their teenage kids from their mission. Meanwhile, the nuanced work of Noah Emmerich, Alison Wright and Holly Taylor, the latter as the Jennings’ eldest, is hard to ignore. The final four episodes of the show’s third season, filled with riveting character-based drama, were nothing short of astounding. You don’t have much time to catch up before season four airs on FX in March.

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Veep

  1. The Best Comedy Block on TV? HBO Sundays

The world of West Coast tech and East Coast politics continued to be a potent combination for satire on HBO this year. On Silicon Valley, the coders behind startup Pied Piper couldn’t go a week without an overwhelming setback, often coming from unexpected (and often hilarious) places. The same thirst for power and lack of competence was also apparent with Selina Meyer’s presidential bid on Veep, a show that continues to look more and more like a documentary with every passing week. Both series can create natural comedy hijinks from complicated legal and political minutia, while exposing a breadth of acting talent – Silicon’s Matt Ross (as Gavin Belson) and Veep’s Sufe Bradshaw (as Sue) are deep-cut scene-stealers. Back-to-back, these two comedies were perfect counterpoints.

  1. The Haunted Medical Ward (Or: The Knick, Season 2)

If there was a better hour of dramatic television this year than “This is All We Are,” the intense and horrifying season finale to Cinemax’s dark period piece, I haven’t seen it. Culminating with a white-knuckle surgery and bolstered by a devastating confession from Chris Sullivan’s Cleary, the episode may have required a stronger stomach than usual. Aside from the stunning close, each hour had a different scene-stealer, such as Jeremy Bobb as the hospital’s entitled manager, and Eve Hewson, hypnotic as the damaged Nurse Elkins. Regardless, under the (ahem) surgical direction of Steven Soderbergh, who was also responsible for the series’ unnerving images as director of photography, this season resembled a carnivalesque freak show in all of the best ways. Bloody and macabre, it was drama from which it was impossible to turn away.

  1. Documentary Now! Deserves Its Exclamation Point

I’ve already written about this series in detail, but it bears repeating: IFC’s Documentary Now! is the best new comedy of the year. Created by several SNL alums, the program parodies several of the most renowned documentaries of all time, with ingenious, inventive results. Some familiarity with films like Grey Gardens and The Thin Blue Line may be needed to get all the jokes. However, the dedicated, versatile work of stars Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, as well as meticulous attention to period detail, powers these delightful slices of documentary mocking. Interestingly, the show’s best half-hour – “A Town, a Gangster, a Festival” – doesn’t satirize any film in particular. It’s just a brilliant half-hour of loopy, adventurous not-quite-non-fiction comedy.

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Better Call Saul

  1. Better Call Saul Reminds Us How Good Spin-offs Can Be

Almost no television series has premiered with the buzz and anticipation that awaited Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul. It seemed unlikely that the drama, featuring the origin story of Walter White’s slick attorney Saul Goodman, could step out from the shadow of its predecessor. But the series confidently blazed its own path, due to a remarkable lead performance from Bob Odenkirk. His sly comic timing was, predictably, aces, but hidden within his hand was the depth and vulnerability of Jimmy McGill, an underestimated, abandoned civil servant struggling to make his name. Atop a prime supporting cast – “Five-O” was a superb showcase that should have earned Jonathan Banks an Emmy – this premiere season could rank alongside any of Breaking Bad’s most dazzling collection of episodes.

  1. Coca. Cola. (Or: Mad Men Completes the Carousel)

This year, the best television series of all time concluded in a deeply satisfying, nearly triumphant fashion. Even if no collection of seven episodes could entirely dazzle fans, there were more than enough delicate, but potent moments to end the era on a classy high. The last-chance attempt to avoid absolution into parent company McCann Erickson ended in a meeting that leaves the partners visibly speechless. Peggy then strutted down her new firm hallways, dangling a cigarette from her mouth and clutching Bert Cooper’s painting, without a care in the world. Even the sniveling Pete managed to work things out, putting his family first. As for Don, he finally finds that salvation – or that dawn, if you will – he has been looking for, giving him the chance to wipe the pain away from old wounds. And to think, it took a bottle of Coke to make him do so.

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Broad City

  1. Abbi Jacobson Brightens Broad City

TV’s funniest show is the result of one of the best comedic pairings in the medium’s history, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. Glazer, with her frantic, wide eyes and electric vulgarity, was the standout in its debut season on Comedy Central in 2014. However, season two was Jacobson’s turn to shine and she often acted as the lead in a compendium of absurdly funny adventures. Whether it was arguing about dildos, dancing nude to Lady Gaga in her empty apartment or charming a crowd as speakeasy entertainment, Jacobson owned every episode.  If you haven’t caught up with television’s best stoner comedy, you have about five more weeks until season three.

  1. John Oliver Redefines Late-Night Television

2015 was a year with a lot of changes to late-night television. There were departures (David Letterman, Jon Stewart) and excited new arrivals (Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah). But while these advancements were big news, they didn’t inspire the weekly reverence that followed British commentator John Oliver, who used his newfound clout on HBO to be more than a mere host. He became a sometimes angry, sometimes annoyed, yet always vital voice of reason. His mid-show rants, which could last upward of 20 minutes, were marvelously constructed, often devastatingly funny and shocking essays about news items such as abuses of power (the FIFA scandal), transgender rights and the European migrant crisis. The biggest triumph of the 35-episode season, arguably, was a tense interview with Edward Snowden that worked as a masterclass of both journalism and lowbrow comedy. One could say that Last Week Tonight is television’s best newsmagazine, but it’s so much more than that.

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“12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”

  1. “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”

The finest episode of television this year came in the middle of an uneven season of Amy Schumer’s sketch comedy series. Nevertheless, there were no 20 minutes of television as endlessly rewatchable and hilariously astute as an uncanny parody of the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men. In the sketch, 12 risible jurors debate whether or not Schumer is hot enough to be on television. All of the jokes hit their targets thanks to a sterling ensemble cast, led by Paul Giamatti, John Hawkes, Jeff Goldblum and Vincent Kartheiser. Aesthetically, the visual throwbacks to Lumet’s film were disarmingly faithful. However, what catapulted this episode above its already extraordinary quality was its timing. In a year where discussions about the influence and representation of women in the media reached its apex, this episode skewered male entitlement and double standards with sharpness, and wit. And dildo-related arguments.