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A Critic's Year-End 'Ghost File': Books, Movies And TV Shows He Didn't Review

Alia Shawkat stars as Dory in the TBS comedy <em>Search Party.</em>
Courtesy of Turner
Alia Shawkat stars as Dory in the TBS comedy Search Party.

It's the great pleasure of my work that I get to spend my days watching and reading — and it's the great frustration that every year I'm haunted by all the terrific things I haven't talked about on Fresh Air. I call this collection my "ghost file," and as 2016 comes to an end, I want to un-haunt myself by sharing six of my favorite ghosts. They range from the cosmic to the comic.


by Krzysztof Kieślowski (Blu-ray and DVD)

Filmmaking doesn't come much more cosmically ambitious than Krzysztof Kieślowski's 1989 Dekalog, one of the towering cinematic achievements of the last half century, which was finally released by the Criterion Collection.

Each of its 10, hourlong films takes place in an unlovely Polish housing block and tells a story that offers a modern look at one of the Ten Commandments. For instance, "Thou shalt not have other gods before me" centers on a man who worships science, then must confront personal tragedy in a world he believes to be godless.

Brilliantly made and often shattering, Kieślowski's masterwork is about nothing less than the nature of morality and the human soul.

The Vegetarian

by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

The spiritual stakes are equally high in The Vegetarian by South Korean novelist Han Kang. It tells the mesmerizing story of Yeong-hye, a seemingly ordinary housewife, who, after a disturbing dream, decides to quit eating meat. This decision sounds simple enough, but it unleashes crazy consequences in every direction — shattering her family, offending the patriarchy, inspiring an erotic film and driving Yeong-hye to seek to transcend her own flesh and blood body.

When I tried to review The Vegetarian in January, this unsettling fever dream of a novel was so simple and yet so surreal I couldn't figure out how to do it justice without spoiling it. Since then, Kang and her book went on to win the Man Booker International Prize — and rightly so. This is one novel you won't forget.


created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (streaming on Amazon)

You find an alienated heroine of a very different sort in Fleabag, a salaciously funny, strangely touching British TV series available on Amazon. Written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show centers on a wisecracking café owner called Fleabag who struggles with being young and single in London. Fleabag's messy life includes her floundering business, her headlong bed-hopping, her Machiavellian stepmother, her hyper-successful sister and — making things even trickier — her own desire to be a good feminist.

Spiky and smart, Fleabag works cultural terrain first staked out by Lena Dunham's Girls, but Waller-Bridge takes the conflicting pressures of modern womanhood in a direction all her own.

Search Party

created by Sarah Violet-Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter (on TBS, streaming)

You get another new version of modern womanhood in Search Party from TBS, which is one of the year's best new shows. It stars Arrested Development's wonderful, curly haired Alia Shawkat as Dory, a dazed post-collegiate Brooklynite with a lousy job, vacuously self-absorbed friends and a boyfriend so annoying you want to clobber him.

Likable but lost, Dory doesn't know what she wants. But when she spots a poster about a college classmate who has gone missing, she grows obsessed with finding her, although it's pretty clear she's actually searching for herself.

Even as it sympathetically follows Dory's quest, the show offers a funny, bracingly nasty portrait of our narcissistic culture in which direct human feeling is replaced by snark, social media and iPhone photos of strangers fighting on the street.

Collected Millar: The Master At Her Zenith

Collected Millar: Legendary Novels Of Suspense

by Margaret Millar

Fleabag and Search Party seem benign compared to the addictive mystery and suspense novels of Margaret Millar, who died in 1994. Nine of her best books are included in the first two volumes of Collected Millar from the Soho Syndicate, and boy is she good.

Millar's mysteries are filled with clever twists, yet what makes them special is her surgical approach to her characters' inner lives. She's got an eagle eye for the juicy stuff lots of mystery writers still ignore — questions of class, status, sexual desire and the difficult position of women. This last was something she knew about firsthand. Millar's work was long overshadowed by that of her husband, detective novelist Ross Macdonald. In fact, her best novels — like 1955's Beast in View — have a ferocious edge that make him look rather tame.


by Kleber Mendonça Filho (currently in theaters, streaming on Netflix in 2017)

After so much darkness and alienation, I'm delighted to end by talking about Aquarius, the life-affirming new film by the superb Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho that's currently playing around the country. Brazil's legendary Sônia Braga plays Clara, a widowed music writer who's the last remaining resident of a gorgeous old apartment building along the beach. A racist young real estate guy wants to replace it with a bigger one, but Clara refuses to sell.

Aquarius is a movie about history, politics and how we deal with passing time. What brings it alive is Clara who, in Braga's deeply lived-in performance, becomes something miraculous in today's movies: a woman in her mid-60s who's portrayed in all her rich, complicated fullness. We see her go to clubs with her girlfriends, admit her maternal failings to her grown-up kids, drink wine and dance in her living room, make love with a handsome young boy-toy and fight the money-men and politicos who want to chase her from her home. Aquarius may conclude my ghost file, but Clara is anything but a ghost. She's the most alive person in a movie positively brimming with life.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.