In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Covid chronicles, part 2

I’m in the clutches of Covid, as I wrote upon my discovery two days ago, and my symptoms, from a light wheeze to a drippy schnoz, are getting cute on me. Just when it feels like they are receding, they jack-in-the-box back up, all flailing arms and googly eyes, heckling me with a mighty, Ha!  

So I thought it wise that I ordered a two-pack of DayQuil and NyQuil “liquicaps” for cold and flu stuff, from headaches to sneezing. It arrived yesterday and I promptly popped some DayQuil, which doesn’t contain the depressant effect of the sleepy NyQuil caps, I’m guessing.

Ha! again, because the DayQuil failed me like a two-bit placebo. My chest is still heavy, head thrums, throat sizzles, sinuses swell. This is why I rarely bother with so-called cold medicines, those blister packs of impotence, those doses of disappointment.

Compounding things, I look beastly. I’m brushing the Mickey Rourke phase. I’m sallow, splotchy, puffy. My eyes are poached eggs. And I have a zit on my cheek that could pass for a siamese twin.

I’m at home, isolating for at least a few more days. It’s a lonely spot, a kind of plush solitary confinement where complaining has no place, because, for one, no one can hear me. The pharmaceuticals might not work, but life continues mostly uninterrupted. I have my books, TV, computer, phone, food and a reservoir of self-pity. The dog looks at me and just shakes his head.

Being sick is never a Disney pleasure cruise. It’s more like “The Exorcist.” Since I started this post, I took the NyQuil half of the gel caps — it’s now past midnight — and the result seems preordained. I feel no better. I feel the same shade of blech. And I had high hopes for this one, with its shimmery emerald hue suggesting a soothing shot of absinthe. 

But no. The absinthe is absent. The NyQuil hasn’t made me drowsy and for some reason my ears feel like they’re stuffed with gauze, which means I have a brand-new symptom: deafness. 

Three more days of this, but of course it could drag on. I’ve quit the ‘Quils and will coast on bladder-bulging volumes of water and isn’t that the oldest home remedy in the book when you’re sick — fluids, more fluids. I think I saw that on “Little House on the Prairie” when Pa or a tween Laura Ingalls Wilder caught a chill. They drank like whale sharks. 

For now, that’s me. Bound for bloat on the good ship Covid. Glub, glub.

But I digress

Another installment of haphazard thought doodles, six hors d’oeuvres that I’m too lazy to whip into full meals. They’re presented numerically, but that’s just for looks. Rest assured, each item is equally trivial. 

1. In a thud of disappointment, I put down a book today that I had great hopes for — I hate that. Brandon Taylor’s story collection “Filthy Animals” just won the prestigious Story Prize for best book of short stories, so I snatched it up, cracked it, and eventually let out a blustery sigh of resignation, thinking, Pshaw. Not dreadful but not great, Taylor’s sexy social realism traces the romantic exploits of young LGBTQ+ couples, which is no longer novel yet still refreshing. His writing is spare and precise, but it’s also facile and shallow, sanded to a sterile remove. Physical descriptions trump psychological and emotional depth. Taylor’s stories have been compared to the light and prickly millennial sexcapades of Sally Rooney. Fair enough. But she’s sharper, cuts deeper. Has fangs. 

2. Cubby the über-pooch is doing fine, thank you, and he’s watching me as I type this, so things are sort of meta. I look at him back and see that his fuzzy Ewok face has striking human attributes. Like his eyelashes, which I rarely notice, are almost as luxuriant as Tammy Faye Bakker’s big, fake, bat-wing lashes. And his lower lip is like a little man’s with black lipstick. And his bottom teeth are just like tiny baby teeth. OK, now I’m starting to get creeped out.

3. Not creeping me out are the warm sentiments I received on my recent birthday, especially the nice words from one of my dearest exes, who wrote, “Our time together is one of my favorite chapters in life, for sure.” For three and a half years we had a blast, traveling Europe — Paris, Italy, Vienna, Istanbul, Greece — going to concerts, movies and plays, carousing and canoodling, and I’m thankful she’s still in my orbit. We were sweet and snarky. Here’s how she signed off: “Write me back, asshole! And have a very Happy Birthday.” Aww.

4. After quitting “Filthy Animals,” I grabbed the even more acclaimed “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” a collection of three memoirs by late Danish author Tove Ditlevsen, which comes wreathed in panting praise and strewn with confetti. Written from 1967-71 and embraced by a new generation of readers and critics, the memoirs, “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency,” have been hailed a masterpiece, “the product of a terrifying talent.” Having just started the book, my opinion of it is at best embryonic — the writing is stupendous — yet I’ve tweezed a piercing line from the early pages: “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.” That both chills and cheers me.

5. Once when I was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a young girl was selling sunscreen on the roadside. I asked her how much and she gave me an absurdly high price. I blurted, “You’re crazy!” She hissed back, “You crazy!” Just two weeks ago in Rome, I approached a taxi driver and told him the address to my hotel. “Forty euro,” he said, as if he wasn’t trying to blatantly fleece me by a full 25 euro. “You’re crazy,” I scoffed, to which he replied, “You’re crazy!” I really need to come up with a new line.

6. The latch on the back gate has broken, so the fence no longer makes a catching noise, it just sort of swooshes shut. That means you can’t tell if someone is coming or going. A ghost might as well be walking in. Or a serial killer.

The trip is going swell, and I haven’t even left yet

Just yesterday, Argentina lifted its Covid test requirements to enter the country. That had me high-fiving the heavens, until I realized it’s not that big a deal, just the removal of a minor headache on the to-do list of travel planning. Still, I’m very happy, as it’s one less document hassle, one less trip to the pharmacy and one less molestation of my mucus membranes. 

Even more exciting is my finding a flight to Buenos Aires in July for $200 cheaper than the flight I almost bought. And I’ve also realized the time difference between here and Argentina is a piffling two hours, which should mean minimal to zero jet lag. These serial boons bode well for a trip that was hatched just days ago. What next? I get bumped to First Class with my own personal masseuse?  

That’s all good news for this pessimist (aka: a frequently disappointed idealist), who tends to see the glass not half-full, but smashed to pieces on the floor after accidentally bumping it with a clumsy elbow, the half-empty contents gone splash. July is three months off, and a lot can happen. The world walks on rickety stilts, and banana peels abound.

For now, I’ll keep planning for the nine-day trip, while life cartwheels forth. Outside, birds tootle like madmen and the sun beats down with self-satisfied ardor. The dog grumbles at the plumber. I play drums to an old-school roster that includes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Metallica’s “Sad But True,” with B-sides of Black Crowes and Beck. 

I finally saw “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, frustrating mess (it’s a big shaggy dog licking you all over the face), led by the seductively quirky Alana Haim — and shut off the Will Smith tennis-dad vehicle “King Richard” when it failed to transcend ingratiating, made-for-TV pablum. 

I’m beguiled by the snappy, scrappy Netflix sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” whose 22-minute episodes I dip into like greasy finger snacks. And in the spirit of Argentina, I might, just maybe, watch the goopy 1997 musical “Evita,” starring Madonna as Eva Perón. 

(Fun facts: The director of “Evita,” Alan Parker, was a master genre-hopper: “Fame,” “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” “Midnight Express,” “Angel Heart,” “The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Angela’s Ashes,” and more. I once interviewed him. He was a mensch. Then I was assigned to review his new movie, “The Life of David Gale.” I gave it one star.)

But back to Buenos Aires, because that’s what really has me in its clutches. More good news on that front: I cinched a seat for in-demand steakhouse Don Julio, which is rated #34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I probably eat steak four times a decade, and since it’s an Argentine thing, I’m definitely tucking in. My chest may implode. I don’t care.

I’m sure I’ll eat a mess of foods I don’t normally eat, as I recently did in Portugal (veal, pork sausage) and Italy (beef cheek, suckling pig). I like to do what the locals do. I feel all authentic — and often horribly guilty.

To me, that’s the point of travel. Tasting the new (an entire cobra in Hanoi), witnessing the exotic (billowing funeral pyres in Kathmandu), grazing danger (being detained by Hezbollah in Beirut), meeting cool people (all those faces!).

Buenos Aires is sure to offer some of that. Places rarely fail me. And things are going well already. That thumping you hear is me frantically knocking wood.

Bird balm

My good friend Tiva just bought her young daughter a pet parakeet. It’s blue-green with a sloped yellow head and small enough to perch on the girl’s slight shoulder. Tiva texted a photo:

“You see a cute birdie,” I texted back. “I see dinner.”

This sentiment is more pressing when she tells me the tweetie thingy’s name: Pickles Billabong. (Pickles Billabong!) Naturally, I demanded to know who cursed the poor creature with this name, which is straight out of Dickens or Dr. Seuss at their most baroque, or most high. Her daughter, of course, is the culprit. 

“She came up with the name by looking at a list of bodies of water (river, brook, etc.) because the bird is a kind of aquamarine color and a billabong is a pond that is created when a river changes course. Pickles is because the bird is shaped like a pickle,” Tiva explains. I am impressed. 

“The bird is her best friend,” she adds, and I don’t know if I should smile or sob. 

She goes on to say that the daughter and her twin sister are having a turbulent time during Covid — they’re not sick, just bored and longing — and so Pickles serves as a kind of therapy animal. It’s the Prozac parakeet. 

Birds. Indeed. They’re the one pet, besides a rhino and a manatee, I never had growing up. I stuck to dogs, rats and cats, with the occasional fish, salamander and turtle thrown into the mix. 

No birds, and I can only guess we skipped them because our friends had parakeets and they were awful. They didn’t really do anything that’s anthropomorphically charming, like dogs, which are half-human anyway. There was no fetch or leg humping. I mean, really.

The birds seemed stuck in a poo-encrusted cage, bopping around, whistling occasionally, cocking their robotic heads. When they got out they flew all over the house, perching high up on the curtains to avoid human clutches, and were generally an avian pain in the ass. I desperately wanted to open a window and watch them flap away.

Not so now. I hope Pickles Billabong thrives as a bright, animated companion, although, according to experts, parakeets can live 10 to 20 years. On that note, I immediately start thinking about the best sauce for a tiny, braised bird. And what are the best sides — carrots, potatoes, pet rabbit? 

But this is somewhat serious. The girls are in a needy space. Covid has cut a hole in so many lives, and kids especially are confused and adrift. They wanted a friend, exotic, potentially chatty, therapeutic — some thera-keet. The bird then is a balm, sweet, attentive, pretty, and other things I’m sure. They do have a dog, but it’s more Tiva’s baby than the children’s. We’ll see how this whole thing flies.

Meanwhile, I wonder: Does the dog look up at old Pickles and go, “Yum, yum”? Good dog. 

Summer’s roar and pour

The sounds of summer: little girls shrieking in the park; the ice cream truck’s old-timey jingle-jangle; the living room fan’s sighing thrum; the glassy clank of the ice dispenser; the dog’s whistling nostrils as he naps to cool off.

Meanwhile, the sky is about to explode. 

Cool Whip clouds froth and darken, snuffing the sun with enveloping shadow. Then: thunder snaps and growls like splitting wood, and plump raindrops slap hard surfaces. 

It’s 90 degrees and, like that, it’s pouring and roaring. The sounds of summer. 

Only an hour ago I was walking in woolly humidity — the kind of goop that makes the small of your back immediately pool with sweat — under partly cloudy skies, typical summer climes on the East Coast. Which means, wear smart shoes and pack an umbrella.

No one cares that it kissed 100 degrees yesterday. Cloudbursts and thunderstorms are coming — have arrived — and while climate change is partly to blame, this is rather normal atmospheric behavior here and now.

I am so happy. Rain douses the heat, and temperatures can drop 20 degrees in less than an hour. Summer, foiled again! Lightning, so dazzling a sight, rakes bleak skies, and thunder makes Wagnerian drama.  

But they’re fickle, these wet, boisterous storms, with fitful, stop-start rhythms. Fooled into thinking one has passed, I jump at the chance to walk the dog.  

It’s hot as hell. The sun blazes — until it doesn’t. Shade suddenly blankets everything. Rumbles and cracks, those sounds of summer, augur trouble.

We get soaked. 

Camera vs. camera

Confessions of a caveman: I’ve only been using my iPhone as a full-fledged camera for the past five years. Moreover: I’ve only had a mobile phone since 2010. Before that: strictly land lines. Living in the Pleistocene epoch is terrifically underrated.

I never thought I’d need a cell phone (raucous laughter), especially one with a camera. Since 2006, I’ve owned a perfectly snazzy, distressingly pricey digital camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, acquired for my world travels. 

With its professional Leica lens — as thick and round as a small stack of poker chips, not one of those budget pinholes — the camera separates itself from most Best Buy point-and-shoots. It also boasts manual capabilities, a 4x optical zoom, 10.2 megapixels and a 16:9 widescreen, among other visual gymnastics. It fits in my palm. It’s a good camera.

On a whim, I recently took the Lumix out of storage — that’s how resoundingly my iPhone camera had dethroned the fancier shooter: it was in storage. I had an itch to take more pro-grade photos and reacquaint myself with my trusty travel companion and its battery of bells and whistles.

Before I knew it, I was the greedy shutterbug I once was, seeking beauty and the bizarre, fascinating faces, stunning architecture, and getting in the crouch-and-shoot stance demanded of dogs and children.

First, I made portraiture of Cubby, a study in nappy nobility:

The cat, sleek and skittish, was next:

Outside I snapped this, whose boldface signage is probably telling me something:

Now some iPhone shots, taken in Tokyo, Paris and Istanbul:

OK, so the little Queen of Hearts-sized iPhone appears to beat the pants off the Lumix in this demonstration. And my phone is ancient — a good five years old, perhaps a model 7. But the comparison isn’t quite fair. I’ve walked about six blocks over a few days with the Lumix taking pictures, while I traveled many years and thousands of miles with the iPhone, capturing exotic, iconic locations. Of course I have a similar stash of fine Lumix photos snapped in Japan, India, Texas and beyond, like these shots taken in Nepal, Beirut and Turkey, respectively:

There’s really no contest. Both contraptions take quality pictures. I prefer the Lumix as my main device — it feels like a real camera, for one. iPhones do not. They feel like Kit Kats. I find them unwieldy, tricky to aim, and the shoot button elusive and unreliable. Still, they produce knockout shots that get increasingly superior with each new model. And they handily fit in your pants pockets. 

The Lumix, comparatively, is a Land Rover to the iPhone’s Prius. But it’s not all that bulky. Like I said, I can grasp it in one palm and jam it in a coat pocket like a pack of cigarettes. It’s eminently portable. 

I’ll keep using both shooters for different occasions, the iPhone when I’m traveling ultra-light, the Lumix when I have more room and want more pictorial effects. Not sure which one wins, but it appears the race between cameras is the very picture of a photo finish.

Dogs with blogs

This actually happened. From 2012 to 2015, the Disney Channel aired a sitcom called “Dog with a Blog,” which was about the loopy shenanigans of a cookie-cutter suburban family whose dog just so happens to talk. 

And type. And write. So good is the dog, Stan, at writing that when everyone’s in bed, he slinks off to the glow of the family computer and authors a blog entry, reflecting on the day’s events, affairs and lessons. He does it in a wry voiceover mash of Steven Wright and Woody Allen (furnished by comedian Stephen Full). 

In the TV-spotless house of five, only the kids know Stan can talk. Of course the parents, big dopey grownups, have no clue the mutt can mutter. A show description: “The children learn of Stan’s talking ability and agree to keep it a secret from their parents, fearing if the world finds out that Stan can talk, he will be taken away for experimentation.”

(Experimentation?)

I watched “Dog with a Blog” with my pre-tween nephews, and it was one of the few kid’s shows I survived (the essential, wackadoodle “Adventure Time” is another). It’s actually very funny; not excessively clever, but wreathed with Stan’s dry, sardonic quips, which have a soft adult edge. 

Now, my dog, Cubby the Incandescent, also happens to blog. He’s followed my lead and decided he needed a forum for his daily observations and deep contemplations, things the world should know. Blogs: the great dumping grounds.

I’ve got Gnashing and, Cubby, as a canine, aptly has Gnawing. He’s quite adept at navigating the laptop keyboard, even if he occasionally hits the wrong key. As Stan says on the show, “Delete. Well, that couldn’t be clearer. Or more hurtful.” (Dear doggies, man isn’t your best friend; Command Z is.)

Though the kids know Stan talks, no one on the sitcom is aware Stan blogs. I sort of wish no one knew I blogged, and in fact, most of my closest friends are oblivious. If they find this place, great. I just don’t feel like advertising it. 

Why? Plain shyness. Writing is partly a private act, I think, though obviously I want to get some of it out there. It’s complicated. (Notice I post no recent photos of myself or my last name on this site. I’m the stealth blogger.) 

Cubby is more of a hambone. (Stan, I don’t know. It’s never clear who his readership is, if anyone.) Cubby will carry on about chasing the cats away from his bone, like a big hero. He’ll crow about yelping maniacally at the FedEx guy, as if the FedEx guy gives one goddam. He’ll lament the trauma of getting groomed (even though he takes sedatives before his haircuts). And somehow he wrings material from napping 16 hours a day. I’m pretty sure that’s where he cooked up the entry about hunting dik-diks on the Serengeti.

Me, I go for the absurd, offbeat, anecdotal and reminiscent, with some straight-up travel dispatches and lots of made up phooey. Unless you’re hawking a service — all those preening fashion, workout and health sites — the point of a blog, I think, is to entertain, elicit a laugh, enlighten with fun facts and regale with good photography. It’s to get personal, reveal who you are, and sometimes wrap it all in old-fashioned folderol. 

Like this whole post. Purely asinine. Though it goes to show the variety of blogs and bloggers out there doing hard work for their respective audience. We’re a motley crew. 

Stan’s a dog with a blog. 

Cubby’s a dog with a blog. 

And me? I’m a dawg with a blog.

Cubby gazing perplexedly at his own photo on the computer. He’s working on his next blog entry. More navel-gazing.

Animal magnetism

There’s a pet pig on our block that makes everyone who sees it do swiney swoons. 

Trixie, the pink lady with black spots, who’s shaped like an overinflated football or a throw pillow, clicks down the sidewalk, nibbling grass, snout and low-slung belly to the ground, attended by three canine pals of various proportions. 

It’s quite the gaggle, and neighbors can’t resist snapping photos, giggling and petting, as if Miss Piggy and Babe had shown up in the hood, snorting for truffles. (Watch the pig and her posse HERE.) 

You don’t often see people with squirrel monkeys wearing tiny doll diapers anymore — animal abuse is finally unfashionable — but you do see the random exotic critter with its human comrades, like Trixie, who will grunt chunky oinks to amuse the masses. 

George Clooney and Miley Cyrus have famously made happy house pets of pigs, and if they can do it … well, not so fast. Some fancy Google footwork will tell you pet pigs are very expensive to acquire and maintain. And they’re space-hoggers, tending to get ginormous and push you out of your bed and eat all your Froot Loops, despite contradictory claims by Wilbur and Piglet.  

I admit I know little about our local piggy, except that she’s a trendy potbellied or “teacup” pig, a pink porker with evolved social skills and an impressive tolerance of dogs and piping children. She’s housebroken and uses a litter box. Also: she doesn’t like carrots. 

But she appears to like people, probably because they lavish her with, say, corn cobs and tequila — and because they don’t eat her for breakfast. Trixie basks in the human attention. Like a baby panda, she’s a star, a crowd-pleaser, eliciting oohs, aahs and ha’s. Pig as people-puller.

Which brings me to an acquaintance I knew in Texas, an esteemed novelist and journalist, whose new book happened to earn a rave in this weekend’s New York Times. Actually, it brings me to his dog, specifically his sweet blonde Lab puppy, whose name escapes me. It’s been a while.

We were at a backyard party — my then-girlfriend Laura and I, the above writer, and a slew of good friends — and the writer brought his attention-starved puppy (with his attention-starved self). My girlfriend sprung to the dog, talked to it and stroked it. (This is the girlfriend who once dumped a beer on me. On purpose. Because she’s a genius.)

Writer guy watches Laura, and says this about his special new puppy: “He’s a real pussy magnet.” The writer beams a smutty smile. Laura’s cooing turns to booing. She looks like she bit into a lemon. I’m near enough to hear, but say nothing to writer fella, a burly chainsmoker, disheveled in look and manner. I don’t like broken thumbs. 

This digression about the magnetic puppy is to show how animals can reduce people to marshmallows, and make others crack profane for a wan laugh. (Is the dog also a penis magnet? Har-har.) It’s to show how human and beast forge singular bonds, be it pup or pig, because we all possess big, needy hearts, and everyone likes to be pet. And licked. 

I once had a crazy, lick-your-entire-face puppy that I would call an everybody magnet. Everybody loved her and she loved everybody and there was no stopping the mutual gush of adoration. She was in a perpetual frenzy that caused her to lick your tongue if you weren’t careful. A French kiss, Fido-style. (Was she a tongue magnet?)

It’s hard to picture Trixie, she of the stripper’s name and porcine puss, kissing anything that isn’t slathered in ranch dressing. There she is, flat snout fluttering, hoofs tap-dancing on the concrete in bountiful suburbia, surrounded by fawning people (the fans) and curious dogs (the flummoxed), and showered with organic love. I don’t know about my neighbors, but I think this humble pig is nothing short of a me magnet.

Ten great indies you may have missed

So my movie-watching in this Covid cocoon is drastically spotty — I have yet to see Korean-American family drama “Minari” or Anthony Hopkins as “The Father,” both Oscar winners — and I find myself returning to favorite films, classics new (“John Wick”) and old (“The Thin Man”). 

What’s stuck with me of late is a passel of small newish movies, from “The Rider” to “Eighth Grade,” that could easily be missed by casual viewers, despite the pictures’ celebrated exceptionalism. 

I’ve culled 10 semi-obscure indie pearls from the past several years, 2013 to 2020, a few of which I’ve gushed about before, and many coincidentally released by A24, the hot independent distributor that’s crushing the competition with curatorial savvy. 

I’ve seen the following titles at least twice, except for “Uncut Gems,” whose mad, relentless intensity has, two years later, left me spent. It’s a bruiser. And a winner.

Onward. These are 10 great indie films highly worth your time, in order of release:

  • “Locke” (2013) — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates via smart phone personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, claustrophobic and static. It’s not. It’s gripping, hypnotic, and exhilarating.
  • “The Witch” (2015) — The smartest, creepiest, most stylish horror picture in years, Robert Eggers’ frightfully immersive period chiller lands us in woodsy 1630 New England, where a family is torn apart by the disappearance of one of its children. Suspicions target eldest daughter Thomasin (wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit”), who may have flirted with the dark arts. Then there’s that menacing dancing goat, who’s not quickly shaken. Beware Black Phillip
  • “Tangerine” (2015) — Oh, is she pissed. When transgender hooker Sin Dee hears that her boyfriend and pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, she pops with glorious fury, tracking down him and his new lover and exacting a kind of sassy L.A. revenge that includes an inordinate amount of hair pulling. Move over, she’s stomping the sidewalk in teetering heels, cracking wise and hunting heedlessly. Sean Baker shot this scruffy, no-fi, Day-Glo gem on an iPhone, with stunning results. Raunchy and hilarious, it shimmers like a smoggy SoCal sunset.  
  • “Good Time” (2017) — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dangerous two-bit criminal who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The feisty film, by the gifted Safdie brothers, pulls you on a rousing run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it thrills as it harrows.
  • “The Rider” (2017) — Chloé Zhao’s understated drama moves at the painstaking clip of everyday life, much like her recent Oscar-winner “Nomadland.” But little is everyday here: Brady (non-actor Brady Jandreau) is a rock star of rodeo bronc riding, until an accident in the ring leaves him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of 2017, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie.
  • “Eighth Grade” (2018) — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and bucky, will break your heart. Played by the perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the magnetic lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s an arpeggio of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology, and forging one’s individuality amid willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for the times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow mightier upon each posting.
  • “Los Reyes” (2019) — In this inadvertently poetic, profoundly affecting doc from Chile, the camera veers from the skateboarding youth who cruise sinuous bowls to examine the laidback lives of BFFs (best furballs forever): Football, the elder, creaky-jointed cur, and Chola, the frisky female chocolate Lab mix that occasionally tries to hump a large pillow. Dispensing with anthropomorphic cutes, this astonishingly patient film relies on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters, or a simple shot of Chola standing statue-still in the rain, getting soaked with the patience of a penitent.
  • “Uncut Gems” (2019) — Adam Sandler is off the hook, and it’s enthralling, like a buzzsaw to the head. In full serio-comic mode — he’s funny and foredoomed — Sandler plays a blingy, dingy New York jeweler who sees dollar signs even when there aren’t any. When he makes a reckless, big bucks bet that could set him up for life, he gets ensnared in a web of business buds, family and foes who all want a piece. Writers-directors the Safdie brothers (of the above “Good Time”) sustain such a frenetic frenzy in this chamber dramedy, you may feel wrecked.  
  • “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) — The octopus cautiously unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship. Could this be love? “That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his rare doc. A viral smash, the film won this year’s best documentary Oscar. It’s something else: a simple tale about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa. Quietly instructive, it goes from lush nature doc to poignant octo-poetry.
  • “Saint Maud” (2020) — Poor innocent Maud. A reclusive nurse seeking Christian devotion after a vague trauma, she becomes the caretaker of an aging dancer dying of cancer. Detecting weakness, and death, Maud (a pretty, pallid Morfydd Clark) kicks into high gear, striving to save her ward’s soul from hellfire with an eerie resolve straddling the sacred and profane. Supernatural phenomena unfurl with a tang of Christian creepiness. Nothing is obvious in Rose Glass’ weird spiritual thriller, especially an amazing climax that will leave you snickering in squirmy, baffled awe.