Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Pixar Animation: A Definitive, 19-Film Ranking



The warmly (read: ridiculously hotly) anticipated Incredibles 2 may have already dropped stateside, but here in the U.K. we finally get to catch up with the Parr family at the end of this week. To mark the occasion, I recruited a group of fellow film fanatics to present you with this: a detailed, definitely definitive ranking of every other Pixar film so far. That's Toy Story right through to Coco. We all scored the films out of ten, forged an average (which you can see next to every title on this list), and the rest is clear. Does little Nemo swim his way to the top spot? Do Carl and Russell fly their house to pole position? Or does this gold medal belong in beautiful tapestries of the Land of the Dead? Find out below!


19. Cars 2 [4.6]


Angus: The sequel that nobody but your kids wanted, Cars 2 is the lowest point in Pixar's history. To give the film some credit, it does go in a different direction in ways that nobody would have predicted and not simply follow the same formula of its predecessor. The combination of espionage and racing didn't mix too well though, with the first film's most annoying character Mater gaining a more prominent role, leading to a fairly unpleasant experience. As usual, Pixar's animation is on point, with the introduction of different locations allowing the creators to showcase their abilities extremely well. On paper it's a fun idea, but one that Pixar perhaps should've had second thoughts on.


18. Cars 3 [5.2]


Nathan: Cars has always been the runt of the Pixar litter, very frequently relegated to the pits of any sensible ranking; the studio failed to change that with the second sequel, and Cars 3 continues to be a black mark against their name. With a screenplay that sticks to delivering more of the same instead of making any new, moving ruminations, it is a film that struggles to master the four-quadrant nature of animation: it feels more squarely aimed at the kids this time around. That’s no problem really, but it feels limited, a film that could have been more substantial should it have searched a little harder. Pixar are usually so strong at balancing their films for a wide audience, but this one resorts to spoon-feeding and exposition that the studio usually seems above; that it’s pushed closer towards two hours than 90 minutes is also a problem, hindering the momentum and causing it to splutter out after the first hour. It's a visually solid picture - but it lacks an emotional sophistication and satisfying justification to the whole thing; we've been there, done that.


17. The Good Dinosaur [5.2]


Madeleine: I honestly do think that this film would've been way better received if it wasn't a Pixar film - it's a wonderful film, but it does pale in comparison to recent Pixar films like Inside Out and it's because of that that people ranked it so low. While I can recognise that the story wasn't so strong, the characters and the relationship between the two main characters made me weep - and I'd just done my eyeliner, so it takes a lot for me to not hold back for the sake of that. The other strong suit is the animation - which is truly stunning.


16. Cars [5.8]


Martin: A world of sentient cars? Leave it to Pixar to take such a bizarre concept and make it work. Though by this point, the studio had so many great hits on their hands there was always going to be one that didn't quite hit those lofty standards. It is your average run-of-the-mill story about an egotistical car, Lightning McQueen, who is brought back into the slow lane when he comes across a down-on-its-luck town. The film is not nearly as memorable as some of Pixar's previous works, but it does the job of keeping you entertained. Though this is one of those films that definitely feels as though it was geared more towards the younger generation. Not a bad thing per se, but just not as emotionally layered as many of the studio's prior features, which is a real shame.


15. Brave [6.9]


Tom: When I occasionally look at people's Pixar rankings, Brave is almost always lumped towards the bottom end of the list. While the story isn't quite big or important enough to compete with Pixar's other features, Brave is still a mighty fine film that's full of endearing and affectionate humour, tender emotion and plenty of technical expertise. Its biggest asset is its resilient, flame-haired protagonist Merida - the classic Disney princess who yearns to break free from what's expected of her and follow her own path, but one that doesn't need a Prince Charming. She's an impressive protagonist because of her indomitable spirit, her stubbornness, her sense of humour and her heart - constantly butting heads with her mother and wishing for an end to her interference but ultimately, obviously, caring about her a great deal. The problem with Brave is that it isn't quite as imaginative or as revolutionary as other Pixar films, and the fact that the plot ends up being "her mother is turned into a bear" means that, while it's still a very worthy watch, it's not a film with a lot of re-watch value.


14. Monsters University [7.0]


Markus: Monsters University is a prequel to the fantastically creative and beloved Monsters, Inc. And it tells the story of how Sully and Mike went to the same college, butted heads, and eventually became friends. So we see those typical prequel themes while also seeing them having to deal with your typical college comedy problems like jocks, strict asshole teachers, and some kind of sports tournament. It's really generic, but it's still not a bad movie. While Monsters University is nowhere close to as good as the first movie, it still manages to get a few laughs out of me. No major gut-busting laughs, but some good chuckles. The cast is pretty stellar too. John Goodman and Billy Crystal are of course great, but we also have Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Sean Hayes, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Bobby Moynihan, Charlie Day, and a ton of others. So while the plot is uninspired and the character development a bit too bland, there's still too much good stuff to call it bad. The cast, the animation, a good amount of the comedy, and the opportunity to revisit this creative world all makes up for some of the lacklustre elements... for the most part.


13. A Bug's Life [7.0]


Nathan: A Bug’s Life is a film that has, rightly or wrongly, been dismissed. It’s considered something of a disappointment: one of Pixar’s more forgettable, disposable releases. Truth is, at the time of its debut in 1998, A Bug’s Life would have been entirely suitable, acceptable and enjoyable entertainment for the whole family; it is only now, when we view the film in retrospect next to Pixar’s other outputs, that it has come to be considered something of a disappointment. It is certainly one of Pixar’s most ‘basic’ films, emphasising visual gags over the verbal wit or humour that the studio frequently impresses with; there are traces of that in here but it lacks the sophistication and profound sense of theme work that has made Pixar films what they are today. It focuses on a misfit ant looking to protect the colony from greedy grasshoppers and there’s little to it beyond that, lacking any charm or narrative flourishes outside that very rudimentary conceit. With simple allegories and impressive animation, A Bug’s Life is effective enough. There’s certainly passion and creativity, it just doesn’t feel as smartly or carefully executed and there’s a reason few people remember A Bug’s Life, without any especially memorable or noteworthy elements.


12. Ratatouille [7.7]


Tom: This entry in the animation giant's back catalogue may pale in comparison to some of their more prolific projects, but Ratatouille very successfully explores the joy of food, tastes and flavours - starting off with our main character venturing on his culinary odyssey by experimenting with different flavours and experiencing different sensations, all of which is expertly illustrated by the use of colour and music. The film is a fun, entertaining ride and while Remy may not exactly be one of the studio's most memorable characters, he's given life by the amazing Patton Oswalt. The rest of the cast is great too - the unmistakable voice of Brad Garrett is a perfect fit for the endearing Chef Gusteau and of course Peter O'Toole is a bona fide scene stealer as the intimidating Anton Ego, reminding us how certain people discovered their love of food at a young age in one of Pixar's more revered sequences. All in all, it's a film with generous amounts of imagination, passion and technical skill but, in terms of longevity, I reckon it lies somewhere down the middle - more hopeful than some of the studio's weaker projects, but far away from the more beloved classics.


11. Finding Dory [7.9]


Ryan: Pixar made us wait over a decade to catch up with our underwater friends but, luckily for us, Finding Dory was worth the wait. While it's far from the heights (read: depths) of the original, and the new roster of fishy faces didn't quite shine the way most Pixar supporting characters do, Finding Dory was a confident sequel that provided an imaginative, surprisingly emotional spin on the film's own title. While Marlin travelled oceans to find his son back in Finding Nemo, Pixar's sequel instead opts to look at finding oneself amid a a sea of uncertainty. Finding Dory is reliably funny and gorgeously animated, but it's the heartfelt storytelling of one fish coming to both understand and accept herself that makes this film click.


OUT SOON: Incredibles 2



Markus: So our (for the most part) lovely host Ryan asked me to write a short "What can we expect?" piece for Incredibles 2. Well... I don't know, honestly. Early reviews are quite positive, so that's a good sign. And Brad Bird is a director who has only directed good stuff (haven't seen Tomorrowland, so I can't comment on that). From the first Incredibles, to Iron Giant, to Mission Impossible, the dude hasn't disappointed me yet, so I'm not really worried. I'm excited to see what the Parr family would be up to after the events of the first movie. I fully expect good action scenes and some enjoyable family dynamics along with some gorgeous animation. Not much else I can say really. In Brad Bird we trust.


The Top Ten

10. Monsters, Inc [8.4]


Angus: Monsters, Inc showcases Pixar's sheer creativity with its ingenious look at the world of monsters. Yet again, the film is filled with fantastic characters including genuinely creepy villains that rank among animation's best. The deeper message of what's on the inside mattering most is also very positive and fantastic for a children's film. In saying that, the film does have some great emotional moments as Pixar continued to show early on how they could pull at their audience's heartstrings. Pixar's success does owe a lot to this film as it was one of the first out with the Toy Story series to showcase the studio's knack for quality animation and helped to pave the way for future films.


9. WALL-E [8.6]


Martin: It is quite an accomplishment to go 30 minutes into a film without a single line of dialogue being spoken and establish a real connection with your eponymous lead character, but WALL-E achieves that and then some with its beautiful but yet quite dark story of a future in which humanity has left Earth behind us in a mountain of garbage. WALL-E's world transforms when he meets EVE, a female robot who WALL-E falls (what is the robot equivalent of head over heels?) for. Fusing its soppy but heartfelt story of robot love, the core message at the heart of this movie is some serious stuff that is likely to go completely over the heads of younger viewers. However, it is one that in our ever-increasingly populated world is just as relevant today as it was back in 2008. It's wholly original and masterful storytelling from Pixar that, if it hadn't already done so by this point, cemented their status as one of the finest animation studios around.


8. Toy Story [9.1]


Madeleine: Though it's lead me to worry about my teddy bear's feelings for years, Toy Story has such a massive place in my heart for the same reason everyone loves it: it's a great storyline with the brilliance lying in the characters. They are all instantly loveable figures which is a hard feat to do with so many of them, but Wheezy through to Woody each and every one is as well written as they are loved. Not only that, but its groundbreaking animation is obviously historic - and the songs. It's just so good. There's a reason it's still so present over two decades on.


7. The Incredibles [9.1]


Angus: The Incredibles isn't just one of the best animated films of recent times, it's one of the best superhero and action films of the century so far as well. The film is a perfect blend of action, comedy, heart and animation that is yet to replicated in the 10+ years since its release - sequel pending. The film even succeeds in providing a great villain who seems to be reflecting modern day fan culture, ensuring the film continues to be relevant over a decade after its release. The Incredibles is a total blast from start to finish and is enjoyable for everyone with the fun, troubled and interesting family covering all bases, leaving it only fitting to be described as incredible.


6. Toy Story 2 [9.2]


Tom: Toy Story 2 is a mightily impressive sequel that's on par with its predecessor, containing elements that made the first film so wonderful, but also raising the stakes and setting itself on a much larger scale - treating us to an exhilarating adventure with the perfect amount of both laughs and affecting emotional moments, further reflecting on how much toys mean to a child and the joy that comes with being part of a child's life, rather than existing as a museum piece. The inherently loveable characters from the previous film return, and of course we also get plenty of great new characters like Jessie, Bullseye, Al, Stinky Pete and Emperor Zurg - all played with heartfelt zeal by the film's superb cast. Toy Story 2 continued to showcase Pixar's increasing technical skill and Randy Newman's music - complete with several new pieces including the heartbreaking "When She Loved Me" - hits all the right notes. Toy Story 2 is one of the greatest movie sequels, and a bonafide Pixar classic. 


5. Toy Story 3 [9.3]


Martin: Sometimes, the third film in a trilogy can be the worst, and sometimes it can arguably be the best. This is one of the latter examples. With Andy off to College, his toys are bound for the attic until a disastrous turn of events leads them to a day care. This starts off well for them, but quickly turns into a terrible play time session for Woody and the gang. The main bunch of toys all remain effortlessly watchable, but the film brings some excellent new additions, including Michael Keaton (yes, really) as Ken and Ned Beatty as Lotso. Bringing a Shawshank-esque element to its third act was a masterstroke in storytelling, and who could forget the Spanish Buzz? Of course, like with most Pixar films, there are a couple of moments here (you know the ones) that are guaranteed to get the audience weeping too. So long indeed, partner... 


4. Finding Nemo [9.3]


MarkusWhat we have here with Finding Nemo is a beautifully animated adventure filled with good lessons, solid character development, funny jokes, and one of the best animated characters ever in the form of Dory. The movie really makes you feel for Marlin's plight, while still making you understand that he's not a perfect person... fish... individual. Pixar has always been groundbreaking in terms of their animation, and Finding Nemo is no different in that regard. Never before has the ocean been portrayed so beautifully yet realistically in an animated feature, and it has still yet to be rivalled. And the voice cast is pretty fantastic too. Albert Brooks, Alexander Gould and Ellen DeGeneres are terrific as the leads, but then we also have people like Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Stephen Root, John Ratzenberger (duh), Geoffrey Rush, Vicki Lewis, and Willem god damn Dafoe. It's one of the those adventures that I just fell in love with the first time I saw it when I was a child. And it's stuck with me for years. Finding Nemo is honestly my favourite Pixar movie.


3. Up [9.3]


Ryan: Pixar's imagination and knack for emotionally charged storytelling have always been their strongest attributes, so when they land on their most imaginative concept yet and open it with a sequence so touching it brought families around the world to tears, you kind of get the vibe you're in for something special. Up is very much special, taking us on a wild journey in the company of a grumpy old man, an excitable young boy, a talking dog and a female bird called Kevin. It's about as wacky as it sounds, but writer/director Pete Docter refuses to run his film for longer than 15 minutes without rekindling the emotional stakes behind every character beat and crazy innovation. Up reminds us, implores us, to make every moment count, to always remember those who are important to us, and to never, ever, give up on our dreams. Who knows, maybe some day your home will rest upon the cliffside of paradise too.


2. Coco [9.5]


Madeleine: No film has wrecked me as much as Coco did. It is the only time in my cinema experience that I have had to sit with my hand clamped over my mouth to stop me from wailing. It really is the most gorgeous story, so immersive in how it presents the culture with truly stunning animation and wonderful music that still, I'll admit, makes me well up even now. The characters are gorgeous, the story so unpredictable and unlike anything I've seen. One of, if not the best films to come out of Disney and Pixar ever.


1. Inside Out [9.5]


Nathan: It didn’t take long for Pixar’s Inside Out to be considered a masterpiece. It had all the markings of a future classic, one that will stand with the likes of Toy Story, The Lion King and Spirited Away as one of the strongest animations of all-time; that it topped our list just three years after its release, besting more established flicks like Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc and The Incredibles, is a testament to its brilliance and creativity that will endure for many more years to come. Gorgeous animation is nothing to be surprised at with Pixar but the sheer beauty, precision and creativity of every shot here is astonishing still, and not something we should take for granted: it is showcased no better than as we explore young Riley’s mind, landscapes and set pieces bursting with colour and oozing with ingenuity. It may seem quite narratively complex on the surface but director Pete Docter ensures that it remains every bit as accessible for younger audiences as it does powerful for those who have left their childhood and adolescence behind.

It so profoundly evokes memory and is so universally relatable in its themes, with touching messages that transcend what we give animation credit for, brought stunningly and sophisticatedly to life by a talented, nuanced set of writers, an excellent voice cast, skilled animator and a director who brings all of that together so sharply and astutely. Oh, and Michael Giacchino’s score is one of the decade’s very best, enriching the film emotionally and with charm to spare. In every single respect, Inside Out is a crowning achievement, a masterpiece that shines even in the brightest of filmographies and an example of film making (not just animated film making, but film making in general) magic. It is with great privilege that we reveal Inside Out as our Greatest Pixar Film.

-

Friday, 16 March 2018

Film Review: Science fiction rarely comes as paradoxically human and alien as Annihilation


There's nothing more exciting than the reinvigoration and golden age of a genre. What with Arrival and Interstellar and The Last Jedi and Blade Runner 2049 (which I did eventually come around on), it's exactly what's happening to science fiction right now. While these are all terrific films, what each of them lack is ambiguity - despite the complicated shenanigans going on, everything is ultimately explained on screen. A big part of me has been longing for a film to bring back the unavoidably alien enigma and mystery of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey (the defining science fiction film of all time) and hold that tone until the credits roll - it's a big ask, I know, but I wanted something to give it a go. Annihilation, the second film by Alex Garland, takes a deep breath, gives it a shot and only goes and lands the bloody thing.

To put it simply, a meteor landed on Earth three years ago and the crash site has since been engulfed by a bizarre barrier referred to as The Shimmer. Task forces have been sent in, but none have returned besides one man - soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is hardly in a fitting state when he resurfaces a year later. Biologist, and Kane's wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), along with a group of other women - paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) - are tasked with entering the Shimmer for a research expedition in an attempt to work out whatever the Hell is going on inside.

It becomes clear very early on that Annihilation is building to something, but we're never able to figure out quite what it has its sights on. Garland, who also wrote the film's script, handles the build up impeccably, knowing precisely when to drop hints and gives answers, and when to hold back his real hand. The gorgeous cinematography from Rob Hardy is accompanied fittingly by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's score, an arrangement that makes use of both quietly disconcerting string pieces and screeching electronic synths. It's a mash of styles that feels both familiar and foreign, something that Annihilation itself can also lay claim to - we rarely get a scenic shot of the Shimmer's natural environment without some form of mutation lurking within the frame, reminding us that, while we remain firmly on Earth, we're not entirely in our own world anymore.

It creates an eerie, nightmarish atmosphere that snaps into play the moment Lena steps into the Shimmer and doesn't cut out until the film ends. Much like how Annihilation feels both human and alien, the film also plays with other contradictions - the atmosphere we find ourself in is unmistakably nightmarish, and yet the film's slow pacing and colourful scenery is more reminiscent of a dream you don't want to end. Annihilation is endlessly dreamlike and, as our characters venture further into the unknown in search for answers, it's not difficult to view Garland's film as a metaphor on the journey into the subconscious, to a place where answers await us without us actively seeking them out. Both Lena and Dr Ventress talk frequently about wanting answers, something the film itself remains hell bent on not giving us until we work them out for ourselves.

Annihilation is most concerned, though, with the concept of self destruction, and the ways in which we interpret and process our pain and suffering. In a beautifully played scene, Cass talks with Lena about how each of the women on the mission is hurting from something, a broken marriage or suicidal tendencies or the loss of a child. As the film progresses it strengthens and complicates its interpretation of self destruction further, but to go into too much detail would be to ruin a final act rich with surprises that should remain unspoiled. Garland begins to look at the duality of the self, at humanity as fragmentation - a scene in which Lena quite literally battles herself begins with unadulterated horror, shifts into something uncomfortably beautiful, and finally lands on a thematic metaphor that could be too on the nose but instead feels entirely justified. Garland's control over his film is breathtaking, the confidence and ambition he displays in just his second feature is truly commendable - even more so because he actually pulls the damn thing off.

Rather surprisingly - and, initially, frustratingly - Annihilation is wrapped around a flashback structure. We meet Lena in the present, are made aware that she survives the mission, and watch what happened as she tells the scientists debriefing her. It's an unusual narrative choice for a film of this nature, as it innately robs Annihilation of a source of tension since we know Lena survives any danger she finds herself in - although, a sequence involving a mutated bear is sickeningly intense enough for you to forget that. In any other film I'd perhaps consider this form of narrative structure a gimmick, a weakness even, but the rest of Garland's film is comprised of such surefire precision that I find myself looking at this framework differently. Are we to trust what we see here? After all, we're only watching Lena's retelling - and, thus, her version - of these events, why should we believe her? It adds a layer to the film that will provide endless speculation and interpretation, especially as Garland drops just enough logical abnormalities for us to not quite buy into what we're being told. Again, his control here is masterful.

Annihilation must also be commended not only for its mostly female cast, but for its tackling of such an element. The film never sells itself as female science fiction or acts as if what it's doing is progressive, it instead uses its cast to complicate its characters and enrich the dynamic between them - it's immediately tough to imagine the film working this well with a core cast of more than one gender. Natalie Portman leads the way with a performance likely to grow in stature as the film is remembered, her emotional distance and stunning physicality in the film's finale is reminiscent of her work in Aronofsky's Black Swan, yet here she presents us with less clarity - it's both a more focused performance and a more withholding one. The rest of the film's cast are uniformly excellent, each actress given her moment to sell herself, but it's Portman the film belongs to - her work in the film's final act is sure to cement her place among the short list of classic female sci-fi performances.

Annihilation will prove divisive, but cinema of this wavelength should strive for such a response. No one made a classic by catering to easy triumphs, no film is remembered for how well it plays by the rulebook. Garland's first feature, Ex Machina, was gritty sci-fi with a soul, but Annihilation is a colossal step forward in every regard. It's more ambitious, it's more conceptual, it's more thought provoking and narratively complex and thematically dense. This is science fiction that will be remembered, the kind of film that will hopefully inspire a new generation of film makers to make what they want to make, not what people want them to make. It is bold, dizzying stuff from Garland, and likely to keep his name in the headlines for the rest of his career. Good luck topping this one, 2018.


In A Sentence

Anchored by a bold performance from Natalie Portman, Annihilation is modern science fiction that shatters expectation and refuses to simplify its meaning, resulting in a film as unnervingly beautiful as it is ambiguously cerebral.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Best TV Episodes of the Decade


I figured it was high time I updated this list. We'll dive straight into this one as it's bound to get rather long. I've limited it to one episode per show, for obvious reasons, and beware - there are spoilers...



20. "Modern Warfare" Community (2010)


I wasn't a huge lover of Community as a show. In fact I gave up with it around the midpoint of its second season, but even the show's biggest naysayers would struggle to deny the ingeniousness of season one peak "Modern Warfare". Spoof episodes are a tough beast to crack, but Community made it look easy - everything plays out with a hilarious seriousness, and as the episode's events snowball into a conclusion it somehow brings the season's romance subplot front and centre too. It's the kind of episode not many shows could get away with, but one so perfectly suited to Community's hyper-meta self awareness that it's tough not to have a total blast with.


19. "The Reichenbach Fall" Sherlock (2012)


Sherlock has, by nature, always been a plot heavy show - it's part of what caused its downfall by season three. The once great series peaks in its second series finale with "The Reichenbach Fall", an episode that makes a solid claim to be one of the smartest stories British TV has ever seen. It permanently feels incredibly personal to its characters but plays out with global ramifications, creating a story as emotionally explosive as it is jaw-droppingly intelligent. That it also ends on a cliffhanger that genuinely got the country talking merely feels like a bonus - Sherlock had already put in all the necessary work to make "The Reichenbach Fall" a surefire classic in waiting. 


18. "Twilight of the Apprentice" Star Wars Rebels (2016)


Star Wars Rebels may not be a consistently great show, but every time it tackles something major it absolutely nails it. "Twilight of the Apprentice" remains Rebels' greatest hour, a phenomenally intense and emotionally rich season finale that boldly abandons half of its central cast in favour of providing a vehicle for its equally as interesting supporting characters. It's the show's best looking episode by a long mile, and one of the rare TV episodes that genuinely comes coupled with a sense of "nothing will ever be the same again" - felt most effectively in the episode's stunning concluding montage. The following season ultimately dropped the ball and frustratingly wrote its way around some of the game-changing developments "Twilight of the Apprentice" makes, but the episode itself still remains flat out terrific.


17. "Possession" Penny Dreadful (2014)


You don't see many flat out, all out horror television shows - they usually come attached to another subgenre or don't really prioritise being scary. Penny Dreadful fits that trend nicely, but in the penultimate episode of its debut season it gave us exactly what we wanted: flat out, all out horror with scares firmly in its eyesight. Eva Green's performance borders on revolutionary for both the genre and the medium, and the episode itself unfolds with an uneasy sense of dread before launching into an explosive, horrifying finale. "Possession" is essentially an hour long exorcism with a hell of a lot at stake - TV doesn't come scarier than this. 


16. "Who Goes There" True Detective (2014)


The show's second season may have fallen off the rails a bit, but it's tough to argue the brilliance of True Detective's first run. "Who Goes There" is already a stellar episode of the show, packed with first rate dialogue and surprising narrative developments, but when it wraps on a six minute unbroken tracking shot that follows two characters through a suburb-wide shootout, you kind of get the feeling you're watching something special unfold. The scene is executed with both chaos and clarity, and by the time it's all over you'll probably feel physically drained by how intense the whole thing was. The show is back for a third season later this year, but anything it serves up will struggle to dethrone this as its finest hour.


15. "Beryl" The Crown (2017)


Arguably the best thing about The Crown's best episode to date is that it very rarely actually feels like an episode of The Crown. By nature the show has to be somewhat emotionally distant, it frequently discusses why too, but Princess Margaret's season one subplot reaches a stunning, moving endgame in the season two episode "Beryl". Vanessa Kirby is electrifying here, completely selling Margaret's spiral into depression and ultimate rejuvenation through finally finding someone to love, and the shift away from Elizabeth and Philip's A-plot is satisfyingly refreshing. The episode is stripped bare emotionally and surprisingly seductive, it's like watching a 1950s royal melodrama on steroids - it's everything The Crown usually isn't.


14. "Kissing Your Sister" Veep (2016)


I don't wish to get too carried away with hyperbole here, but Veep's "Kissing Your Sister" is probably the funniest episode of TV ever written. After spending a whole season with Katherine filming odd moments in the background, the Emmy winning series finally goes full mockumentary and lets us watch the doc Katherine has made over the course of season five. The episode re-contextualises old scenes, uses an interview framework to deepen its characters further, and allows this first rate cast to experiment a bit and play themselves a little differently. That, and it's just endlessly, painfully hilarious for every second of its runtime - I've since watched it countless times, and I never laugh any less.


13. "The Bicameral Mind" Westworld (2016)


After an astonishing nine episodes, the success of HBO sci-fi Westworld's debut season hinged entirely on its finale. To no-one's surprise, it paid off. "The Bicameral Mind" is everything you could want from a season finale: it's big, loud and action packed; it seamlessly rounded off the first act of development for its terrific characters; it provides jaw dropping twists that send you diving back in for a re-watch while providing a new framework for the next run of episodes. Westworld felt "big" as a concept since the moment it started, but "The Bicameral Mind" shatters the very definition of the word - what we'd just seen was only the beginning, and that couldn't prepare us for what comes next.


12. "Thanksgiving" Master of None (2017)


One of the biggest strengths of Aziz Ansari's Master of None has always been its ability to take minority figures and tell their stories on simple but deeply emotional levels. The show's best episode is "Thanksgiving", an episode that hands the reins over to the endlessly loveable Denise (played beautifully here by Lena Waithe, who also co-wrote the episode with Ansari) to tell the story of how a young black girl came out as gay to her religious family. It touches on familiar thematic beats, but it never feels any less than stunningly personal, acting as a window into a very much real family that we probably wouldn't see on any other show. The concept of unfolding the episode over various Thanksgiving dinners over the years is quite simply a masterstroke in coming-of-age storytelling, and when the episode concludes with Denise's family sitting down for dinner in full acceptance of her sexuality for the very first time, you'll feel more moved by the whole story than you expected you'd be.


11. "Total Rickall" Rick and Morty (2015)


Rick and Morty, sometimes, can be too smart for its own good. It's the rare show that knows how good it is. "Total Rickall" is the show's best episode because it walks the line effortlessly: it's ridiculously clever, but it never slips into smugness. It's perhaps elevated by being far and away the show's funniest episode to date - from Mr Poopybutthole to Reverse Giraffe, from Sleepy Gary to Summer's kitchen encounter with a Morty who very much thought he was home alone - and the nature of knowing your real family through your bad memories of them is paradoxically both dark and strangely hard-hitting. It's everything Rick and Morty usually is, but somehow it's just a little bit more than that - in a show of endless intelligence, it might be the one episode I'd call ingenious.


10. "Michael's Gambit" The Good Place (2016)


If you want to know how to pull off a good plot twist then watch "Michael's Gambit", the season one finale of The Good Place, because boy oh boy does it pull off one hell of a plot twist. After a debut season that ended nearly every episode on a cliffhanger of sorts, The Good Place saved the best until last. Not only is it entirely self destructive - it literally blows up the premise it's so carefully laid out over the preceding twelve episodes - but it makes perfect sense, both narratively and thematically. You'll kick yourself for not guessing it sooner. The show's second year was full of even more shocks and surprises, but nothing the show ever does will outdo the brilliance of this game changing season finale. Michael, you clever, clever sod.


9. "One Last Ride" Parks and Recreation (2015)


I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that, with "One Last Ride," Parks and Recreation served up the greatest finale of all time. As well as just being a brilliantly funny episode in its own right, "One Last Ride" uses a flashforward framework to allow us a glimpse into the futures for all the characters we've come to love over the show's seven season haul. Parks boasted some of the most interesting, loveable people on TV for quite some time, so there's just something indescribably emotional about seeing everything turn out okay for every last one of them, before cutting back to the present and watching them set off on their journeys to get there. 


8. "Blackwater" Game of Thrones (2012)


At its best, Game of Thrones fluctuates between being an explosive, thrilling action series and a confidently character driven one. The show has served up bigger (and arguably better) battles than that of "Blackwater" but none of those come coupled with the character focus that this episode represents. The show's first real foray into action film making is undeniably impressive - that wildfire explosion is unforgettable - but it's the moments between the fighting that resonate the most. Cersei drunkenly terrifying Sansa, her maternal instincts kicking in to pull Joffrey from the front lines yet her fear of capture leading to her attempted poisoning of young Tommen. It's perhaps the only episode of Game of Thrones to so effectively combine both breathtaking action thrills and gripping, complex dialogue - the two things that define what this show can achieve when the pieces really fall into place.


7. "eps3.5_kill-pr0cess.inc" Mr Robot (2017)


How many episodes of TV can lay claim to being almost a 50-minute montage and never losing focus? Not many, but Mr Robot nails such a daunting task with confidence. In "Kill Process," Mr Robot finally landed on the conclusion it had been building towards for two and a half years, and the gut punch it pulls in its very final moments - when you realise everything Elliott had been working to prevent was still coming, but a whole lot worse because of his own actions- is the rare plot twist that hits both the heart and the gut at once. You know what it means for both the characters and the future of the show itself, so when the episode cuts to black after its finest hour to date, you're left to sit in silence, wondering how anyone can come back from what you just witnessed.


6. "International Assassin" The Leftovers (2015)


Across its heartbreakingly short three year tenure, The Leftovers served up episode after episode of masterworks - but it never quite topped "International Assassin". It's an episode that takes place entirely in a world and a dimension that isn't our own and yet the stakes feel more real than ever. In order to banish the ghosts he sees, Kevin is forced to take a trip to the realm of the undead and is there presented with an impossible task. Aesthetically, "International Assassin" feels like being plunged into the concept of abstraction itself - the score, production design and cinematography all feel both classically human and unnervingly alien - and emotionally the episode perhaps lands on its darkest ever material. "International Assassin" may be the show's most divisive hour, but it's also the one that most perfectly demonstrates the crazy, visionary nature of all that The Leftovers was.


5. "The Law of Non-Contradiction" Fargo (2017)


Narratively speaking, "The Law of Non-Contradiction" is an entirely pointless hour of TV - and we know that from the outset. Gloria Burgle's trip to L.A. can not and will not aid her investigation, but she thinks it will; she doesn't have the information we have. Rather than an episode that furthers the mystery or the plot, then, we have one that becomes a profound, complex analysis of futility and pointlessness. An episode that argues that meaning can be derived from randomness, that purpose can be drawn from coincidence - we don't always need to find the answers we seek in order to gain deeper understanding. Gloria's plot is engaging enough as it is, but it's the episode's little cutaways to the animated tale of The Planet Wyh that push Fargo's efforts here into true greatness. "I can help!" says little robot MNSKY repeatedly, to everyone he comes across. Yes you can, buddy, but not the people you realise, and not for a very, very long time indeed.


4. "Heaven Sent" Doctor Who (2015)


Steven Moffat, regardless of what you think of his writing, made Doctor Who a notably more cinematic show. Peter Capaldi, regardless of what you think of his character, lent a gravitas to Doctor Who that the show hadn't felt before. When you combine and isolate their respective efforts, you get "Heaven Sent" - an episode written by Moffat, starring only Capaldi, and probably the greatest episodic achievement the show will ever have. "Heaven Sent" is gorgeously conceived and jaw-droppingly ambitious, but it nails its high wire concept purely because every last component is functioning at peak capacity - the writing, direction, score, editing, cinematography and Capaldi's performance come together like clockwork to craft an episode that endlessly threatens to get so big that it can only collapse. Collapse it doesn't, though. Instead, it wraps with a montage so intense, so stunningly powerful that our very interpretation of the episode is shattered before our eyes. It'll blow your mind and break your heart - two things Doctor Who does quite often, but very rarely at the same time.


3. "San Junipero" Black Mirror (2016)


If you can find an episode of television more beautiful and more emotional than "San Junipero" then I'd like to see it. Here's the thing: Black Mirror never has a happy ending. Not until now, not until Yorkie and Kelly. "San Junipero" unfolds its real intentions slowly, through some of the most intricately penned dialogue you'll likely ever hear, but when it reaches its final act and you come to realise the emotional gravity of what's at stake, that's when the ingeniousness of this episode truly strikes. Just this once, everything turns out okay - and yet, it doesn't. "San Junipero" is the definition of bittersweet, the happiness of its ending only exists because of lifetimes of pain and emotional suffering. It's a visually and emotionally beautiful piece of storytelling, and one that, I'd argue, could work to redefine how we see love stories for years, even decades to come.


2. "Mizumono" Hannibal (2014)


Hannibal's "Mizumono" is a perfect season finale, and yet it very rarely comes across like an episode of Hannibal. It's violent, artistic and endlessly gripping like most Hannibal episodes, but it seems to strike a tone unlike any other - after a full season that felt like time was running out, "Mizumono" lands as if the clock expired ages ago. There's a breathless urgency to the episode as we wait for it to land on the flash-forward sequence that opened the season, and amid all the bloodshed and emotional trauma (and, believe me, there's a lot of it) "Mizumono" somehow finds time to bring back a character we long thought dead only to kill them off again for real. It's bold, it's brutal and it's blindingly intense - the perfect capper to a phenomenal season of TV. 


1. "Ozymandias" Breaking Bad (2013)


If the last two episodes of Breaking Bad felt slower and less explosive than what came before, that's because they're really the epilogue: "Ozymandias" is the show's finale. The episode that concluded five years worth of plot and character development, "Ozymandias" begins with an emotional sledgehammer to the gut, and the blows just don't stop coming. It's a devastating, almost unwatchable hour of television for how cruelly it takes down every last shred of hope we as viewers had, and yet every beat feels organic and, well, just right. It features a bullet to the head that sends shockwaves down your spine, a sequence inside a family home that shakes you to your core, and a resolution that makes you question why you ever wanted to watch the damn thing in the first place. "Ozymandias" is a masterpiece of both story and character - I can't ever say that I enjoy watching it, but it is completely, unequivocally brilliant.