Podcasting is the hardest thing that everything thinks they can do. It’s like writing on the Internet: Opinions are currency, and if you have enough you think you can pretty much get away with anything. Let a movie critic get behind the mic and you’ll be suppressing rage mixed with FOMO hearing all of the good movies that have come out that you won’t be able to see for at least six months.
Which is why the best movie podcasts of 2016 were those which, whether they enjoyed an established brand or not, continued to figure out what it is they were actually there to do. It’s partly why I love podcasts so much, or at least why I love the podcasts that I love so much: The medium, immediate and often improvisatory, lends itself uniquely to change. It costs barely anything to record, so why not just start and see what happens?
I wrote a column this year called An Ear for Film, so I know a thing or three about what constitutes good podcasting. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture. As an opinionated Internet Writer/Editor, you should probably listen to me describe someone dancing about architecture before anyone else.
The following are all movie-based podcasts I adored in 2016, but shout-out to others I discovered now in regular rotation—Fighting in the War Room; Black Men Can’t Jump (in Hollywood); Loose Canon; I Was There Too; Cinematic Sound Radio; The Cinephiliacs; The Talkhouse; The Film Comment Podcast—as well as the podcasts everyone knows, for good reason: The Flop House, Filmspotting (SVU too), The Canon (RIP?) and Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment.
Justin Decloux and Will Sloan know no one is really asking for another movie podcast hosted by more than one erudite white guy, so they operate as if no one’s listening (and, in most accounts, it seems like no one is) and don’t pretend their conceit is any more original than any other movie podcast hosted by more than one erudite white guy. Each week, the two introduce a filmmaking topic shrouded in some sort of renown, and then run a primer on why that thing—person, genre, event—is worth knowing about, given that, in a culture of hot takes and all access, any one person only has so much time to consume something supposedly worth that time. It helps that by sticking to directors (Orson Welles, Wong Kar-Wai, Lucio Fulci, Sammo Hung) and assorted filmstuff (Warren Beatty, the Toronto International Film Festival, Steven Seagal, the Friday the 13th series) they love, they can build up an authority that pays handsomely when it comes to having people take their recommendations seriously, but that’s not why anyone should listen to The Important Cinema Club. You should listen to the Important Cinema Club because everything they talk about is completely soaked in their love, in the kind of love that demands a lot of reading and research and humility and the kind of genial nature that sees the words “soaked in their love” and thinks that was a good thing to write.
Start Here: Episode 39: “The Toronto International Film Festival Special,” in which two guys who live there both reflect on their times spent at TIFF—which they seem to have either sparsely attended this year, or not attended all—and decry what TIFF has become, demonstrating the kind of existential FOMO that makes me very personally, futilely angry on a regular basis.
Mike White makes podcasts the way I write: We overdo everything and we can’t help it. If he’s going to explore Jacque Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, he’s going to have Jonathan Rosenbaum help him; if he’s going to talk to Oliver Stone, then he’ll invite Matt Zoller Seitz to the podcast in order to serve as his trusty #2, but presciently remove himself from the back-and-forth while Seitz (who literally wrote the book on the director) shares a believably chummy repartee with the filmmaker. If he’s going to have a 300th episode, it’s going to be three and a half hours long, cover Highlander, and talk to living-death the director and screenwriter. Whether White is a fearless interviewer or he’s just unable to not say absolutely everything that comes to mind, it hardly matters: The podcaster demands respect both for his support of Detroit-area film festivals and events, and for his peerless attention to film fandom. If he thinks a movie is worth watching, he does whatever he can to let people know—know everything—about it.
Start Here: Episode 262.5: “Special Report: Room Full of Spoons,” in which White welcomes Rick Harper, director of documentary Room Full of Spoons, a film that chronicles the making of The Room but ends up being as much about Tommy Wiseau’s film as it is about Harper’s fandom and how that pushed him into filmmaking.
The title of the podcast isn’t one to draw much offense, even if you don’t agree. W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery’s long-form dissection of Denzel Washington’s career is a grand celebration of the man who has every right to be known by first name only, but it’s also a podcast which intimately knows it’s limits: One day they will have covered every inch of Denzel’s career, and then they will have to come to grips with the totality of what they’ve accomplished. Which is why Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period is less about Denzel Washington—though the hosts are always game to spend a half an hour dissecting specific interactions the actor has had with the press—than it is about what African American celebrity entails and whether iconography is a sufficient end, or just a less-than-sufficient means to it. In that headspace, Bell and Avery wander through and around prominent personality and cultural artifact after another, questioning what it means to be a responsible member of a marginalized community, and if responsibility can overcome such #problematic bellybuttons of the zeitgeist as The Birth of a Nation.
Start Here: Episode 81: “The Black Film Canon w/ Aisha Harris, Dan Kois,” in which three Denzel Washington movies make the Slate critics’—one of whom is white—list, and the whole purpose of such “Big Lists” is put into contention from the perspective of representation and accessibility.
The Rialto Report is so beautifully thorough that even avid fans of pornography will probably greet the medium with eyes and appetite anew. In each episode, walking adult film encyclopedia Ashley West (joined by such porn intellectuals as April Hall, Michael Bowen and Stephen Horowitz) leads either a typically over-detailed interview with an adult industry stalwart—someone who helped define whatever the Golden Age occupied in the sphere of sex films—or, in the case of the more tragically oriented or unavailable luminaries, an oral history of that figure’s rise and inevitable fall. Rather than chronicle the depravity and vicissitudes of an industry which has changed as drastically as any other over the past 40 years, The Rialto Report is careful to make sure that pornography is given its due, detailing all of the sex-positive innovation, groundbreaking attitudes and racial revolution the progenitors of the form championed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s something you can listen to with your parents—though the episode interviewing Johnnie West, the first African American to have an on-screen interracial sex scene in the Mitchell brothers’ Behind the Green Door offers a comprehensive, welcome snapshot of an America seemingly always in violent flux—but The Rialto Report knows how indelible pornography is to the landscape of our country’s moral fiber, and it treats the subject with all of the respect and intellectualism it deserves.
Plus, we need someone to consistently point out, with evidence, the explicit ties between president-elect Donald Trump and Al Goldstein, former presidential candidate and owner of a porn publishing empire.
Start Here: Episode 62: “Tina Russell: Searching for the Lost Girl of Porn,” in which an oral history of the “original porn star” reveals a tear-inducing tragedy of what the late-’60s and early-’70s became as free thought and free love finally confronted the puritanical generation they were attempting to undo.
Karina Longworth has the over-enunciated, effortlessly commanding voice that seems perfectly calibrated for the kind of Classic Hollywood stories she plies, like an anachronism from a better time, before any schmuck with an opinion about Suicide Squad or Pretty Little Liars could host their own show. It’s understandable, then, that her “Join us, won’t you?” has become something of a standard in podcast parlance: You Must Remember This is an Urtext for the kind of true-story ’casts that depend equally on the host’s endlessly welcoming presence as they do on the juicy details contained therein.
This year, Longworth presented an exhaustive series on the Blacklist, and then followed that with the comparatively breezy story of Joan Crawford, which, by no means devoid of drama, felt like a spritely return to Longworth at her less-than-serious best, replete with plenty of Crawford impersonations (which, admittedly, sound like every one of Longworth’s other impressions, which all sound right on) and a pristinely arch sensibility. Both series demonstrated Longworth’s boundless expertise as historian and storyteller, the Blacklist episodes casting a wide web without ever losing track of basic theses and endlessly accessible anecdotes, while the Crawford series played more metaphysically with the idea of art and celebrity creating one another, an essential aspect of Old Hollywood. At times disturbing, hilarious, dismaying and genuinely shocking, You Must Remember This reached near-perfection in 2016 by simply building upon what came before, always reminding the listener that the industry may change, but gross ego and grosser ambition never will.
Start Here: Episode 87: “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford: Douglas Fairbanks / Lucile LeSueur Goes to Hollywood,” in which Crawford’s story begins, and we see the first inkling of an icon who’d spend her whole life building the iconography that would, in a feedback loop of sorts, vaunt her even higher.
One of the (many) joys of tuning in to We Hate Movies every week is the coterie of characters core hosts Andrew Jupin, Stephen Sajdak and Eric Szyszka (with the occasional appearance by Chris Cabin) have developed to populate their riffs on the countless terrible movies they’ve watched over the past 280 or so episodes. There’s Christopher Lambert’s Raiden—a sniveling demi-god who sounds like he wears sandals and tube socks—or “Keanu Reeves”—whose best friend keeps signing him up to act in shitty movies—or “Holly Hunter,” who is identical to “Gary Busey,” who both are just bass-voiced versions of the lispy maniac, “Rudy Giuliani.” My favorite, though, is “Gallagher,” an angry, washed-up shell of a man willing to do whatever it takes to prove his mettle to Marc Maron. Sometimes the self-reference can overwhelm even the most devoted listeners, but that’s what distinguishes We Hate Movies from the surfeit of “bad movie” podcasts populated by equally humorous improvisers and crap aficionados: It pays to start at the beginning and witness them build their Empire of Dirt from the ground up.
Start Here: But if you’re not going to start at the beginning, then check the hilarious: Episode 243: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a vituperative lambasting of everything the bloated cow-corpse of that movie shoveled for $15 into your dumb eye holes. You will never hear the name “Martha” (or look at a mason jar full of pee) the same way ever again.
This week, Norm Wilner got Whit Stillman to effuse all over 1934 musical The Gay Divorcee and John Ford’s Wagon Master, but the “dream get” as Wilner describes it is only an earned conversation in a long line of illuminating deep-dives into the unique forces that have forged notable artists. In Someone Else’s Movie, Wilner welcomes an industry person—be it director, thinker, actor, or fringe influencer—to discuss a film that’s worked its way into “the DNA” of that figure’s own creations. Whether he’s successfully friendly chatting about The Revenant (a movie he doesn’t like) with Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, eviscerating whatever the male gaze still clings to in Cléo from 9 to 7 with Sarah Gadon, or letting Dana Gould talk Dr. Strangelove without pause, Wilner not only positions himself as an omnibus cinematic intellect, but a tried-and-true model for cultural journalism. He never allows his own preferences to overtake those of his subjects, instead sneaking out his taste through the way he discusses each film, and, most importantly, the way he respects the opinions of anyone willing to talk to him. I once referred to him as “the Titan of the Interview”—young critics, take note.
Start Here: “Maxwell McCabe-Lokos on Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom,” in which Wilner literally knows his shit, discussing with his guest the fascinating intersection of obscenity and art, guaranteed to make you re-think a movie you may have sworn you’d never want to think about again.
Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West are indefatigable thinkers when it comes to horror films, and their Faculty of Horror podcast is appropriately never without some sort of brain-melting insight into an otherwise pulpy genre. They ground many of their conversations in feminist theory, because if there’s a genre that demands such a perspective, it’s horror, positioning everything from slasher films to the New French Extremity to the new Ghostbusters as vital pieces of our cultural conversation. As is right, West and Subissati assume that such movies are integral to any understanding of cinema in the past 40 years, and rather than try to convince listeners with prequalification, they simply talk about their subjects—these flicks they love—the only way they know how: Intricately, intelligently and with more “fuck”s than any other podcast on this list.
Start Here: Episode 42: “French Kiss: Calvaire (2004) and Martyrs (2008),” in which the person who literally wrote the book on the New French Extremity (West) convincingly and eloquently elevates these notoriously difficult films—like Wilner did with his Salo episode—to the echelon of life-altering art.
Still in his earliest of 20s—a fact that comes up often throughout his podcast, Talk Easy—Sam Fragoso is lucky he’s so obviously found his calling. Which is in no way meant pejoratively: Fragoso just seems to be doing what he’s a genius at doing, which is talking to people. Since his background is in film (he founded Movie Mezzanine, a site for which many of Paste’s film staff have written), many of the guests he invites to his show about “people shaping our culture today” derive from the world of cinema, such as New York Times critic Wesley Morris, director Kelly Reichardt, MTV critic Amy Nicholson, director Alex Gibney, actors Alan Arkin and Zoe Kazan, and documentary director Steve James—the Morris interview an early favorite based on the way Fragoso’s questions brought out a genuine reverence for criticism itself, a form (let alone a calling) based purely around the act of engaging with another form on a visceral, even child-like level. Is that engagement art itself? It can be, and Morris casually how he has honed his sense of critical distance to be able to both intimately personalize and safely objectify his experience so that he can be not just an effective critic, but an effective lover of art. None of this is overt, but intuitive, naturally part of the conversation Fragoso can have with pretty much anybody. Even if you have little interest in how a particular guest is “shaping” culture as ostensibly as Fragoso claims, each episode offers enough insight dredged from the dank corners of their psyche that the podcast log-line hardly matters.
Start Here: Episode 15: “Eric André,” in which the comedian is obviously not interested in making the interview easy for Fragoso, but at some point, probably after Fragoso asks André if this is what they’ll be doing now, by which he means lying down, listening to the conversation becomes less about cringing through the exchange, and more about pushing through that acute awkwardness to hear how Fragoso kind of fearlessly navigates each second.
What began with a hyper-extended bit is now the logical opposite. When Griffin Newman and David Sims started recording together, their own little slice of the Internet was a podcast about two guys watching Episode I: The Phantom Menace but pretending that George Lucas did not have an Empire behind him when he released the prequels, attempting to divorce the Star Wars episode from all of the iconic context that has since made it almost impossible to judge the movies on their own merits. (Spoiler: They still suck ass.) With Blank Check, they embraced all the context they once swore off: Beginning inside the annals of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, #thetwofriends went movie by movie to interrogate every inch of Night’s career and figure out what kind of unholy union of big budget money and outsize ego caused a director to let his Sixth Sense lead him into 15 years of artistic bankruptcy. Hollywood gave Shyamalan a blank check, and he lit that check on fire and created his own human blowtorch by farting into the flame and incinerating everyone and everything that ever had faith in him.
This year, since Shyamalan, Griffin and David have covered the Wachowskis, Cameron Crowe and James Cameron, taking some side-jaunts into Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, as well as giving producer Ben Hosley the aural floor to introduce the hosts to childhood favorites Fletch, Under Siege 2 and, just this week, The Man Who Knew Too Little. Inside jokes and call-backs and segments abound throughout each series—the sheer weight of each threatening to occupy more pod-time than discussions of the films themselves—but nothing is ever alienating or too esoteric to wade through. Because at the heart of Blank Check is a devotion to movies, and all that love is an acknowledgement that nothing is ever devoid of context. You saw this movie on this particular day with this particular person. You memorize decades of box office numbers, as Griffin did, to bond with your dad. You watch Coming to America, as my wife does, to feel better when you’re sad or sick. You cry when Steve Zissou sees the shark that killed his best friend, as I do, and you also wonder if anyone will ever remember you.
This is movie criticism as it should be, as it actually is in 2016, whether anyone wants to admit it or not: Obsessive, omnivorous, and totally personal.
Start Here: “We Pod a Cast – Roadies with Layne Montgomery,” in which the strain of watching so much squandered filmmaking talent starts to audibly wear on David, and the seams of reality begin to fray under the corrosive futility of whatever it is they’re doing. It’s really funny.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based Internet Writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can find him on Twitter.