Renee Graham's Pop Culture Highlights Of 2013

Dec 30, 2013
Originally published on January 14, 2014 3:15 pm

Renee Graham joins  Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti  to talk about some of the standouts in film, television and music of the past year.

Standout Films

Matthew McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club

Great performances by black actors in major films:

Standout T.V. Shows

The final season of “Breaking Bad”

The rise of “Orange is the New Black

Standout Music

Janelle Monae, “The Electric Lady” (hear Renee’s interview about the album on Here & Now)

Cesária Évora, “Mae Carinhosa”

Valentina Listisa “Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos & Paganini  Rhapsody”[Youtube]


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It's that time of year when movie critics and film fans start speculating on who might get nominated for the Oscars next month. One name that keeps popping up: Matthew McConaughey. In "Dallas Buyers Club" he plays Ron Woodroof, a fast-living Texan who, in 1985, was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. When despite his treatment, he just keeps getting sicker, he forms the Dallas Buyers Club to get unapproved treatments to other AIDS patients. In this scene he has a run-in with a doctor played by Jennifer Garner.


JENNIFER GARNER: (As Dr. Eve Saks) This is my patient. You're treating these people?

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) Oh, they're treating themselves.

GARNER: (As Dr. Eve Saks) With what?

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) Vitamins, peptide T, ddC, anything but that poison you're hawking.

CHAKRABARTI: HERE AND NOW pop culture critic Renee Graham picks Matthew McConaughey's performance as one of this year's entertainment standouts. She joins us in the studio to talk about it and some of her other favorite events in film, television and music this year. And Renee, first of all, tell us why you love Matthew McConaughey's performance so much.

RENEE GRAHAM, BYLINE: Well, I think the extraordinary thing is the fact that I love Matthew McConaughey doing anything.


GRAHAM: You know, here's an actor who's been around almost 20 years in the public eye. And, you know, he was kind of handsome but he seemed doomed to spend all his time in these little, you know, vapid romantic comedies. And this was a performance that I don't think anyone knew he had in him. What's gotten so much attention is the fact that he lost almost 50 pounds to play this role, so he really looks skeletal. But beyond that, there's something - he understands this guy. And he sort of takes that sort of typical, you know, Matthew McConaughey charisma, and he kind of turns it inside out. You kind of get it. He understands who this man is - kind of the hard partying man whose choices catch up with him and sees the need to redeem himself. And in a funny way that's kind of Matthew McConaughey's story. And when you watch the film, you come out of it and you think, do we know he could do that? I mean, it's a phenomenal performance. And I'm pretty much expect him to get his first Oscar nomination for this.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Renee, there were also a couple other powerhouse performances in films that you wanted to talk about as well.

GRAHAM: I felt this was an extraordinary year for black actors in film. We hear a lot of things about there's not a lot of good roles out there, they're not leading roles, and this year kind of blew all that up. And there were three in particular that stood out for me: Idris Elba playing Nelson Mandela in "Long Walk to Freedom," the great Idris Elba; Chiwetel Ejiofor as the title character in "12 Years a Slave"; and Michael B. Jordan in "Fruitvale Station."

These actors who have been around for a while, and people may be familiar with them from different things. Both Michael B. Jordan and Idris Elba were in "The Wire." Chiwetel Ejiofor was in this marvelous Stephen Frears film years ago.

CHAKRABARTI: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: This is the year that it seems like everyone kind of woke up and went, oh my God, these guys are great. And they really are fantastic. And these are very - three very different kinds of performances, but they're absolutely riveting onscreen. And it's that idea that when you give people the best material, they can really do wonderful things with it.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's hear a little of one of those wonderful things. This is the magnificent Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in the movie "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."


IDRIS ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) I have cherished the idea of a free democratic society where all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

CHAKRABARTI: So that's in film. But what about on the small screen, in television?

GRAHAM: You know, everyone was talking about "Breaking Bad." It was the end of its five-year run. And the last...

CHAKRABARTI: I'm still in mourning.

GRAHAM: I feel like - I'm wondering like, where's Jesse? I'm so upset in so many ways that that show is gone. What was interesting is the show was, you know, kind of popular but a cult hit. And the last eight episodes, which aired this season, became like a kind of national obsession. And, you know, as these shows go, I think that the ending was pretty close to perfect. Yeah, there's a few things I want to tweaked here and there, but I really thought the ending did the series justice.

What was good about that, though, was as that show was sort of winding down, everyone kind of moved into watching this show called "Orange is the New Black." Didn't have a lot of advance buzz, it was available only on Netflix, but it was really interesting - set in a women's prison. What was really smartly done about this was it told to the back stories on all of these characters with these marvelous nicknames: Red, Crazy Eyes, Taystee. And you sudden - you got really deeply into these women's lives, not just who they were as prisoners but how they ended up where they ended up.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Renee, we've actually got a clip of "Orange is the New Black" from an early episode. This is a scene where actress Taylor Schilling, who plays the main character, Piper Chapman, a woman who's been sentenced to 15 months in a federal women's prison, and in this scene she's describing the difficult start she's had to her sentence.


TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) I have been here for less than two weeks. I have been starved out, felt up, teased, stalked, threatened and called Taylor Swift. And now, you.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Renee, you know, it occurs to me that "Breaking Bad" is really just defined by these powerful male roles.


CHAKRABARTI: I mean, but "Orange is the New Black" is the exact opposite. I mean, there's like a dozen great roles for women in that series.

GRAHAM: It's a TV show driven by women and all kinds of women - various sizes, shapes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations. It's got everything. It's probably the most well-rounded show in terms of its cast. And that's (unintelligible) extraordinary. You don't really see them on TV that often. You will see occasionally, you know, a group of white character with a token person of color. You might have a show of people of color. You might have a few white characters. But this just runs the gamut. These characters are all over the place.

And what's really great is you care about these women, and you want to know who they are, how they ended up here and in some cases what will happen to them after they leave. And that's what makes this show, I think, really stand out for people. There's never really been anything else on television like it.

CHAKRABARTI: Let's talk a little bit about music. Let's move to music, if we can. As listeners might remember, you're a big fan of singer and composer Janelle Monae's new album, "The Electric Lady." But there's a couple other albums from this year that you wanted to highlight as well.

GRAHAM: Absolutely. One of them is by Cesaria Evora. This is the great Cape Verdean singer who passed away a couple of years ago. And this is called "Mae Carinhosa" - forgive my pronunciation - which means mother tenderness. And it's 13 unreleased tracks that she made between, like, 1997 and 2005. And it just captures the essence of her voice so well, and it's just this wonderful representation of this extraordinary woman who had this marvelous career rather late in life.


CESARIA EVORA: (Singing in foreign language)

CHAKRABARTI: And you've also got something a little bit different. A performance of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto?

GRAHAM: Absolutely. You know, I really like Rachmaninoff, and I started to hear about this woman named Valentina Listisa. And they kept calling her the Justin Bieber of classical music, which is like the worst thing ever.


GRAHAM: What they have in common, really, is not the music but the fact that she was completely self-promoted. She would make clips of herself playing, and then put them up on YouTube.And now she has something like 100,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. She eventually got signed by a label, and she put out a recording of the four Rachmaninoff concertos plus "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini." The tempos might be a little fast for some people, but they're sharp, they're bold, they're really interesting.

And I think Rachmaninoff 3 will be familiar to some filmgoers because that was the number that was played by David Helfgott in the film "Shine," played by Geoffrey Rush. And the idea that the music is so intense and so physically and emotionally demanding, in a sense it can almost kill you. So, you know, to listen to someone play that with such confidence and fire, it's really dramatic. It's a wonderful, wonderful album.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, we've been talking about some of HERE AND NOW pop culture critic Renee Graham's favorite performances in film, television and music of the past year. Renee, thank you so much.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And Robin, your heart races just hearing that Rachmaninoff, doesn't it?


Lovely. Lovely.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, listeners, if you've got your own suggestions of your pop culture highlights of 2013, let us know at From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. Jeremy Hobson is off on a wild adventure. This is on his iPod, I'm sure. And this is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.