Longtime readers of Humanities Texas's e-newsletter may be familiar with our annual summer reading issue. This year, we decided to do something a bit different: a summer viewing edition! We invited friends from around the state to recommend a film, television show, or other form of video that they found particularly meaningful or moving. We were looking especially for titles that our recommenders felt connected them to their humanity and the broader world during this past profoundly difficult year.

This year's contributors include Humanities Texas board members, grantees, teacher institute faculty, Holiday Book Fair authors, and public program partners. The result is a wide-ranging list—whether you're looking for a thought-provoking documentary, a diverting comedy, or something to transport you to another place, we hope you'll discover a few new options to add to your watch list.

Robert Tracy, The Artist in His TV Painting, 2008, oil on canvas. Used by permission of the artist.

Ricardo Ainslie, filmmaker and professor of education and counseling psychology at The University of Texas at Austin


It may not be fashionable to recommend a highly acclaimed and so obviously successful film. (It was the sweetheart at last year's at Sundance Film Festival where it premiered, and it ran the table at the Academy Awards, earning nominations for just about everything, including best director, actor, screenplay, you name it.) But Minari was so satisfying to watch that I couldn't help myself. It certainly fits the call for an especially meaningful or moving film, television show, etc. And it certainly connected me to the broader world in a way that was suffused with the warm humanity of the immigrant family around whose lives the plot moves in compelling fashion.

The film is ostensibly about a multi-generational South Korean family that has ended up in rural America seeking its fortune (and survival). But it is so much more—multilayered and full of nuance, at once a parable about the folly of our greed and our blindness to the beauty that exists right here in front of us. It is also about the ease with which we misread or misunderstand those around us: An Arkansas war vet and good ol' boy water diviner, mocked and written off, ultimately delivers the indispensable water for the crops, and a grandmother's old country "water celery" ("minari" in Korean), initially assumed to be a worthless, nostalgic indulgence by her son-in-law, turns out to be something very different.

This is a film one could watch many times over. The critics and the awards committees got this one so right. And, yes, it's a most human story. So powerfully rendered, in fact, that the subtitles (so disliked by American audiences!) never get in the way.

Carlos K. Blanton, professor and department head of history at Texas A&M University and Humanities Texas board member

The Two Popes

I recommend The Two Popes, a 2019 Netflix production, directed by Fernando Meirelles, based on a British play by Anthony McCarten and starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis. This is an intelligent, heady, charming, and funny movie that combines equal parts serious Catholic doctrinal debates that have roiled the global community for decades with the vibe of a classic "buddy" comedy. While The Two Popes is fiction with regard to certain aspects of plot and character, much of the theological discussion in it is lifted from the speeches and letters of the two popes before and during their pontificates. I viewed The Two Popes more than once during the pandemic and, despite the problems and unresolved conflicts it describes, came away each time delighted, hopeful, and joyful about faith, love, and life.

Elizabeth Crook, author and Humanities Texas board member

Last Tango in Halifax

I've been hooked on several series starring Nicola Walker this year. Aside from her extraordinary acting, there is something riveting and utterly appealing about her face. I commented on this to a friend and later had two people make the same comment to me. She is in the popular Last Tango in Halifax and a number of other great British dramas. I went from Last Tango to the lighter fare of The Split and the much heavier fare of crime dramas Unforgotten and Collateral. She is equally terrific in all.

Sean Cunningham, associate professor and department chair of history at Texas Tech University and Humanities Texas board member

My Octopus Teacher

I'd say the most meaningful thing I've watched in recent months is a Netflix film called My Octopus Teacher. Unlike almost everything else in our world today, this film demands viewers to take a deep breath, shut out distractions, and focus on the critical importance and enduring power of intimate relationships—in this case, one human and one sea creature. It sounds odd, but the film is really about the fragility of life and the importance of compassion more than it is about anything else. It will inspire you to rethink the meaning of "relationship" in a world of social media clicks and viral videos.

Caroline Frick, associate professor of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin and executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image


Teaching silent cinema to young people is always a challenge. One way that I try to explain the appeal of early movies is to emphasize how film, from the very beginning, enabled time, place, and even space travel for turn-of-the-century audiences, many of whom would never have the opportunity of leaving their region, much less country. While sequestered at home this last year and a half, I have been struck by the enduring power and ability of the moving image to transport us to faraway places.

Lupin, the French series currently streaming on Netflix, proves an entertaining, family-friendly caper that helps convince everyone to start drinking café au lait, to don an urban trench coat, and to commit to traveling to Paris as soon as possible. Building upon the longstanding popularity of France's favorite "gentleman thief," Arsène Lupin, the series's light touch evokes the glamour and sheer fun of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief or the charismatic team of the Ocean's Eleven franchise.

Lupin deftly adds to the heist genre through its compelling evocation of France's colonial past and the country's multi-ethnic present. What drives the series protagonist? To avenge the maligned reputation of his father, a Senegalese immigrant to Paris. Lupin succeeds in balancing these complex dynamics in large part due to the series's charming star, Omar Sy, himself the son of a Senegalese immigrant to France.

This year has been . . . hard. Lupin acknowledges that life is hard and bad things happen, but, with a sly wink, a good heart, and a clever brain, life can also be glorious. Especially when we can all travel again.

John Morán González, professor of English and director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and Humanities Texas board member

Doom Patrol

Action-driven superhero epics have dominated U.S. popular culture for the past decade, but HBO's Doom Patrol suggests new possibilities for the genre beyond adolescent dreams of power and glory. The series has its roots in the title from the Silver Age of DC comics of the 1950s and 1960s, with character names of Space Age coinage: Robot Man, Negative Man, Elastigirl, and Jane. But rather than revel in their meta-human abilities, these anti-heroes experience their "abilities" as a curse rooted in the physical and psychological trauma in their deep pasts. Shame, guilt, and paralysis plague them, sometimes for decades, while "rehabilitating" in the dilapidated mansion of their mentor and benefactor, the Chief. The series traces this motley crew's gradual emotional maturation, even as they confront various supervillains and meet fellow misfits along the way. In this vein, one of my favorite recurring characters is Danny the Street, a sentient city block that serves as a refuge for all those fleeing persecution by the malevolent Bureau of Normalcy. Queers, radicalized people, and all those who don't fit in find succor and support here.

Doom Patrol is a quirky, self-reflexive, and often hilarious take on the superhero genre that delights in taking those conventions to very unconventional places. In many ways, this series is the antithesis of the blockbuster superhero epic. Yes, the Doom Patrol saves the world various times, but in manners diametrically opposed to how it's done on the big screen. The series is ultimately about the traumas and damages that society and families can inflict, but also the healing that can take place when families are made and not assumed. The often-absurdist narratives touch upon some of the most disturbing, yet profound, elements of the human condition: estrangement, loneliness, abjection, alienation. But Doom Patrol does so with humor, verve, and imagination, making it a revelation during my year of pandemic viewing.

Justin Hart, associate professor of history at Texas Tech University

Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell is one of the most moving films I have ever seen, charting a family's search for the truth about a critical issue (no spoilers) in their collective past. Narrated and directed by the brilliant Canadian writer, director, and onetime actor Sarah Polley, this film uses a microhistory of one family as a window into deep, deep questions about the search for historical truth, the role of memory in structuring our understandings of the past, and the relationship between fact and fiction. Make sure you're in the right mood and load up on Kleenex before watching it, but I can almost guarantee that you will be thinking about it for days or weeks afterwards.

Andrea Holman, DEI&B program manager at Lyra Health and Humanities Texas board member

High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America

High on the Hog is my favorite documentary I have viewed in the past year. The Netflix docuseries outlines the history of the culture of African (turned African American) cuisine from the period of African enslavement to present day across the country. While the four-part series cannot realistically address everything there is to talk about in this broad topic, there are so many rich and poignant educational moments in the film. Oftentimes, historical topics about race, particularly involving African Americans, can center on racism, oppression, and discrimination. What moved me most about this series is its refreshing approach to exploring history that celebrates the wonderful contributions of African and African American people to the American cuisine and landscape in a way I found inspiring and uplifting.

Don Howard, filmmaker and associate professor of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin


First is a narrative film by my favorite documentary director, Sergey Dvortsevoy. His documentaries are pretty much unavailable here in the States, but are fantastic if you can ever find them, especially Bread Day and Highway (both made for German television, I believe). When he decided that making documentaries was too intrusive into the lives of his subjects, though, he wrote and shot Tulpan, using mostly non-actors. Still in a very observational style, it's the story of Asa, a nice young guy just returning to his family on the "Hunger Steppe" in Kazakhstan, after his time on a submarine in the Russian navy. But to survive in this incredibly empty and forbidding landscape, he needs to find a wife, and the reluctant Tulpan (Kazakh for "tulip") is literally the only local candidate. The results are equally funny and sad, and the image of Asa in his uniform, cruising crazily across the endless steppe in his buddy Boni's kind-of-a-Jeep to a radio version of the reggae classic "By the Rivers of Babylon," will stay with you, among many others. The film won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2008, and it's available only on the Fandor site, but there's now a free seven-day trial for that site available through Amazon Prime.

Films of Mikio Naruse

Second is a set of very powerful films by the Japanese director Mikio Naruse, available on the Criterion Channel. Naruse was a contemporary of the better-known Yasujiro Ozu, though Naruse's films are less formal than Ozu's and a little more straightforward (though incredibly fluid) in style. He made eighty-nine films in his career, and Criterion currently has about twenty of them, from his most productive period in the mid-'50s up through his final film in 1967. They're all beautiful, simple, and nuanced films that feature many of Japan's finest actresses, in particular, because most of his work throughout this period focuses on the lives of women and the challenges they face in modern Japanese culture. Setsuko Hara and Haruko Sigumura will be recognizable to Ozu fans from films such as Tokyo Story, and they star in The Sound of the Mountain and Late Chrysanthemums respectively (both from 1954). But When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from 1960 and starring Hideko Takamine in one of her greatest roles, may be the best starting point if you're just curious. They're all good as far as I can tell, though in different ways, and the extremely sensitive and wide-ranging presentation of these female characters, from a male director no less, is always both emotional and thought-provoking. I know it's summer, but these seem absolutely timeless to me.

Sibyl Avery Jackson, producer, screenwriter, and former Humanities Texas board member


As a creative person, there's nothing better than settling into a good movie to escape the realities of life. No matter the genre my mood dictates, I suspend disbelief to experience whatever imaginary world is before me. But not this past year. There was no comedy funny enough, no thriller suspenseful enough, or fantasy world fantastical enough to escape the gripping fear of the once-in-a-century pandemic outside of my front door. I needed more than manipulated fiction and found myself veering towards movies depicting real-life people who overcame insurmountable circumstances—not for entertainment purposes but to identify major turning points that moved such people beyond fear's grip to survival.

One such movie I revisited was appropriately titled Alive with a young Ethan Hawke in a brilliant leading role. It's the story of the 1972 Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes Mountains on their way to a match in Chile. Out of forty-five passengers, only sixteen ultimately survived the more than two-month ordeal. I watched for nearly an hour . . . and then it happened. After more than a week stranded on a majestic mountaintop with no more food or hope of being rescued, the surviving teammates collectively make an unconscionable decision. If they are going to survive, this one defining, agonizing moment is their only option to give them the courage and determination to face subsequent obstacles to save themselves. During this pandemic, this hauntingly beautiful and inspiring film encouraged me to do whatever is necessary and make whatever sacrifice needed to keep myself and those dear to me safe . . . to survive.

Maryse Jayasuriya, professor of English at The University of Texas at El Paso and Humanities Texas board member

Small Axe

Small Axe is an anthology of five free-standing films by Steve McQueen about the experience of West Indian immigrants in Britain. The films explore how immigrants build relationships within a diasporic community as they struggle to resist racism and discrimination in the host land. These films deal with a part of the history of the United Kingdom that many Americans may not be familiar with, and they show how engaging the past can throw light on present events.

My Love: Six Stories of True Love

For an uplifting experience (particularly during a global pandemic), it is worth watching the docuseries My Love: Six Stories of True Love, which highlights how a year unfolds in the life of six couples in long-standing relationships (of forty to sixty years) from many parts of the world—the United States, Spain, Japan, Brazil, India, and Korea. Each episode gives a glimpse of the daily life of a particular couple and tells the story of how they have managed to forge a strong and enduring partnership despite a variety of obstacles ranging from health and financial issues to social taboos and the vagaries of age.

My Octopus Teacher

Another inspiring documentary is the Oscar winner My Octopus Teacher, which gives us a deep dive—literally and figuratively—into the friendship between Craig Foster, a filmmaker, and an octopus living off the coast of South Africa. The intelligence, resilience, and creativity of this intriguing animal makes it an unexpected mentor both to the filmmaker and to viewers.

Joseph F. Kobylka, associate professor and chair of political science at Southern Methodist University

The Manchurian Candidate

The 1962 original stars Frank Sinatra, and a more recent remake (2004) stars Denzel Washington. There is great intrigue in both, but I prefer the original, as its stark black and white presentation and Angela Lansbury's performance give it a real edge. It's a fictional thriller set during the Cold War with a strong McCarthyite edge. It conveys not only the "us against them" feel of that era but also the danger of overzealous and scheming leaders—what James Madison in Federalist Ten referred to as "leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good" in a democracy. That is especially apparent toward the end of the film when it becomes clear that the outrageous and fact-free messaging of the politician isn't designed for the people in the room but the people outside the room to motivate them to action. That is prescient and brings many of the film's themes into today's world.

One Night in Miami

A thought-provoking examination of racial relations then . . . and now. This is a fictionalized account of an actual event: Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcom X meet in Miami around Ali's defeat of Sonny Liston to become heavyweight boxing champion in 1964. Four different prominent African American personalities, four different perspectives on race relations and how to overcome their shared oppression by racism. A sharp script explores the tensions brought by, among other things, fame and a person's responsibility for pushing social change. That tension—explored through excellent performances by Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., and Kingsley Ben-Adir—opens wide a range of responses to social ills. The film gives one a great feel for racist currents and undercurrents, and, in doing so, cinematographically links the past to the present.

Being There

A biting 1979 satirical look at politics and the illusions people buy into to confirm their un-thought-through preconceptions. In one of his last roles, Peter Sellers was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Chance the Gardener. Sellers plays a simple-minded gardener whose knowledge is wholly drawn from gardening and random snippets of what he sees on television. Through a twist of circumstances, Chance becomes an advisor to prominent Washington, DC, politicians, government officials, and ultimately the President. After the death of his political benefactor and a conversation about stimulating growth—which leads Chance to talk about changing growing seasons and insights such as "if you kill the roots the plant will die"—he is hailed as a policy savant and visionary. The film ends with discussion among the political class of running him for the presidency. A sharp script and star-studded cast including Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, and Melvin Douglas (who won an Oscar for his performance) keep this dark satire about empty platitudes and the easy manipulation of those who traffic in them from becoming turgid or preachy.

Alison Macor, author and film scholar


I am in the midst of prepping a syllabus for a fall course at UT Austin on contemporary horror films, so my summer viewing is all about fear and gore. Directed by Japanese Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James, Relic tells the story of three generations of women grappling with dementia. The horror in this movie is insidious, like the disease itself. From its opening aerial shot of a single car driving on a deserted roadway, Relic is darkly atmospheric and unexpectedly heartbreaking.

Jay Moore, Humanities Texas board member and 2013 Outstanding Teaching Award winner

"Bleak House Guest," Urban Myths

(From Showtime) "Based on true events, Hans Christian Andersen turns up unexpectedly on the doorstep of his idol Charles Dickens and proves to be the most impossible guest imaginable. Hans wildly overstays his welcome and, by the time he leaves, he's been the unwitting catalyst in the Dickens' divorce."

I found "Bleak House Guest" to be humorous, enlightening, and a wee bit jaw-dropping. Who knew Hans Christian Andersen wreaked such havoc in the life of Charles Dickens?! After watching this twenty-three-minute episode, I don't think you will wish you had the minutes back to spend otherwise.

Naomi Shihab Nye, author and Poetry Foundation's Young People's Poet Laureate for 2019–2021

Schitt's Creek

I loved Schitt's Creek (as millions of other people did and do) because I really needed to laugh. And those actors are all geniuses. I watched every episode of all six seasons. The laughing made me feel cleansed every time. Viva Canada!

Emmy Peréz, professor of creative writing and associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts

I have not watched much television for a few decades. . . . Jump to the first winter break of the pandemic, with our usual activities and travel to see family put on hold. I made it a point to seek out some shows that [my children and I] could watch meaningfully together. Binge-watching is new to me, and I enjoyed it with the children because we discussed the characters' motivations and complexities together every night before they went to bed. We always felt a sense of hope in the process. The first I came across that I never wanted to end was Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. In December 2020 and January 2021, post-apocalyptic plausibility felt more immediately possible. We even started saying, "We should be more like Kipo."

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

And when I mentioned on social media that I loved Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, I received the excellent recommendation from Patricia García for another Netflix show, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. I admit that had I not received Pat's recommendation, based on the title alone, I would not have sought out more information about the show and tried watching it. As with Kipo, we were immediately hooked, episode to episode. We even took a peek at some of the original '80s versions on YouTube to compare with how they improved the characters over the decades (though the original Hordak is interesting as well). Some favorite characters we enjoyed discussing were Entrapta and Double Trouble. My kids even watched all the episodes of both shows again and often the version dubbed in Spanish the next time around for an additional experience. Kid Cosmic was another show we began, and we look forward to the next season.

The Underground Railroad

And when The Underground Railroad series by Barry Jenkins and based on Colson Whitehead's award-winning novel was released, I immediately committed to watching an episode every other evening after the children went to bed.

Anne Rapp, filmmaker, director of Horton Foote: The Road Home

Ted Lasso

It is one of the funniest and best written series I have ever watched. Don't let the hijinks-y trailer fool you into thinking it's just broad stupid comedy. It's not. It's layered with drama, strife, pain, resilience, and a lot of heart. Ted Lasso is an American football coach who is recruited to England to coach a soccer team, a sport he knows very little about. Jason Sudeikis plays Ted, the doomed coach, who is probably the most optimistic, cheerful, hopeful, and generous man who ever walked the earth. No matter what awfulness is thrown at him, he has an upbeat, strong, flexible, and thoughtful response to it. Despite his Midwestern corniness, we gradually begin to realize he's not the country bumpkin he appears to be. He's smarter than all of us. And a better human being. He epitomizes the proverb that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and his honey is 100% real. You'll end every episode thinking, "Hey, maybe I should start using that approach a little more often in my life." And no way you have to like sports to love this series. It's hysterical, soothing, philosophical, and a great escape to a place you need to visit.


Another wonderful but layered comedy is about a legendary female Vegas stand-up comic who has had her own casino show for years, lives a lavish lifestyle in gaudy Vegas-style, but is suffering the battle of age, time, and her bosses' desire to start attracting a younger audience. In other words, she's getting squeezed out. Enter a twenty-five-year-old female television writer from Los Angeles who is very talented but has shot herself in the foot more than once because she can't keep that same pesky foot out of her mouth with politically incorrect tweets and such. Suddenly unable to get [work] in Hollywood and desperate to pay her mortgage, the young writer caves to her agent's pleas and travels to Vegas to meet up with the comedy diva to see if she can possibly help modernize her jokes. (Bear in mind, the comedy diva is NOT expecting this young scribe.) The two of them are instantly like oil and water and horrified by each other. But as time goes by, they both begrudgingly admit they can benefit from each other. Jean Smart plays the Vegas comedy diva and is brilliant. Hannah Einbinder plays the frumpy, depressed, recently jilted writer who couldn't be more opposite of Smart's character in appearance, attitude, and work ethic. Mayhem and conflict ensue. But so does growth and understanding and acceptance. Maybe I love this show because I'm a writer. But I don't care who you are, these two funny women will chew you up, spit you out, and make you like it. I give it five spinning cherries.

Call My Agent

Six seasons total, on Netflix. It mainly takes place in a prominent talent agency right in the heart of Paris. It's as if you picked up William Morris Agency or CAA in Hollywood and just dumped it there. All the same agency shenanigans, all the same cutthroat rat-race movie industry insanities. The cast is superb. You'll start out thinking they are a bunch of despicable people whom you will soon detest, but, before you know it, even the most ruthless of them will steal your heart and make you cheer for them. . . . They are disgustingly loyal, excruciatingly interesting, and, dang it, downright human after all. This series is very well done and doesn't fizzle in the finale. I promise, you'll kind of wish you worked there.

Nancy Schiesari, filmmaker and professor of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin

I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about James Baldwin's unfinished book about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Filmmaker Raoul Peck creates a fluid evocation from notes and letters written by Baldwin as he reflects on the significance of these three leaders whom he personally knew. Baldwin painfully lived through each of their assassinations. The film is also a powerful meditation on race in America, pulling from Baldwin's critique of Hollywood classic movies, news reports, and talk shows. In the latter, we see Baldwin philosophically dismantle the assumptions about Black people by white Americans. The film's powerful visual style sets it apart from most documentaries, using black and white graphics to energize Baldwin's exploration as he challenges our ideas about race and American identity.

Ellen Temple, civic leader in Lufkin, producer of Citizens at Last, and former Humanities Texas board member


I recommend Lupin, a Netflix series produced by a French company about a gentleman thief, starring Omar Sy. Acting, production quality, and the scenes of Paris make for exciting, riveting, beautiful viewing! I watched the second series and can't wait to view the first and then the third when it comes out. Enjoy!

Tim Tsai, filmmaker and director of Seadrift


My recommendation is Landfall by Cecilia Aldarondo, a film I watched at last year's virtual BlackStar Film Festival that has stayed with me since. It offers a rich kaleidoscopic portrait of Puerto Rican life that also incisively examines government neglect and disaster capitalism in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. As climate-induced catastrophes become increasingly common, it's a potent reminder that what comes next may not be in the best interests of those impacted the most.

Jennifer M. Wilks, associate professor of English, African and African diaspora studies, and comparative literature at The University of Texas at Austin


One of the things I've missed the most in the last year and a half is visiting friends and conducting research in Paris. Enter the Netflix series Lupin, which stars French actor Omar Sy as a gentleman thief working to vindicate his late father of the crime for which he was wrongfully convicted. The show takes its name from Maurice Leblanc's 1907 story collection Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar. A copy of the literary classic is main character Assane Diop's sole inheritance from his father, and it is both the driving inspiration for his daring capers and the shared passion that bolsters his relationship with his own son. The series has a bit of everything: glamorous locations like the Louvre Museum and the Théâtre du Châtelet, incredible disguises, and a talented cast that reflects the diverse France that I know and love. In keeping with his fictional double, Assane's goal at the end of the day is not to break the law but to clear his father's name, protect his family and friends, and do so with flair and panache.