The Horror Movie That’s Truly Worth the Hype

Shirley Li’s culture picks include Barbarian, Elena Ferrante, and Pokémon Go

Georgina Campbell in Barbarian
"The kind of horror movie that takes your expectations, upends them, and then mutilates them," Shirley Li says of Barbarian. (20th Century Studios)

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Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.

Today’s special guest is the staff writer Shirley Li, who recently argued that The Crown is losing its shine and that the bonus tracks on Taylor Swift’s latest album, Midnights, are her best new songs. Shirley had her expectations mutilated by the horror movie Barbarian, will read anything by Elena Ferrante, and is still trying to catch ’em all in Pokémon Go.

But first, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:


The Culture Survey: Shirley Li

The television show I’m most enjoying right now: The writer-director Tony Gilroy is doing wonders with Andor, the Disney+ drama about Diego Luna’s character from the Star Wars prequel, Rogue One. I’m a fan of the film, but I wasn’t sure whether a spin-off series charting the life of a doomed Rebel would hold my interest. As it turns out, the show has perhaps been the best live-action project the franchise has produced in a while—and maybe the best genre TV I’ve seen this year. It delivers both eye-popping visuals and nuanced storytelling about how people find purpose in an oppressive world, making it Star Wars at its most gripping and heartbreaking. [Related: Andor is Star Wars at its most mature]

My favorite blockbuster and favorite art movie: Oh boy. I struggle so much with questions about my favorite anythings; my answers tend to change depending on my mood. At this moment, on an unusually chilly afternoon in Los Angeles with rain pouring outside my window, I’m reminded of—and therefore going with—Jurassic Park as my favorite blockbuster. Art-movie wise, Cléo From 5 to 7, Agnès Varda’s French New Wave film about a woman spending the two titular hours wandering around Paris waiting for her biopsy results, comes to mind. It’s a melancholy look at beauty and vanity and self-awareness and love, and it’s also the inspiration for the many, many attempts of mine to copy Corinne Marchand’s barely winged eyeliner look as Cléo. (It’s never worked out! Makeup mavens, please help.) [Related: The indefatigable spirit of Agnès Varda]

An author I will read anything by: Elena Ferrante. Kazuo Ishiguro. Tom Perrotta. I really am terrible at favorite-anything questions! [Related: The radiant inner life of a robot]

The last museum show that I loved: I spent an afternoon at the Hammer Museum at UCLA a few weekends ago. I visited primarily to check out its new, Hilton Als–curated exhibit on Joan Didion, which I found to be an illuminating presentation of her work, but while there, I also stumbled upon a small gallery of Picasso’s cut papers. I’ve seen plenty of Picassos over the years, but I’d never seen his paper work—as in cutouts, masks, and sheet-metal sculptures he painted to look like folded paper. The work is whimsical and playful, and refreshingly unselfconscious, if that makes sense. A number of the pieces on display were made as gifts for relatives and friends, and the exhibit spans decades, from art made at 9 years old to works he created in his 80s. Walking through the exhibit felt like getting a peek inside his private studio. [Related: Picasso, creator and destroyer]

Something I recently rewatched: The first time I watched Friday the 13th, I was 11 or 12; I remember I caught it at a sleepover, because every sleepover at that age required at least one scary movie on deck. This past Halloween weekend, some friends and I put it on, and, well, it’s certainly nowhere near as scary as I remembered, but I still enjoyed it. You can’t go wrong with watching a slasher flick with a group, even if a fair amount of the dialogue and the set pieces don’t hold up in today’s world of “elevated” horror. Speaking of which …

A good recommendation I recently received: As my colleague David Sims noted in his review of the film, pretty much everyone has been recommending Barbarian, the solo directorial debut from Zach Cregger. It’s a twisted ride, the kind of horror movie that takes your expectations, upends them, and then mutilates them so completely, you can’t help but be awed by what you’re seeing.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in "Aftersun."
Aftersun, starring Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal, is "a rich, albeit abstract, meditation on memory and parent-child relationships." (A24)

My favorite way of wasting time on my phone: Pokémon Go. Yes, still. No, I will not (and frankly, cannot) elaborate on this. [Related: Catching Pikachus at the movies]

The last debate I had about culture: I spent a not-insignificant amount of time arguing with a friend about which songs on Taylor Swift’s latest album, Midnights, are the best in the new batch. (For what it’s worth, I think her “3am tracks” contain the standouts.) Debating her music, album-rollout strategy, and, honestly, approach to everything about her career, is an activity that has turned into something of a hobby. What can I say? I’m the problem; it’s me.

The last thing that made me cry: The indie film Aftersun caught me by surprise. It’s ostensibly about a dad and his daughter bonding on a vacation in Turkey in the ’90s, but it’s told in such a way that it becomes a rich, albeit abstract, meditation on memory and parent-child relationships. It absolutely wrecked me. I spoke with its writer-director, Charlotte Wells, recently, and I had to keep myself from sobbing.

The last thing that made me snort with laughter: I loved so many lines from this Slate essay about a Gone Girl–themed cruise that I started highlighting them and copy-pasting them into a note on my phone so I could revisit them later. The author’s time aboard the ship involved little to no Gone Girl–related activities—whatever that even means!—but did include creepy notes left on the beds of the guests. I’d go into more detail, but I don’t want to take away from the delight of diving into this travelogue cold. Amazing Amy wishes she thought up an experience as gnarly as this.

Read past editions of the Culture Survey with David Sims, Lenika Cruz, Jordan Calhoun, Hannah Giorgis, and Sophie Gilbert.


The Week Ahead
  1. Glass Onion, the sequel to Knives Out (in theaters Wednesday for a limited week-long run)
  2. The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical new movie (in theaters everywhere Wednesday)
  3. The British rapper Stormzy’s new album, This Is What I Mean (Friday)

Q&A
A black-and-white photo of Taffy Brodesser-Akner
(The Atlantic; Heather Sten)

‘What Is Jesse Eisenberg Doing Here, Saying These Things I Wrote?’
By Gal Beckerman

Novelists aren’t often given the chance to adapt their own work, let alone creatively control each element of the process. Whether this is an envious or excruciating position to be in—or both—is a question Taffy Brodesser-Akner can now answer. A well-known profiler of celebrities (quite memorably of Gwyneth Paltrow and Bradley Cooper) and the author of the best-selling 2019 novel Fleishman Is in Trouble, she has just finished work as the writer, showrunner, and executive producer of the limited-series adaptation of Fleishman, which premieres this week on FX/Hulu.

Brodesser-Akner is a longtime friend, and I wanted to know what it was like to go from inventing the world of Toby Fleishman, a sad-sack doctor on the Upper East Side navigating a divorce, to actually being on set and lying on Toby’s bed. What was it like to see Jesse Eisenberg bring Toby to life, stethoscope around his neck and phone dinging with dating-app notifications? Or to watch Claire Danes, who has the difficult role of Toby’s wife, Rachel Fleishman, rely on her facial expressions to grab more and more of the viewer’s sympathy over the course of the series?

Read the full article.

More in Culture

Read the latest culture essay by Jordan Calhoun in Humans Being.


Catch Up on The Atlantic

Photo Album

People walk through a tunnel of lights at Kew's Christmas light trail at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, on November 15, 2022.
(Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)

Check out the photos of the week.


Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.