Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Star turns

JOHN OLIVER

The Daily Show alumnus breathed life into a threadbare late-night comedy formula, proving an un-posh Englishman can draw laughs and viewers. His HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, features rants that run as long as 16 minutes--16 times the presumed attention span of the average American viewer. The gags are strung together on a thread of social commentary and underpinned with sufficiently solid research to leave their subjects red with embarassment and anger. His takedown of the Miss America pageant's exaggerated scholarship claims ("more than $45 million made available!") was exquisite.

ANDREW WIGGINS

As expected, the pride of Thornhill, Ont., went first overall in the NBA draft, and is already making an impact with the Minnesota Timberwolves. At 19, he's a boy among the NBA's men. But credit Wiggins for defying his critics. There were whispers that he "floated" at times during his only college season with the Kansas Jayhawks. But he's been reportedly logging extra time in the gym to build his strength and, in his first few professional outings, he defended well against established stars while averaging more than 10 points per game. Not bad for a kid from the northern hinterlands.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI

Ceaseless attempts to discredit her failed to overshadow a triumphant year for the Pakistani 17-year-old, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize (with Indian children's rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi) for her continuing campaign for girls' education. Malala's recovery after being shot in the head by the Taliban was inspiring enough. Her fearless decision to capitalize on the international attention made her one of 2014's big difference-makers. That a network of 150,000 Pakistani schools would denounce her with an "I am not Malala" day merely testifies to her impact. "I speak not for myself," she said in her 2013 UN speech, "but for those without a voice." And she continues to.

LUPITA NYONG'O

Beauty and talent are a timeless potion; ask Lupita Nyong'o. The Mexican-born actress, who is of Kenyan heritage, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Patsey in Steve McQueen's harrowing film 12 Years a Slave and, by then, she'd captivated the world. People declared her the most beautiful woman of 2014; Glamour named her woman of the year. Lost in the excitement were the dues she's paid acting on a Kenyan TV series, writing and directing her own documentary and completing a degree in drama at Yale University. We eagerly await her turn this year in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

THE POPE

Francis's glow among non-Catholics dimmed when his welcoming tone toward gay and divorced members of the Church wasn't matched by a bishops' synod on marriage and family issues. But Francis admonished his bishops at synod's end to search their hearts for signs of rigidity; he is committed to establishing guidance for the clergy on homosexuality, divorce, remarriage and contraception. Meanwhile, Catholics remain enthralled with a Pope far more focused than his predecessors on the parish-level tension between traditional doctrine and modern reality.

NARENDRA MODI

India's new PM led his Bharatiya Janata Party to power for the first time, securing a clear majority in the country's parliament. More important, he has shown moderation. Painted by critics as a wolf in sheep's clothing--he and his party have ties to a Hindu nationalist organization--the 64-year-old has focused on the economy and government management, while praising the patriotism of the Muslim minority. He's in a sweet spot: Thanks largely to sinking oil prices, India is one of few developing nations enjoying solid growth without the drag of inflation.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THOMAS PICKETTY

You don't need a degree in quantitative analysis to grasp what this courtly French economist is telling the world: The gap between the super-rich and the rest of us has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, and will keep growing if nothing changes. Picketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, turned a lot of heads; even North American conservatives are concerned about the potential for social instability caused by the wealth gap. His prescription--a global tax on wealth--may be heresy to capitalist ears. But Picketty has shone much-needed light on a troubling feature of post-industrial economies, and they ignore him at their peril.

STEVE BALLMER

Calling a guy with a net worth of US$20 billion a winner seems superfluous, but not only did Ballmer leave Microsoft in excellent shape when he retired as CEO, he became the company's largest shareholder, as Bill Gates sold off a portion of his stock. Ballmer then realized a long-time dream of buying a pro basketball team, scooping up the L.A. Clippers when Donald Sterling's racist diatribe confirmed him as unfit to be owner. He also helped to fund a successful campaign to bring in universal background checks for gun ownership in Washington state. By billionaire standards, a good year's work.

'FROZEN'

This dazzling iteration of the Disney-princess fairy tale raked in two Oscars and $1.3 billion at the box office. The plot twists and subtle satire proved a delight to parents who'd braced for yet another onslaught of Disney-fled formulae; Olaf the snowman was cute enough that we forgive the producers for that infernal Let it Go song.

SPELLING BEE CHAMPS

Rare is the speller who can exhaust the word list of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But two in one year? Sriram Hathwar, 14, of Painted Post, N.Y., and Ansun Sujoe, a 13-yearold from Fort Worth, Texas, were still standing last May when the quizmasters ran out of words such as "stichomythia" (argumentative dialogue delivered by actors) and "feuilleton" (part of a European newspaper). Both were declared winners and got a congratulatory tweet from President Barack Obama.

MEGHAN TRAINOR

Anyone who, by age 18, has released three albums of music she's written and performed herself is destined for great things. But it's the way Trainor went about it that impresses. In her breakthrough hit, All About that Bass, the 20-year-old mocks modern female body imagery, declaring: "I'm no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll." She still made No.1 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Gillis, Charlie

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