Where to begin with 2020?
Way back in February when I saw Harrison Ford’s CGI-rific version of The Call of the Wild, there is no way I would have known that it was the last new movie I’d see in a theater for the rest of the year. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, studios clutched their new releases like pearls, bumping them on the calendar a year or two, hoping that things would get better so they could recoup their costs with regular box office. Meanwhile, all of us were stuck with a lot of time at home. Some people suddenly found themselves risking their lives as “essential workers,” others were abruptly working/going to school in their own kitchens, and a whole bunch of us found themselves unemployed because of collapsing industries (“Hi there, fellow hospitality workers!”).
Like everyone else, I found myself binging what used to be called TV, eyes glazing over as I flicked through endless menus for Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, etc. I went through a phase of disaster movies (Outbreak, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, The Cassandra Crossing, and finally On the Beach, which I found so depressing I had to take a break). I saw a bunch of stories about severe isolation and survival, like Hilary Swank’s mission to Mars space-story Away; George Clooney’s end of the world musing The Midnight Sky; the documentary Red Heaven, about volunteer “astronauts” confining themselves in a remote outpost for a year, simulating the isolation and close quarters of a trip to Mars; and Spaceship Earth, a similar documentary about the Biosphere 2 quarantine experiment in the 1990s. There was something comforting about seeing people snap in isolation… it was something we could all relate to.
Normally in a year I see over 70 theatrically released films. As we all know THAT didn’t happen in 2020, so this time my best-of list is going to be a lot more flexible. What did I watch? What did YOU watch? These are some of the things that my eyeballs consumed “in these uncertain times” (as the talking heads like to solemnly say) …
MY MOST MEMORABLE PANDEMIC VIEWING
Dark – Take a procedural drama and mix in time travel, intertwining generations, and an apocalypse, and you have the most fantastic, head-scratching, shocking series I have seen in years. The final season of this German Netflix series debuted on June 20th, 2020… the same date as the impending apocalypse in the show. Now THAT is messed up!
Years and Years – Speaking of doom, I watched this short British series at the beginning of the year, just before all hell broke loose. It is an astonishingly good drama following one multi-generational family as they face shocking (yet realistic) political, economic, and environmental disasters in the near future. As 2020 progressed in real life, this show seemed less like fiction, and more like prophecy.
Halt and Catch Fire – Sure this show ended in 2017, but I hadn’t even heard of it until this summer when it was one of my binging pleasures. Over four seasons, a handful of extremely smart, creative characters navigate the leaps and bounds of the early tech industry through the 1980s and 90s. Soooo good and so well acted, I missed the characters when I finished.
And Then We Danced – A gay dancer in the hyper-masculine world of Georgian traditional dance falls for a fellow dancer in this Cannes Film Festival hit… back when film festivals were in person (sigh). The actors are wonderful in this fascinating and invigorating peek into one country’s strict dance culture.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – You can tell when Sascha Baron Cohen was filming this sequel that he, like everyone else, was surprised to be thrown into a pandemic. What was already funny became surreal comedy gold, thankfully making us laugh uproariously during the finale of the stranger-than-fiction endless election season.
Schitt’s Creek – Just like the Emmys, I was late to the game. Lucky for me, the whole complete series of this hilariously goofy rich-family-out-of-water comedy was there for me to consume in full servings. The ensemble is outrageously talented, but Catherine O’Hara’s bizarrely hilarious Moira Rose is the character I needed this year.
The Queen’s Gambit – Who doesn’t want to see a drug-addicted 9-year-old chess prodigy shove pills into her mouth? Scenes like that gave this wildly entertaining Netflix show about a young woman becoming a chess champion in the 1960s a surprising edge. Not to mention the fashion was great… I want that cardigan sweater!
Class Action Park – While being suckered into subscribing to HBO Max for one month (to watch the disappointing Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day, like the rest of America), I cleansed my palate with this hilarious documentary about a dangerously messed up water park that thrived in New Jersey in the 1980s. It’s a wonder Gen X survived (well, some actually didn’t) in this ode to the days before modern safety regulations.
Collective – Like the Oscar-winning Spotlight (but real!), this doc follows a group of journalists uncovering political corruption in Romania after Bucharest reels from a deadly nightclub fire. The opening moments of the film, showing one clubgoer’s footage of the fire (and beginning panic) literally gave me a whole-body shudder of horror.
Andrea Bocelli’s Easter Sunday Concert – Millions of people tuned in to YouTube on April 12th for a haunting, very solo concert by opera singer Andrea Bocelli, live from Duomo di Milano. Italy was suffering horribly during the first wave of the pandemic, and the sight of empty streets in Europe where there should have been throngs of locals and tourists was absolutely devastating (not to mention end-of-the-world terrifying). I know that I wasn’t the only one bawling when he closed with “Amazing Grace”.
Nomadland – Entertainment Weekly preemptively called it the best movie of the year, but of course no one else will see it until February if we are lucky. I will say that I immediately fell in love with this trailer that came out in December, like a sweet promise for 2021. Frances McDormand’s character gently takes us out of the house for a quiet ride around the country—and she, you know, just talks to people. It is a simple, beautiful trailer that shows us so many things we miss—like simple human connection—embracing us like the warm hug we’ve all been craving.