Written by Lindsey Cook
Despite this being the literal year from hell, there was still some wonderful creativity that came out of it. And while I will never be grateful for quarantine, I will say that it allowed me to explore a truly insane variety of shows and movies both old and new, so I guess I'm thankful for that. Many of the works that made my top 10 spoke in some way or another to the strange circumstances we find ourselves in in 2020. Most of those resonances were purely coincidental, but they were significant nevertheless.
Anyway, here are the 10 things I really loved this year.
10. Bad Education
Between the pandemic laying bare the incredible divide between the elite and the masses and the mess that was the 2020 presidential campaign, I find myself continuing to think back on this HBO film months after it premiered for its ability to capture the greed and corruption that are in many ways the basis of the American Dream, as told through the microcosm that is a Long Island school district. Senators selling off their travel industry stocks right before lockdowns started? Endless tales of tricky money shifting from the Trumps? Real Housewives star Erika Jayne and her husband in trouble for potentially skimming money away from victims of plane crashes? It's all the American story, and Bad Education does such a wonderful job of examining how even "good" people who mean well can end up becoming the villains. Plus: Allison Janney eating a sandwich. It's gold.
9. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Another incredible analysis of present day America as well as a masterful piece of film making during a pandemic, if you had told me 2020 would make Borat relevant again, I would have scoffed. Then again, nothing about this year has been predictable, right down to the fact that this was one of the sharpest movies of the year. The true strength of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is Maria Bakalova, who takes on the role of Borat's naive daughter who experiences a really moving self awakening throughout the course of the film.
8. Insecure Season Four
Insecure is consistently one of my favorite shows whenever it's on, but I feel like it never gets the respect it deserves. The latest season was really phenomenal, as we're now far enough into the series that the characters and their worlds are familiar to us, allowing Issa Rae and crew to tell fun and unique stories. The central friendship between Issa and Molly has always been the emotional crux of the story, more than any of the romantic relationships, and seeing that friendship be put to the test more than ever before this season was really great storytelling that everyone can find relatable. And seeing as Insecure premiered in April, watching the characters hit up LA hot spots and live their lives unburdened by COVID made me feel nostalgic for a city that will be drastically changed by the time we do finally emerge from this.
7. The Great
Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Enlightenment-era costume design, and the black humor of The Favourite? These are a lot of my top interests rolled into one wildly captivating show. While I recognized rather quickly that The Great had little to do with the historical Catherine The Great, the series did inspire me to buy a massive biography of the Russian ruler, which is what all great historical fictions should inspire one to do: learn more! I would have been completely content had the season one finale been the end of The Great's journey, but I'm so excited for more!
6. folklore and evermore
When I was first crafting this list, I just had folklore, Taylor Swift's surprise quarantine album that debuted in July, written down, but between then and now she dropped a second album called evermore. These two works are very much companion pieces, and there are incredible works on each one. For me, the standouts are "August" "Gold Rush" and "Exile" but almost every track on these two works is stunning. folklore was a real testament to creating art in the time of quarantine, and in a year when many artists delayed their album releases and tours (Swift's own Lover Festival tour was postponed) I loved the stripped back release and the emphasis on the music rather than marketing. Then evermore was just flexing on us. Also, I need to give a special shoutout to folklore for inspiring my first viral TikTok. Which, speaking of...
...thank goodness for TikTok in 2020. Honestly. Heading into this year, I was completely unmoved by the platform, having studied and researched it for work and not getting what the big deal about it was. Then quarantine started and I found myself in need of new creative outlets. TikTok became one of them. I've had a blast not only creating content on the app but also following other creators in a variety of niches. From skincare gurus like Hyram and Vi teaching me what to put on my face to Kyne explaining complicated mathematical concepts in full drag, I've learned so much about so many things through this app. I'm obsessed. A few more creators that I adore and think you'll love too: @straw_hat_goofy (for fun film conversations) @mikaylanogueira (for makeup tutorials and the greatest Boston accent) and @richcaroline (aka a modern-day Elle Woods/Cher Horowitz come to life).
4. I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel's masterwork of a mini series is popping up all over year end lists for good reason. It is a tremendous achievement in storytelling that doesn't come around very often, and Coel's ability to tackle the incredibly difficult topics of consent, rape, and acceptance in a way that is so beautifully human, treating such topics with the nuance and gray areas that they require, is something I've never seen before. As I mentioned in my monthly media diary, I hesitate to flat-out recommend this limited series precisely because it does deal with a number of triggering issues in a nuanced and sometimes frustrating manner, but I continually think back on the final episode "Ego Death" and its rumination on what it means to find peace and acceptance. It's just a wonderful work of art.
3. The Crown Season Four
I often harp on The Crown for being too self important and dramatic without always earning its drawn out shots of pasty Brits starring across country estates, but this latest season is The Crown at its best. In a way, this is the moment we've been waiting for since the series started: the tragic story of Princess Diana. It does not disappoint in the slightest. Emma Corrin captures Lady Di so wonderfully, both her coy cunning and her depressive loneliness, and the twin stories of Diana and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher makes for such compelling storytelling that you almost cannot believe these two women dominated headlines at the same moment.
2. The Queen's Gambit
In a year full of loss, sometimes it is nice to have a win. At the end of the day, The Queen's Gambit, the fantastic Netflix limited series from Scott Frank (based on Walter Tevis' novel of the same name), is a sports film. The game: chess. The underdog: a brilliant young girl named Beth struggling with equal bouts of madness and genius. It's a simple enough premise, but the production design, cinematography, and tremendous acting on the part of Anya Taylor-Joy and her costars elevate it to one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had all year. It's just lovely.
1. Palm Springs
With practically no theatergoing all year (seriously, will Onward forever be the last movie I see on the big screen?) nothing reminded me how much I love the film community and the way that a movie can generate multifaceted conversations quite like Palm Springs. I watched this movie twice and would watch it endlessly (one might say on an eternal loop, even).
For a while it has felt like the rom com would forevermore be relegated to second rate Netflix flare, so it was such a pleasant surprise to see a festival hit with decently famous people bound for a theatrical release (before the pandemic forced Neon and Hulu to shift it to a streaming debut instead), and I believe this would have been a word-of-mouth hit had it indeed come out in theaters. Instead, so many people watched this charming film and it became a bonafide hit, with plenty of Twitter and Reddit threads discussing the complex physics, timelines, and philosophies of the film. And then there was the electric chemistry between Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, without which the whole film would have fallen flat. Everything about Palm Springs, from the plot to the meta-textual conversation around the movie and the way we all felt like we were in loops of our own in the midst of quarantine, was just wonderful.