In a year when we’ve been confined at home so much of the time, I really expected to get more done. More work (not as easy as expected, with a three-year-old in the house full time), and certainly more entertainment and reading. That didn’t really go as planned. Looking back, I’m somewhat disappointed in what I managed to watch and read. Lots of TV (and plenty of good programming, thankfully), but movies and books left me wanting more. Here’s a rundown of my top picks this year. You can see my lists from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 here.
The Best Books I Read in 2020
I can’t believe I didn’t read more. For the first several months of the pandemic, I barely got through anything. It’s hard to say if it was the adjustment to quarantine life, or the fact that I was stuck on a somewhat laborious (though good) read. Regardless, I am surprised that I didn’t plow through more enjoyable literature in 2020.
9) Recursion, by Blake Crouch: Thematically, this story wasn’t anything too new to me. I’ve probably read three or four time loop novels over the years, all fairly entertaining. In this case, the nature of the time loop was slightly different (based on memory experiments), but in general it was another tale of a hero or heroes stuck reliving their lives until they “get it right.” The only thing that was different is that the stakes were notably higher, and the mix of personal dramas, action pieces, and grand catastrophes made for a fun read. The best endorsement I can give it is that I was up until nearly 3am finishing it off… so it may not have been unique, but it was certainly entertaining.
8) Defiant Courage, by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Dr. Tore Haug: This non-fiction account of a daring escape by a Norwegian soldier in his Nazi-occupied homeland is something I learned about while reading another book (I don’t recall which). There are actually two different books written about Jan Baalsrud’s escapade, and I had to basically flip a coin to decide which one to read. I’m not sure if I made the right choice. The story is remarkable, from the short-lived secret mission Baalsrud’s team undertook and quickly botched, to his dramatic trek over land and sea, which was supported by several local families (most of whom he didn’t know he could trust beforehand). The downside to this particular telling is that the writing seems a bit plain, and often repetitive. The prose comes across as clunky, almost amateurish at times. Perhaps that’s a byproduct of translation. The biggest disappointment is reserved for the ending, however. We hear about the touching and meaningful connections he made during his flight, but ultimately get no follow-up on our hero’s reunions with his saviors after the war. The book definitely has its issues, but is worth reading for the true story of remarkable grit and bravery.
7) Ballistic Kiss, by Richard Kadrey: The latest story in the Sandman Slim series. For those not familiar with this series, it’s a tale about a foul-mouthed, sarcastic magic practitioner set in modern day LA. That is not particularly unique in itself (I’ve read works from at least four or five different authors in that specific genre), but it remains… comfortable. Consistently entertaining, at least, even if it doesn’t stray from its familiar plot lines all that much. In a year that demanded some escapism, another Sandman Slim story provided a perfect getaway for a few days.
6) The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin has gained some acclaim as one of the fantasy genre’s best authors in recent years. I previously read her Broken Earth trilogy in 2017 (it also made my list), which is probably more popular than Inheritance… but I preferred this one. Unlike that story, which was more focused on the setting and world-building, this tale almost seemed stationary. The environment and geography of the Inheritance trilogy is almost inconsequential, making for a more intimate story in my view. The first volume in this tale of gods and godlings almost plays out like a Kardashian-inspired melodrama (not as bad as it sounds): it’s about the rich and powerful, and their petty squabbles. But the characters and personalities are interesting (moreso than in Broken Earth… and than the Kardashians, of course), so I found it more compelling. The second book, The Broken Kingdoms, was my favorite, perhaps because it focused on the most human main character in the entire saga.
5) The Crimson Lake Trilogy, by Candice Fox: It was nice to find a new detective series that was a quick read while offering more depth and sophistication than some of the fare I’ve read in the past (e.g., Michael Connelly’s books, which are fun but are a bit light and often stumble on the landing). Set in Australia, the series focuses on Ted Conkaffey, whose life as a husband, father, and policeman (understandably) falls apart under the burden of a false child molestation accusation. Ted is forced to find a new home and new work, which leads him to a backwater community in northern Australia. He teams up with a quirky private investigator to work cases there, all while dealing with the fallout of the accusation that continue to haunt him. His new partner has a mysterious background of course, and her odd behavior is probably intended to be more compelling than it is (for some reason I couldn’t get Krysten Ritter’s TV portrayal of Jessica Jones out of my head… there are definitely similarities). However, it’s actually Ted’s burden—and the endless drama surrounding it—that carries the books. Oh, there are mysteries to solve, some more important to the overall story than others, but the darkest moments are saved for the protagonist’s battle to reclaim a normal life.
4) Daisy Jones and The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid: I always enjoy reading oral histories about films, sports and other forms of entertainment. So it was a nice departure to delve into the fictionalized story of a Seventies rock band in this format. Oral histories present “insider” perspectives, though not ones you can count on being one hundred percent reliable, since viewpoints from different interviewees often conflict with each other, especially years after the fact. Reid recognizes this and makes good use of it when highlighting the many conflicts that come to light throughout the story (it really does seem like a typical, sordid rock band history). There are some deeper insights about family, personal demons, and love that won’t be found in most true stories, however, which makes it a bit more meaningful. And yet, I found the style of storytelling wearing a little thin toward the end. Part of me wanted it to go on (spoiler: the band’s success doesn’t last a long time), but maybe it wrapped up just in time.
3) A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay: Kay’s works focus on semi-historical fiction, sometimes with a mild fantasy element. He’s tackled settings based on Renaissance Italy, the Crusades era Middle East, and Dynastic China, and the one thing that’s consistent about it all is his beautiful writing. Brightness has links to some of his other books, including the Sarantine Mosaic (my top pick in 2016), but it’s a self-contained story. As is often the case with Kay’s stories, the protagonist is an everyman who gets caught up in important world events. Crossing paths with generals, rulers and others in power, Kay’s heroes (in this case, the son of a tailor) manage to play an important role in setting world-changing events in motion. Love, war, death, and politics… perhaps it’s the usual fare from this author, but he presents it all so beautifully that I can’t complain.
2) The Overstory, by Richard Powers: This Pulitzer Prize winner is all about… trees. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. It actually focuses on the lives on nine different characters, and the way they are influenced by trees. At first, I thought this might be a collection of short stories, and I would have been fine with that. The opening chapters for each character are beautiful. Had the entire novel been made up of little vignettes about a few dozen people and the way their lives intertwine with our planet’s vegetable matter, I would have been satisfied. But eventually, the stories of most (though not all) of the characters begin to connect. Family, love, death, redemption, loss… these are all underlying themes in many of the character arcs. The way trees connect with them varies. In some cases, bonds are more literal. One character is a botanist and emerges as one of the world’s leading authorities on trees. Others become tree huggers and radical environmentalists. I sometimes found the more overt arboreal themes to be less interesting than the stories of trees that may have delicately or briefly touched a person’s life in a way that sent them careening down a different path. It’s a beautifully-written novel, something I found more interesting plot-wise than it probably should have been (given the subject matter).
I vacillated between my top two choices this year. The Overstory sat at Number One most of the year, but I couldn’t forget how long it took me to get through it. This was the book I was hung up on at the beginning of the pandemic, and I can’t help but think that if I had some lighter escapist reading, I might’ve had more time to get through more stories this year. So I held enough of a grudge to drop it to Number Two. Meaning the top book on my 2020 list is…
1) Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke: Clark’s long-awaited second novel landed a decade after Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I wasn’t sure what to expect this time. Strange was a massive tome about wizards in the Victorian era. Good, but a more challenging read (I recall coming away disappointed that more hadn’t happen in its thousand pages), and a story I would not have remembered much about if not for the subsequent BBC television adaptation (which was pretty good).
Piranesi, thankfully, isn’t anything resembling a slog. It’s a third the length of Clarke’s first book, but remains compelling and entertaining. Set in a seemingly-endless maze of rooms and corridors on the edge of an ocean (the rooms flood on occasion, and the sea provides a bounty for its residents), the tale centers on its two lone inhabitants, a man called Piranesi and his occasional companion, The Other. The book reminded me of why Strange was so successful: Clark sure can write. Though Piranesi leads a rather basic, formulaic existence in his cavernous home, it comes alive vividly in Clarke’s prose… and eventually its mysteries begin to unravel. In a year when it was more important than ever to get lost in books, I found myself devouring this one more quickly than the rest. I just wish it had been around earlier in the year, to help getting my reading momentum going!
My Favorite Movies Seen in 2020
This wasn’t the best year for movies, obviously. Looking at this list, I’m sort of cringing. So many theater releases were pushed back to 2021, but I still failed to catch up on the endless supply of great films from years past. I may remember this year more for all of the serviceable-but-largely-forgettable Netflix action films I ingested.
10) Onward: I love Pixar movies that don’t involve Cars. This one mostly takes place during a road trip, so maybe it’s an exception (anyway, you know what I meant). This is the tale of two elves living in a modern world that’s largely forgotten its magical roots, so I should have warmed to the fantasy element (given that the genre was such a big part of art and literature in my younger years). But I found it surprisingly bland, almost as if it was completely extraneous to the plot, outside of the the spell that sends our protagonist brothers on their quest. Ultimately, the strongest part of the film is what makes so many other Pixar films successful: the themes of family, love, and friendship (WALL•E, my favorite Pixar film, is something many see as a message about the destruction of the environment… for me, it’s mostly a really effective love story). Onward could have been set just about anywhere, with any types of characters. The way it ties together family bonds is really the only thing that matters, and it does it in a pretty satisfying way.
9) Extreme Job: A Korean action-comedy set around an inept undercover police squad who are forced to start up a fried chicken joint as a front for a stakeout. And wouldn’t you know it, the restaurant gets really popular… what could go wrong? Filled with plenty of funny dialog, and—for the action fans—a fair number of martial arts set pieces, the film sometimes struggles balancing comedy and drama, but the first (especially) and final thirds are pretty funny. Overall it’s worth the small rental cost.
8) My Octopus Teacher: This Netflix documentary became a surprise hit late in the year. The general public doesn’t seem to latch onto nature documentaries, but this one was quite popular. Not everyone realizes that the octopus in question was featured on television already in one of Blue Planet II’s most dramatic underwater sequences. That’s how I recognized it and why I became intrigued about the story of the filmmaker, Craig Foster, who first discovered the octopus and went on to tell its life story. For me the focus was about the “behind the scenes” looks at the subject and its fascinating behavior (which extended to far more than just what was covered in Blue Planet). The film does pull at the heartstrings a bit, however, as the filmmaker established an emotional connection with his subject. It’s often challenging to maintain our distance from our subjects. I often cringe when I see photographers become overly-attached emotionally to the wildlife we document in the field, so I approached that part of the story with a bit of a skepticism. It was interesting, however, to hear Foster’s thoughts on his bond with his subject. Though I’m not sure the deepest connection—how a year with a bivalve improved Foster as a human being—was really fleshed out or explained well enough, it did resonate adequately. Many viewers will be taken with the emotional side of the story, but those interested in wildlife, science and filmmaking will find it even more compelling.
7) Soul: Pixar’s second film of 2020 was far superior to its first, but perhaps still slightly disappointing to me. A man suffers a life-threatening accident immediately after getting his big career break, and his soul fights like heck to resume living. The film’s quite good: visually it’s a treat, and the soundtrack is fantastic. However, I felt as though the journey of the main character, his growth and the evolution of his outlook on life, wasn’t fleshed out well enough (nor was his relationship with his main companion, to whom he was attached during a very personal journey). There are inevitable comparisons to Inside Out given the intimate look at the inner workings of our human selves. While I didn’t set out to make such comparisons, I found myself thinking about Inside Out a lot.. and found that I felt that to be a better film because the narrative, evolution of the main character, and relationships between characters were executed better. At least, it connected with me much more effectively. Nonetheless, I still found myself caught up in the end of Soul, in large part thanks to the moving score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s a winner, but misses my cut as a Pixar favorite.
6) An Inspector Calls: This 2015 BBC adaptation of a 1940s play is now being featured on Amazon. A mysterious inspector interrupts a wealthy family’s dinner party to discuss the recent death of a young woman. Tales of class disparity, deceit, greed, and of course, death are revealed. And who is that inspector, anyway? I dug it, in large part due to an excellent cast, led by David Thewlis as Inspector Goole.
5) The Farewell: I’m glad I finally caught this 2019 gem during a flight (you know, back when we were flying regularly). A young American woman flies to China to visit her ailing grandmother—against her family’s wishes. Nobody wants to tell Grandma that she’s dying, something our protagonist has trouble coming to grips with. It’s a sweet story of family and a bit of culture shock. Awkwafina is primarily known for her comedy, but she deftly handles what is largely a dramatic role.
4) 1917: Essentially last year’s “runner-up” (if you believed the hype) in the Best Picture race, 1917 was quite good. Perfect in nearly every way, I suppose. A film to be lauded for its unique and glorious cinematography more than anything, while telling another effective war story. But, as with some other award-contending pictures, I look back on it and don’t feel any sort of attachment. It’s plainly good, and is beautiful in so many ways, but I can’t imagine ever going back to it, so it slides down my list a bit.
3) The Guest: Another under-the-radar film from (wow!) 2014… I didn’t realize it was released that long ago. It stars Dan Stevens—yes, Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens—as an ex-soldier who pays a visit to the family of one of his deceased compatriots. We quickly realize something’s not quite right as he ingratiates himself with the family. And, well… a bit of mayhem ensues. It’s violent, bloody, wry and funny. Stevens’ performance is a complete 180 from his Downton days. I loved it (Jenn, not so much).
2) Ford vs. Ferrari: Early in the year I am often catching up on some of the previous year’s Oscar contenders. I’m no fan of racing, but this story of Ford’s triumph over Ferrari at Le Mans was extremely entertaining. The racing stuff was fine, but what makes the whole thing work is the back story and build-up to the big race, some nice performances from Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the lead roles, and writing that bring just the right amount of levity to keep it from overflowing with too much machismo and tension.
1) Paddington 2: Yes, I think this kids’ movie was the best thing I saw all year. But that wasn’t a surprise. It’s had great word-of-mouth, and I introduced our son to Paddington mainly so I could eventually see Paddington 2. It lived up to the hype: a funny, well-performed, and brilliantly designed film for viewers of all ages. It will go down as one of the best children’s films of this era. By the way, as CGI animals go, he’s not terrible.
Honorable Mention: Hamilton: We had tickets booked for this show in London, but that trip was cancelled, so we finally caught it on Disney+. As I’ve plainly stated in the blog in the past, I don’t like musicals as a rule. But rare exceptions will shine through, like La La Land, the “Cast Album: Co-op” episode of Documentary Now! and now Hamilton.
My Favorite Shows That I Watched in 2020
Unlike my year in books and movies, I can’t complain about the television slate. Scripted TV drama remains as strong as ever, and there are too many choices. But I was happy to fit in some excellent comedies, and even more documentary series this year.
10) The Boys: Violence + gore + raunchy humor + superheroes. I don’t mind saying this is sometimes right in my wheelhouse. Sometimes. The Boys is sort of the anti-superhero show: they’re mostly villains in this case. And that’s where its greatest strength lies. The character Homelander (essentially the show’s version of Super Man), is probably the most repulsive villain on TV right now. He’s fun to root against, and Season 2 of the show introduces another villain who is nearly as despicable. A show like this requires really nasty villains, since the protagonists aren’t exactly angels either, and it delivers.
9) Endeavour: After a couple years off, I was finally able to catch up on this Inspector Morse prequel series. It originally airs on PBS Mystery, but recent seasons landed on Amazon, allowing me to find all the episodes I’d missed the last couple years. I’ve been a fan of some of Mystery’s more benign UK detective series (starting with this show’s immediate predecessor set in the same world, Inspector Lewis). Nothing too violent or gory, but they’re generally solid entertainment. In this case, the fifth and sixth seasons of Endeavor carried on with their usual episodic murder-per-episode formula (Oxford is just a brutal place to live!), but also introduced a more serious serialized plot covering both seasons… and it was pretty captivating. That helped bump the show up into my top ten, even though Season Seven was a bit of a step back.
8) The Last Dance: Michael Jordan is my favorite athlete of all time. That is, he’s the athlete whom I obsessed over the most growing up. My idolization of athletes is long in the past, but it peaked with Jordan (even though I was always a Sonics fan first). Despite the fact that I’ve long outgrown that era of my life, and don’t put him on nearly as high of a pedestal (Jordan’s horrid management track record and bullying personality have soured my view of him slightly), I was looking forward to ESPN’s ten-part documentary about Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. It lived up to the hype, though criticisms of the series as an impartial documentary art form are certainly valid. Giving Jordan the last word on every controversy isn’t an ideal way to go, but ultimately the series was a well-produced celebration of the greatest sportsman of all time and his legacy.
7) Fargo: This is my second-favorite season of Noah Hawley’s tribute to the Coen Brothers’ film of the same name. Nothing will compare to the magnificent Season 2 of Fargo (one of the best seasons on television in the past decade), but this was a welcome return to form at least, after the mostly forgettable third season aired three(!) years ago. As with the previous seasons, the latest story (set in 1950s Kansas City) featured plenty of oddball characters (and oddball character names), organized crime, fun dialog, and some excellent cinematography. Some may feel the storytelling—focusing primarily on rival Italian and African American gangs—was a bit inconsistent, but there was an important thread not found in previous seasons that, to me, tied things together nicely: the importance of family. It added some meaning and gravitas to what might otherwise be a collection of well-filmed, violent vignettes spiked with the occasional hilarious one-liner.
6) The Mandalorian: The first Star Wars television series debuted on Disney+ last year to much fanfare. It was (rightfully) called one of the best additions to the SW cinematic canon. Which, admittedly, is not a very high standard to meet based on the last couple decades. The production values were spot on, and while the plot, writing and acting were nothing to write home about, it served its purpose as an enjoyable return to the world George Lucas created. This second season started slowly and was quite repetitive. Each early episode introduced a new task and a new planet for the titular hero. It was rather formulaic, with little to connect the narrative other than the Mandalorian himself and his adorable sidekick. Finally, halfway through, things began to pick up. I have never seen some of the SW animated series, but even I got caught up in the excitement when some of the beloved characters (of whom I had almost no knowledge of) from those shows were introduced. While most of geekdom was going nuts at that point, I was simply enjoying the introduction of more interesting characters and higher stakes. Oh, and it was around this time that The Mandalorian proved itself to be one of the best-looking shows on television. The final episode took things to a whole new level, with some brilliant action sequences, a major surprise for SW fans of all ages, and even a few misty moments. They really nailed the back half of this season.
5) Ted Lasso: The last time we seriously binge-watched a show (like, five to six hours straight) was… ten or fifteen years ago? Well, we did that with Ted Lasso, watching the entire season in one night. And let me tell you, that’s a terrible idea when you start at 10pm and you have a three-year-old banging around the house early the following morning. But it was worth it (I think… I’m actually writing this in the midst of my morning-after stupor). We only started this Apple TV series after discovering we do, indeed, have Apple TV. The story of an American football coach who goes to England to coach Premier League soccer—a sport he knows nothing about—is another one of those rare good-natured comedies I’m attracted to (See: Parks & Rec, The Good Place). It starts out with some good laughs, as a well-written fish-out-of-water story should, but the warm-hearted storytelling is what really carries the show, even as the laughs die down a bit and a little more drama takes hold through the latter half of the season.
4) The Expanse: It’s no secret that I love this show, based on the literary space drama series I also adore. In the past I called it “the biggest overachiever on television,” due to what the showrunners were able to do with a SyFy Channel budget. Well, SyFy decided to drop the show for some reason, so Amazon swooped in and saved it. This series was already ahead of the game due to excellent writing, fantastic casting, and efficient and wise production choices. But the move to streaming gives it even more freedom to explore the quickly-expanding universe of the books. This particular season (the fourth) was based on my least favorite novel in the series, but in both cases that means it’s still quite good. And knowing where the story is about to go, I can say I’m really looking forward to Season Five (the first few episodes are already airing as I publish this, and it remains strong). Perhaps the only downer is learning that Amazon plans to end the series run (on their platform, at least) after Season 6. The books remain excellent well past that point, so hopefully the production will continue somehow.
3) Better Call Saul: Is it better than Breaking Bad yet? Some are arguing that this BB prequel has surpassed one of the greatest shows of all time. You just get consistent excellence from creator Vince Gilligan and crew. This season, Rhea Seehorn deserves special mention for the way she carried an otherwise awesome show with her performance. And not even an Emmy nomination. What a travesty.
2) What We Do in the Shadows: If you’ve paid attention to this list the last few years, you know I don’t watch a lot of comedy. But this show is brilliant (it came in at #3 last year). Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that, among its standout talent, you’ll find Matt Berry in a starring role. We watched three different shows featuring him this year (Year of the Rabbit and Toast of London, mentioned below), and he’s also in Jenn’s beloved The IT Crowd. Berry never fails to deliver.
1) Counterpart: I’ve been waiting for years to watch this show, which debuted on Starz a while back. Amazon finally picked up the first two seasons, which meant we were able to binge it during lockdown. I loved it. A tinge of sci fi mixed with some of the more interesting spy games we’ve seen on TV recently, and topped with some excellent performances from actors forced to play dual roles (especially leads J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams). It was only as we were closing in on the Season 2 finale that I learned that the show had actually been cancelled by Starz (for being “too male”), which felt like a major blow. The ending was a bit too open-ended to call it a satisfying series conclusion, but it was a fun, short ride.
Other shows I enjoyed: Ugly Delicious, Chef’s Table, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek, Star Trek: Picard, Somebody Feed Phil, Giri/Haji, American Experience, American Masters, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? Toast of London, Year of the Rabbit, The Kettering Incident, Lovecraft Country, Babylon Berlin, McMillions, The Flight Attendant, Mindhunter, The Wilds