Best of 2020 | My Top 10 TV Shows of the Year

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Last year, I ended up being a bit over-ambitious with my Top 10 list. Rather than a single blog post, the plan was to write an article a day about ten different television shows, and ten different individual episodes of television too. Twenty pieces of writing proved more than a few too many – I managed five; the election threw me off rhythm and that was the end of that – and I never actually shared the full Best of 2019 list.

Until now! I’d thought about preserving the mystery, but better to just share it here, I think.

10) The Circle

9) Defending the Guilty

8) Stath Lets Flats

7) Superstore

6) Years and Years

5) The Good Fight

4) The Other Two

3) Russian Doll

2) Fleabag

1) Succession

10) The Good Place 4×9, “The Answer”

9) Derry Girls 2×05, “The Prom”

8) Daybreak 1×08, “Post Mates”

7) Veep 7×07, “Veep”

6) This Way Up 1×06, “Episode 6”

5) The Good Fight 3×5, “The One Where a Nazi Gets Punched”

4) Superstore 4×22, “Employee Appreciation Day”

3) Succession 2×4, “Safe Room”

2) Years and Years 1×4, “Episode 4”

1) Fleabag 2×01, “Episode 1”

In hindsight, several of those choices are more than a little questionable – outright bad! – but then I suppose the point of these lists is as much a historical record of my bad opinions as it is anything else. Speaking of which, you can also find my similarly questionable 2018 and 2017 list here. (I do seem to only complete these lists every other year.)

This year, the plan was to do the same again, but I ended up scaling that back pretty quickly – first from twenty blog posts to ten, ditching the individual best episodes list, and then again from ten daily posts to a single article. (This one.) Why was that? I spent ages writing Christmas cards, basically. Just got completely and totally carried away, doing little illustrations and everything. Kept me entertained, at least. Maybe next year I’ll be able to do the full run of twenty daily articles (more likely I will just write more Christmas cards; if you want one next year, now is the time to start trying to befriend me).

A word quickly on two notable omissions, before we begin. I skipped Normal People, because I loved the book so much I didn’t want to invite in another interpretation; I’ve never particularly been a “the book is always better” person, so that was something of an unusual choice. I also opted not to watch I May Destroy You, because of a personal discomfort with the subject matter (for the same reason, I didn’t watch Save Me Too, even though the first series of Save Me made 2018 list).

Anyway! Onto the list proper.


10). This Country

I keep double-checking the Wikipedia page for This Country, because I’m half-convinced I’m making a mistake here. Surely, right, if This Country Series 3 – the final season! – had aired in 2020, I would’ve seen it on more year-end Best Of lists, right? So, it must’ve been a 2019 series that I was a little late to, or maybe I didn’t even watch it this year at all and I’ve just completely lost all sense of linear time?

But, no, the Wikipedia page insists it aired in 2020, and frankly who am I to argue with Wikipedia?

When I was still debating whether or not to compile a list of Best Television Episodes of 2020, one of the few things I was certain had to be on that list was an episode of This Country. Specifically, it was the fifth episode of Series 3, The Station – a pared-back, even-simpler-than-usual episode about Kerry and Kurtan waiting for a train. There’s a lot to love about this series and the world it inhabits, but the reason This Country was one of my favourite television shows of 2020 is that central dynamic: Kerry and Kurtan bickering away about nothing in particular, all those little idiosyncrasies on full display, the dialogue sparkling even as it’s entirely mundane.


9). Us

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Us made the list almost entirely on the strength of Tom Hollander’s performance as Douglas Peterson, here somehow sympathetic even as it’s always obvious exactly why his life is falling apart around him. Hollander walks a careful line throughout – it would’ve been easy to make Douglas too much of any one thing, when the drama demands he be much more complex – and does so deftly. The series wasn’t perfect – the ending is too neat, telegraphed too early on; that close focus on Hollander’s character is sometimes borders on myopia, crowding out the rest of the cast – but I really do think Hollander was.

Without realising, I spent a lot of time on David Nicholls’ writing this year – watching both Us and his film Starter For 10, and reading One Day, finally. (He also wrote the Patrick Melrose adaptation a few while back, which was my favourite show of 2018.) He’s not perfect, I don’t think, and there’s some obvious recurring flaws in each – but he’s very good at nailing a particular style of emotion I ended up appreciating a lot this year.


8). The Crown

Look, I know, I know, but let me explain. I couldn’t stand the first series of The Crown; it always struck me as a very short-sighted programme, never quite confident enough to actually commit to criticising the monarchy. For all that it insisted it was about the difficulty of life as a member of the royal family, it always seemed to contort to find some redeeming feature or another, making the few critiques it did let stand feel trivial at best and hollow at worst. It’s not that I needed it to take a republican stance, exactly (I was altogether more lukewarm on the royal family in 2016 than I am now), just that

I watched a few episodes of the second series, but quickly fell off, and didn’t bother with the third at all; I caught up ahead of this year’s series and enjoyed each one more than the last. The fourth series, though, felt like a revelation (well, comparatively speaking), a show that had finally become what it always wanted to be, the introduction of Emma Corrin’s Diana bringing a certain clarity and momentum it had previously lacked. Something about The Crown finally clicked into place – Peter Morgan’s writing no longer clangingly unsubtle, but instead somehow admirably blunt – and the show was all the better for it.


7). The Good Fight

I cannot think what The Good Fight will look like when it returns. In part that’s because it’s always been so defined by the Trump era, which is now – in the most straightforward sense of the term, anyway – coming to an end. I worry it might lapse into a certain complacency under a Biden presidency, lacking the sense of direction that animated its wit and made it so sharp (which admittedly is not the worst trade-off in the world, all things considered).

Less obvious but more significant, though, is the loss of Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo, both of whom have always been such huge parts of the show. I could imagine The Good Fight reinventing itself successfully with them; it’s much harder to picture the series making that just adjustment without them. Still, though: this is the fourth year running that I’ve included The Good Fight on my Best Of list. This year it was still just as smart and as thrilling as it always has been – perhaps it’s about to falter somewhat, perhaps not, but either way that’s a really strong run.


6). Two Weeks to Live

The obvious point of comparison is The End of the F***ing World, but Two Weeks to Live leans much more heavily on its comedy than TEOTFW; it’s not funnier than its predecessor, exactly, but it’s less idiosyncratic, broader, more open and inviting in its laughs. It opts to be earnest more often than not, largely shying away from the tongue-in-cheek, detached sensibility found in so many ‘genre’ comedies. Two Weeks to Live is self-aware, yes, and often undercuts its own clichés – but it does so with a straight face rather than a roll of the eyes.

A big part of that is Maisie Williams, in one of the more straightforwardly comic roles of her career. It quickly becomes clear that she’s got great comic timing (“We need to call the World Health Organisation.” “The who?” “Exactly”) as much Kimmy Schmidt here as she is Arya Stark. Her performance is deceptively precise – sincere without losing any levity, heightened without becoming exaggerated, and witty without becoming quippy. Williams has great chemistry with the rest of the cast (Mawaan Rizwan and Taheen Modak in particular, both of whom are fantastic) and taken together there’s a lot to like about Two Weeks to Live.


5). Star Trek: Lower Decks

If you’d asked me in January which of the 2020’s three Star Trek shows would make the Best of 2020 list, I’d likely have said Picard. I might well have said Discovery, which I suspect in hindsight probably deserved a place on the 2019 list. There’s not a chance I would’ve said Lower Decks – I didn’t even think I’d watch it, beyond a cursory glance at the first episode. I can’t stand Rick and Morty, and this looked like the same with a Star Trek gloss.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I absolutely loved it. It’s very much Star Trek’s answer to The Curse of Fatal Death: affectionate but not reverent, fannish but not insular, mocking but not meanspirited. It was a consistent highlight of my week – bright and colourful and above all else just a ridiculous amount of fun. In its own way, Lower Decks feels like it justifies the ongoing franchising of Star Trek more than Picard, Strange New Worlds or Section 31 do, and I can’t wait for the second series.


4). The Umbrella Academy

It took me a while to get into The Umbrella Academy (outside of that long opening sequence where Elliot Page plays the violin, there wasn’t much of the first few episodes I enjoyed without caveat) but I’m glad I stuck with it. Not because the series was particularly innovative or anything like that – it’s exactly the fairly straightforward riff on the X-Men it looks from the outside, and its actually very charming second season retreads well-worn ground by returning to the Kennedy assassination. The Umbrella Academy is in a lot of ways a fairly middle-of-the-road genre piece, the Netflix algorithm responding to the end of their Marvel partnership and not a lot more than that. (Actually, I often found myself thinking this is what Doctor Who-by-Netflix would look like.)

The reason The Umbrella Academy made the list, though, is because I ended up watching it with some friends (and also Bethany), so there was a nice communal aspect to it. Felt like we’ve kinda lost that over the past few years, now television schedules are a bit less linear and everything drops at once and so on. It’s all a little more atomised and discrete, I suppose? So it was nice to have that and share that and so on. Especially this year!  


3). I Hate Suzie

I Hate Suzie features Billie Piper’s best performance, in a show not just written for her, but written very much to her strengths – a subtle distinction, and one that makes this such a striking star vehicle for Piper. There’s a sense perhaps that this sort of broadly autobiographical role might be a relatively easy one to play, but I doubt it: the frantic neuroses and layers of artifice on display here are fantastically realised, a really remarkable achievement on Piper’s part.

It’s a little bit of a shame, really, that I Hate Suzie had such a muted American debut – picked up by HBO Max but not available when the platform launched, then overshadowed somewhat by the arrival of movies straight from the cinema. In an ideal world, I Hate Suzie might prove to be something of a slow-burn hit, a series people stumble upon and then quickly fall in love with.


2). The Queen’s Gambit

On a moment to moment level, The Queen’s Gambit was likely the show I enjoyed most all year – the most slick, the most confident, the most glamorous and the most entertaining.


1). Small Axe

Is it film? (Yes.) Is it television? (Also, yes.) Does it really matter? (Well, not exactly, but it’s interesting to get into all the same.)

For the moment, though, let’s call it television. Small Axe is the best – let’s say “project” – project of the year, no question, and I included the individual episodes on my list of the best films of the year. That doesn’t feel like it entirely captures why and how they’re so good, though, because no one instalment is acting discretely – to take one in isolation from another is almost missing the point. Each part of Small Axe is in communication with another: Alex Wheatle’s depiction of childhood speaks to similar themes in Education; the music in Mangrove and in Alex Wheatle again lends Lovers Rock even more depth; the four biographical instalments inform and accentuate one another; so on and so forth.

On their own, any given episode of Small Axe would be a career best pieces of work – together, they’re something so much denser and so much richer. That, to me, is television (apart from when it’s film, anyway) – so Small Axe is the Best Television Show of 2020.


Special Mentions

As ever, there’s a handful of shows that – while they didn’t make the full list – still warrant a mention.

  • I spent most of May working my way through New Girl, which I’d seen stretches of before but never watched in full. Even though it ended in 2017, I debated putting it on this list anyway; it’s such a deeply charming programme, and a big part of the year for me.
  • After missing it last year, I finally caught up on Watchmen. I’m not convinced it quite stuck the landing with “more Black female superheroes”, but the first eight episodes were sublime – even as it faltered slightly at the end, it was one of the best pieces of superhero-adjacent drama we’ve had over the past decade. (Speaking of Watchmen, I really enjoyed this piece on it.)
  • I enjoyed Hugh Laurie’s Roadkill quite a lot, though it faltered in its final episode – I’d have really enjoyed a second series focusing on the leadership race, but the series skipped ahead a few months in its last minutes. Still not sure why.
  • Superstore was one I deliberated over; ultimately, I don’t think that fifth season was brilliant (perhaps because of the change in creative team, or maybe because anything would’ve felt a let-down after that finale), and too little of season six has aired for it to have made an impact in 2020. Perhaps next year, though, with its (far too soon) final season.
  • Finally, Quiz. The other 2020 show of the five special mentions, it would’ve been eligible for the above list – I still wonder if maybe I should’ve shuffled things around to include it. I really loved it, and I think the piece I wrote about it was one of my best bits of writing all year. (Also, James Graham is now a close personal friend twitter mutual, so it seems only polite, especially given how much I’ve slated some of his other stuff in the past.)

I’m not sure there’s anything else to make note of particularly; there were plenty of things I meant to watch but didn’t get round to (Lovecraft Country, Life, The Good Lord Bird, Westworld series 3, The Plot Against America, The Mandalorian, Raised by Wolves, so on, so forth) but that’s always the way. Is there anything I’m forgetting that you think I should’ve watched? Let me know, I’ll make a note, get round to it over the next few months.


2021

What am I looking forward to next year? This and that. Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin is the first big show of 2021 on my list – I’ve got something in the works for that at the moment, which I’ll be able to share more about in a few weeks’ time. I’m also cautiously optimistic about the new Marvel shows; Wandavision moreso than the other two, though I imagine I’ll watch all three of them anyway. (Loki I’m quite curious about too, Falcon and The Winter Soldier feels like it could really go either way.) There’s also, of course, my beloved Riverdale, returning after far too long away.

I’ll also be watching The Serpent, mostly for Jenna Coleman; I’m always very wary of that sort of true crime series, but I’m also always very fond of her, so. In theory, Doctor Who Series 13 is due in 2021, though I’m not entirely convinced that’ll actually be ready to air in September as planned – which is going to be the case for a lot of things I imagine. Is Moffat’s Inside Man still due for 2021? I assume not, because I don’t think they were able to start production this year. Hmm.

A broader 2021 target, I suppose, would be to try and watch less rubbish, and be faster to give stuff up when it’s not very good – like, the amount of time I knowingly spent this year on rubbish like Spitting Image and Space Force, or even something good-but-not-great like Catastrophe, long past the point I was getting anything out of it… not the best use of my time, I suspect.

Equally, on the flip side, I do also want to just try and watch everything next year, which surely means there’s gonna be some rubbish. We shall see!

Related:

Best of 2020 | Every film I watched this year

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Best of 2020 | Every film I saw this year

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I watched just shy of 75 films this year! Fewer than I’d have liked, as always, with more than one high-profile omission I’ll try and get to as 2021 begins, but I think it’s probably also the most films I’ve seen in a single year anyway.

Generally speaking, it was a fairly good year for films, for me anyway: I covered the London Film Festival, and Raindance Film Festival; I wrote a lot of reviews, and did some pretty high-profile interviews; and, of course, I saw a lot of films I actually quite enjoyed.

Collected below are my Letterboxd reviews, slightly revised and expanded in a few places throughout; I’ve also linked anything else I wrote about each film below. This isn’t a particularly strict ranking – there’s too many films for that to work, and the star ratings I gave each film were often fairly arbitrary – but I have included a ranked list of my favourite 2020 releases at the end.

You can also find my 2019 list here, which includes a couple of favourites from 2018 and 2017 too.


½ out of 5

How to Build a Girl (2020)

It’s aggressively annoying from the start, but by the end it’s a work of towering vanity and alarming narcissism – without even a hint of self-awareness. I am genuinely astonished at the depth of arrogance it must take to write a film this cloying about your own adolescence.

Beanie Feldstein, please, fire your agent before you find yourself in a sequel about flinging shit at Owen Jones on twitter.


1 out of 5

Artemis Fowl (2020)

I’d been awake for something like twenty-four hours when I decided to watch this, and I really should’ve just gone to sleep instead. Shame it was such a let-down, I used to love these books. Ah well.


2 out of 5

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Feels like two films that are sitting together quite awkwardly; there’s something oddly disjointed about how the two strands of the plot interact, neither really complimenting the other. The ending was a little trite, too.

The Prom (2020)

Watched this with my mum, who fast-forwarded through all the songs.

Stardust (2020)

Anyway, watch Velvet Goldmine.

Read More: You can find my review of Stardust, written as part of my coverage of Raindance Film Festival, here.

Death to 2020 (2020)

I’ve never been especially fond of Charlie Brooker’s Yearly Wipe shows, to be honest – they’re fine at best – but 2020 feels particularly ill-suited to his brand of snarky centrist liberal satire. The main takeaway though (aside from the fact that Brooker clearly doesn’t own the rights to Philomena Cunk outright) was that it confirmed, or at least added some weight to, a suspicion I’ve had for a while: we’re not going to get any good pandemic art from people who experienced 2020 from a position of relative comfort.

Borat: Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Funniest bit was the bear’s head in the fridge, I think.

Chemical Hearts (2020)

Lili Reinhart is good in this, I think, bringing a maturity the film would otherwise lack – but she’s not really the focus of the film, which is in every other respect an essentially very generic and throwaway bit of YA fare. It’ll find some dedicated fans I’m sure, but I’d be surprised if it made much of an impact.

Read More: I reviewed Chemical Hearts for Flickering Myth, and you can find that piece here.

Coalition (2015)

It doesn’t help that the cast is markedly weaker than that of the Peter Morgan films (no one here holds a candle to Michael Sheen or David Morrissey) but more than anything Coalition demonstrates the risk in writing these films so close to the events that inspired them. It ends seemingly convinced that Nick Clegg might genuinely become Prime Minister in his own right – in turn looking deeply, deeply naïve.

Read More: Coalition wasn’t the first of James Graham’s political screenplays I’ve struggled with, but I really loved his ITV miniseries Quiz, which I wrote about here.

The Front Runner (2019)

Remarkably lightweight. There’s probably an interesting film to be made about Gary Hart, but this isn’t that: it seems to mourn the failure of his campaign, with no investment in his actual policies – the closest was an offhand reference to “creating jobs in Mexico so that Mexicans don’t come here and steal American jobs” – and no sense of what it’s actually arguing for. These things should be in the public sphere! It is indicative of how a politician will go on to wield and abuse their power (see Clinton and Lewinsky), and all this “oh bluh bluh bluh, ideas have been lost out on” waffle is meaningless when the film doesn’t convey what those ideas are. Just empty posturing, in the end, nowhere near as weighty as they clearly thought it was.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

There’s a real sort of, like, “that’ll do” quality to a lot of this? Just a very offhanded quality, like all involved have finally realised it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, it’ll make a billion either way. (Was the production of this sped up so it could be released earlier? I feel like I read that at some point.) Anyway: too much CGI, not enough Zendaya, and Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely sleepwalking through it.

But! Tom Holland lives sorta near me, and was, I’m told, very polite to my friend Osbert when they ran into each other. So that’s nice.


2½ out of 5

Rose: A Love Story (2020)

It’s… okay. When it works, it’s because of Sophie Rundle’s performance, and there’s a neat little undercurrent of a relationship close to buckling under strain, but as a whole… I didn’t love it. I think mainly the problem is that it’s a little too long – it could’ve stood to lose about twenty minutes or so. Also wasn’t so sure about the closing scene – the film already had a great ending, they didn’t need to end it again. Would’ve lost that, I think.

Read More: I interviewed Sophie Rundle a few years back ahead of the second series of Jamestown.

Another Round (2020)

I’d like to rewatch Another Round, I think; in the weeks and months since I saw it, I’ve become increasingly aware of how out of step I was with general consensus. Not just in terms of the quality of the film – I was surprised to see so many people describe it as a comedy! So this is likely one that’d be worth returning to, I suspect.

Read More: Here’s my full review of the film.

The Boy with the Topknot (2017)

I have a lot of time for Sacha Dhawan – he’s a great actor, and a nice guy too – but I wasn’t so sure about this entirely. The girlfriend role was a little underwritten, mainly, but also… I’m not sure how involved the real Sathnam Sanghara was in this (he’s credited as a writer but that might just be because it’s based on his memoir), but the film did sometimes have the sense that he was too involved, that it didn’t have enough of a personal remove. Sometimes felt like it lacked perspective – becoming self-flagellating almost to avoid self-criticism, I suppose?

Dhawan really is great, though. More leading roles for Sacha Dhawan imo.

Yesterday (2019)

Mostly this reminded me of when Osbert used to insist (circa 2011) that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” and The Beatles stole it from him (when they released the song, circa 1969).

(And he was right, they did!)


3 out of 5

JoJo Rabbit (2019)

one time my sister asked me if actors needed stunt doubles to do the Nazi salute for them. thought about that a lot watching this

Rocketman (2019)

Entertaining enough, I thought. Mostly though I just truly do not understand how Bohemian Rhapsody managed to go the distance? Like, I reckon Rocketman probably benefitted from comparison to Bo Rhap, but even if they’d been released the other way around this is clearly better.

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Funnier than the first, in places, but seemed a little less coherent? The best bits are the guerrilla filmmaking stuff where it feels like it could be genuinely sort of dangerous for him, and I don’t know if they pushed that enough (certainly the more scripted, plot-heavy segments felt markedly weaker). It was also about twenty minutes too long, I think.

Maria Bakalova is pretty great though. I’d like to see her nominated for the Oscar.

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

This was nice, I thought. A little cheap occasionally, but it had a great cast and got a lot out of them. Enjoyable enough.

The Post (2017)

I think Meryl’s plotline sits awkwardly throughout – the film might’ve benefitted from giving her character more focus, or removing her entirely, rather than this sort of awkward half-measure. (Was that about her availability? Spielberg et al made this quite quickly, I seem to recall?) There’s a potentially quite nice parallel between Katharine Graham being unwilling to publish the story for fear of ‘losing’ the paper, and various Presidents unwilling to leave Vietnam for fear of ‘losing’ the war, but The Post doesn’t really push that enough for it to have any impact.

Lola Versus (2012)

Fun little glimpse at what Greta Gerwig would’ve done for twenty minutes a week if How I Met Your Father had gone to series, I guess. It’s basically fairly light and throwaway, but, well, why must a movie be good? Isn’t it enough to sit in a dark room and watch Greta Gerwig dance on a big screen?

Wild Rose (2018)

Appreciably better than, say, Yesterday or Bohemian Rhapsody – mainly on the strength of Jessie Buckley’s performance, which really is as good as everyone says – though not quite as good as A Star is Born, which it’s probably most similar to of the recent musicals.

It falters a little as it ends – the last half hour or so not quite as sharp as what came before it. I’d have preferred it to be a bit more cynical, I think (although I think I’d like to see more cynical takes on this sort of premise anyway). Still, pretty solid overall.

Game Change (2012)

Great performance from Julianne Moore, but mostly struck by how 2012 this felt – both in how kind it was to McCain (uncritically recreating the “he’s an Arab” “no, he’s a nice guy” exchange was deeply telling about the film’s blindspots) and in how worried it still seemed about Palin specifically at the end. In 2020, it feels more than a little small.

The Deal (2003)

Impressive performances, but I think it needed a stronger sense of the actual political and ideological differences between Blair and Brown; as it is the film only really gestures at them, which leaves it feeling a little slight and insubstantial.

Booksmart (2019)

I don’t know, it was fine. Lots of individually quite charming moments, for sure – mostly down to the cast, who are pretty uniformly great. (Billie Lourd really is that good, I figured it might’ve been a bit overstated, but no, she’s brilliant.)

Otherwise, I’m a little surprised it was as loved as it was. It’s a strong directorial debut, yes, but definitely a debut, with some choppy editing and tonally odd music choices throughout. I also would’ve thought that its very, uh, Warren Democrat, privileged white liberal vibe might’ve come under more criticism than it did? It wasn’t exactly a dealbreaker for me – though it did grate at times – but I’m surprised that the film was as popular as it was, given that, if that makes sense at all.

No Fathers in Kashmir (2020)

One of the first films I watched in 2020. I quite enjoyed it, which is another reminder that across 2021 I should really try and watch a lot more international, non-English language movies.

Read More: I interviewed director Ashvin Kumar about the film, though I never managed to find a home for the piece; at some point I’ll try and arrange to have it published here, I think.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

Entertaining enough, and it (mostly) has a good sense of when to introduce a new idea and move onto the next joke, but I did get the sense watching it that it’d probably be better suited to a television series.


3½ out of 5

Happiest Season (2020)

I thought this was nice and basically charming, though I’m not surprised it caused as much of a stir as it did; definitely felt like the script was at odds with the direction a little, the former going for something much more heightened while the latter opted for something a bit more grounded. The mishmash strains occasionally, but for the most part I enjoyed it. Good cast! Always helps.

Official Secrets (2019)

I was just thinking the other day I’d not seen Keira Knightley in anything for a while, so I figured I should get around to this. Enjoyed it a lot actually. Good cast, pretty well made, entertaining couple of hours. Would recommend!

Lovers Rock (2020)

Lovers Rock is probably the most well-crafted of the films I saw this year, a really impressive achievement on the part of all involved; I think it’s always destined to be a film I respect more than one I straightforwardly enjoy, though, if only because I tend not to be particularly invested in films in this style, with so much more emphasis on mood and tone rather than character or plot.

The Flood (2019)

Could’ve done with emphasising Ivanno Jeremiah’s character slightly more than Lena Headey’s (or, I guess, giving her a slightly more well-defined arc – the balance felt a little bit off either way), but on the whole I thought it was quite a well-made, very slick film.

Five Dates (2020)

Surprisingly really engaging; I was watching this ahead of my interview with Mandip Gill, but I ended up getting invested in the plotline with Georgia Small instead, playing that through to the end. I’d recommend it!

Read More: You can find the aforementioned interview with Mandip Gill here; I was also quoted on the Five Dates poster, which was nice!

Supernova (2020)

Quite fond of this. Strong performances, great score; found it quite moving, even despite the… I suppose predictability of it all. It is basically exactly the film you’d expect it to be, but it is very good at being that film.

Read More: You can find my full review of Supernova here.

Marvellous (2014)

Stylishly made and consistently charming, Toby Jones gives a great performance, and the way Marvellous threads appearances from the real Neil Baldwin throughout makes for a nice departure from the more standard biopic fare.

Read More: I watched this because I’d interviewed Peter Bowker, the writer, a few weeks prior; you can find that interview, which I think is one of my best, here.

The Special Relationship (2010)

Politically much sharper than The Deal – hardly excoriating, but there’s definitely a sense that Peter Morgan soured on Blair in the years since the first film in the trilogy. Michael Sheen is more assured in the role too by this point, and together it makes for a much stronger film in general.

Vice (2018)

Self-indulgent, sure, but I didn’t particularly have a problem with that (think I might’ve preferred The Big Short though? Not sure). Do wish it had had a bit more focus on Bush/Cheney’s second term, though, and I do wonder if it being so singular in its focus on Cheney might’ve perhaps exculpated others involved, at least a little.

Read More: Not one of mine, but I enjoyed this piece (on Vice, The Report, and Oliver Stone’s W) a lot.

Just Mercy (2020)

It’s quite biopic-y in places, but that’s not a problem particularly, and even then it’s a far more emotionally involved & poignant film than “quite biopic-y” makes it sound, just bursting with empathy. Great performances all round, but especially worth highlighting Rob Morgan, who is both a) astonishing and b) probably a little less likely to be discussed in all this, relative to his more famous co-stars. He’s really, really good – very memorable supporting performance.

(Plus, there’s something quite endearing about Michael B Jordan playing a soft-spoken, nerdy lawyer, despite still being very obviously ripped. That’s fun.)

Read More: Many years ago, in January 2020, I interviewed Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Bryan Stevenson (producer of and inspiration for the film) about Just Mercy.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Not seen this before, and found it basically quite charming and likeable. Miracle I didn’t watch it a decade ago, mind, that could’ve done some real damage.

The American President (1995)

Just a very long episode of The West Wing – and I liked it for that reason!


4 out of 5

Ammonite (2020)

Curious to see how opinion on this one shifts and changes over the next few years; I do get the sense it’s been poorly marketed, and it’s probably suffering from the weight of those expectations. Although, I say that, has it even received a wide release yet? I’m not sure.

Read More: I wrote about Ammonite here.

One Night in Miami (2020)

I thought Kingsley Ben-Adir was really excellent in this, I’m hoping to see him at least nominated for the Oscar.

Read More: You can find my London Film Festival review of One Night in Miami here.

Shirley (2020)

Fun fact: This was the first film I saw at the first film festival I covered. Granted I’m not convinced it was a brilliantly written review, but it was a pretty brilliant film, and I suspect in the long run that’s probably what matters more.

Read More: Here’s the aforementioned review.

Tenet (2020)

I wouldn’t necessarily want to risk my life to see a Nolan film, but obviously I am much more willing to risk my life to see Alice, and she wanted to see this, so, you know.

It was good, anyway, I enjoyed it. Charming cast, impressive set pieces, I had fun with it. All in all I quite enjoyed TENET deyojne etiuq I lla ni llA .ti htiw nuf dah I ,seceip tes evisserpmi ,tsac gnimrahC .ti deyojne I ,yawyna ,doog saw tI

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Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Very charming; I’m always fond of Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson. It’s the only Trevorrow film I’ve seen, though it made me wonder – between how much I enjoyed this, and the reception to his subsequent movies – if perhaps he was poorly served by moving to blockbusters too early.

The Iron Lady (2011)

It’s to be expected, I think, that a biopic will respect or admire its subject, but it feels altogether rarer to see the depth of affection, warmth, and kindness that is extended to Thatcher here. The Iron Lady’s occasional inclination towards ‘girlboss’ feminism is easily dismissed, but the genuine love it has for Thatcher is nothing short of revolting.

The Big Sick (2017)

Found this a lot more affecting than I expected to. Loved it.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Hmm.

Interstellar (2014)

I’m surprised, a little, that Interstellar is spoken of as though it’s this very cerebral piece of Hard Science Fiction, when in the end it’s so warm, so much about The Power of Love. I’ve never quite bought into criticism of Nolan as being a cold or unemotive filmmaker, exactly, but this felt like the most heartfelt of his films that I’ve seen. My favourite of his, I think.

Jackie (2016)

Really beautifully made, with lots of nice, subtle details; I liked that it never shot JFK head on, always filming him from a slight angle, imposing that extra layer of remove. Quite neatly addresses an issue with all these relatively apolitical political films I’ve been watching recently, in that it’s not really political at all – it’s all imagery, all aesthetics, all iconography.

And Natalie Portman was stunning, of course.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Structurally very deft – a really controlled effort from Ryan Coogler, with quite an acute sense of tone. Great performance from Michael B Jordan, too, understated in a way that fits Coogler’s script really well – you can see why they went on to be such close collaborators after this.

Some of the criticisms about its accuracy and foreshadowing, for lack of a better way of putting it, strike me as unconvincing – I think any stray detail of anyone’s last day would take on a certain weight by virtue of being their last day, if nothing else. More to the point, though, I don’t think Coogler did labour the point particular: it’s a portrait of a life in motion rather than one on the precipice, I think. Which I suppose is why Jordan’s performance had to be pitched so precisely, because there likely was a version of this that could’ve been oversignified – as it is it’s a remarkably careful and conscientious bit of filmmaking.

Bad Education (2020)

Surprisingly engaging, I thought. Enjoyed it a lot – Allison Janney drops out of the narrative in the second half a little, which is a shame, but otherwise I quite liked this.

Clueless (1995)

So good, so immediately. Had lots of fun with it. (By somewhat interesting coincidence, I watched it on the film’s 25th anniversary!)

The Report (1995)

I liked it; I liked its cynicism, its willingness to criticise Obama (and, briefly, Feinstein herself), and how it positions itself against 24 and Zero Dark Thirty too. The ending I think was a little too triumphant though, a little too neat – the caption at the end not given enough emphasis, I suspect.

Little Women (2019)

It took me a little while to get used to the two timelines – and to get past the sheer, seething rage I feel whenever I see Timothée Chalamet; he knows why – but there’s clearly a lot of warmth, a lot of wit, and a lot of artistry to the film. Period dramas so often have a reputation for feeling staid and distant; Little Women is immediate and bursting with heart.

Read More: Only tangentially relevant, but some years ago I interviewed Robin Swicord – director of the 90s Little Women and producer on this version – about her film Wakefield.

Palm Springs (2020)

I really really liked this! Lots of fun, Andy Samberg and Cristin Millioti are very charming, good time all round.

Red, White, and Blue (2020)

Always thought John Boyega was one of the best actors in the new Star Wars trilogy; nice to see him get a chance to really show that. Interested to see what he does over the next decade or so after this.


4½ out of 5

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Quite possibly an all-time favourite now. Justified that Britbox subscription all on its own, frankly.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

My favourite Peter Morgan script, by some margin; probably my favourite Ron Howard film too, though I’ve seen less of his work than Morgan’s (and less recently, too).

Mistress America (2015)

Borderline insufferable, but also really fucking funny; I loved it.

I, Tonya (2017)

Hell of a performance from Margot Robbie here, just a really remarkable achievement on her part.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

If I’d watched this in 2019, I think it would’ve been my favourite film of the year; certainly it was one of my favourite first time watches of 2020, as strong (if not stronger) than most of my Top Ten list this year.

Denial (2016)

I’m surprised I don’t hear this discussed more often; it’s got a great cast, a clever (and well-executed) new angle on courtroom drama, and it’s based on a true story too. Really enjoyed it, I’d recommend it.

Starter for 10 (2006)

God, I hate students. (And University Challenge.) But I did, admittedly, really love this.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Especially liked, thinking about it, that it didn’t end with everything entirely resolved – tidy but not too much so. It would’ve felt trite otherwise, and maybe a bit dishonest too.

Adult Life Skills (2016)

This was very good, in all the ways I needed it to be on that particular day. Jodie Whittaker is very much at her best here.

Mangrove (2020)

All of this is firing on all cylinders, always; not just in the obvious ways, but smaller details in the sound design, the lighting, the pacing. It’s almost a shame that the marketing focused so much on Letitia Wright (brilliant though she is), because it feels like it overshadowed how well much Mangrove owes to Shaun Parkes’ performance – the strongest of the Small Axe films, I think.


5 out of 5

Eighth Grade (2018)

Probably my favourite of the nominally similar ‘coming of age’ films I’ve watched this year, even though they’re not exactly especially similar; this struck me as a lot more thoughtful, and a lot more perceptive too. Elsie Fisher is brilliant, working with much more complex material than I realised – I’d expected the film to be, not lighthearted I suppose, but certainly some of what it touched on was a surprise. Really deftly and sensitively handled, anyway.


2020 Releases Top Ten

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  1. Shirley
  2. One Night in Miami
  3. Bad Education
  4. Palm Springs
  5. Tenet
  6. Mangrove
  7. Supernova
  8. Ammonite
  9. Just Mercy
  10. Another Round

I submitted my list for Flickering Myth’s end-of-year roundup before I’d seen Mangrove, which ended up knocking Lovers Rock (previously in the tenth place slot) off the list. I’ve also switched Shirley and One Night in Miami since the last time I did a ranking this year; I liked them each broadly the same amount, I suppose.

Otherwise, some particular favourites that weren’t first released in 2020 were Mistress America, Velvet Goldmine, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Eighth Grade, and The Squid and the Whale, I think.


2021

Looking ahead to next year, my plan is to try and catch up on a few of the recent releases I skipped – the obvious Oscar contenders, like Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Ma Rainey, I figured I’d watch closer to awards season since I knew I’d want to write about them anyway.

Also – though I know I say this every year and never do – I’d like to try and watch a more varied selection of films in 2021. More foreign language movies, more indie films, and in particular more older films. We’ll see how well that goes, I guess.

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this piece – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?