So.... yeah. How's everybody doing?
2020 was over almost as soon as it started, and we all know why, so let's try not to dwell on that for the moment. Whatever weird dregs of pop culture we got this year still count, so I'm going to break down the best and worst, as is tradition. The scope of this post will be drastically reduced from previous years. Maybe I'll wish I had reduced films to just a top 5 the second I click "publish," but the only category that won't be getting an all-out top 10 is television. I don't know if that's because television took a bigger hit than any other medium during the pandemic, or because I spent most of my summer binge-watching Sex and the City. Who's to say.
Also, as usual, I will say that me not liking a movie doesn't mean you're bad for liking it! I do include "worst of" elements in this wrap-up, but that's just my personal opinion. If your opinion tends to align with mine, maybe avoid those titles. If your opinion doesn't align with mine (a sadly common occurrence), full steam ahead. There is no objective truth in criticism, y'all!
Let's do this thing, shall we?
2020 Movies I Missed That I Wish I Had Seen Before Compiling This List: Soul, Bill and Ted Face the Music, Disclosure, Becky, The Old Guard, The New Mutants, 12 Hour Shift, Mulan, Antebellum
2020 Movies That I Missed, Don't Regret Missing, and Will Go Out of My Way to Continue Missing Until the End of Linear Time: My Spy, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, King of Staten Island, Greyhound, Corona Zombies, Scoob!, Tenet
A 2020 Movie I Have Recused Myself from Including Anywhere Because It Was Co-Written by a Friend of Mine: Freaky
The Ten Best Films of 2020
#10 American Pie Presents: Girls' Rules
There's no reason for an American Pie spinoff movie to be so well-fitted for the modern sex-positive milieu of Gen Z teenagers, and yet here we are.
#9 The Thing About Harry
The Thing About Harry, which is essentially a gay retelling of When Harry Met Sally starring irritating millennials, is more "notable" than it is "good." I had a totally OK time watching it, but the primary wonder of it is that it even exists at all, being as it is a television movie (it premiered on Freeform) starring people who (gasp) aren't even straight!
#8 Happiest Season
There's definitely a bit to grouse about here (and I have). But I could basically just copy and paste what I said about The Thing About Harry here. Lesbians? In my holiday movie? Well, I never!
So far, this is the only satisfying "we filmed this during quarantine" bit of filmmaking I've seen, mainly because it doesn't depress me like all get out. It's a fun, zippy Unfriended clone with Zoom jokes that weren't tired yet, a delightful slate of terrific special effects, and a gloriously brief run time.
I just have to admire the audacity to hit "holy fuck everything is exploding around us" at the 45 second mark, and never letting up until the end credits roll.
#5 Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan
Billed as Bollywood's first romantic comedy with queer lead characters (this has been debated, as is any claim about any movie being the first of anything), Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is a delight, whether or not it's a pioneer. The structure of the story will be familiar to anybody who has seen even one movie about gay people (though it is a little more violent in its depiction of homophobia, be warned), but I for one am not immune to Bollywood production numbers, zany family comedy, and the freakishly handsome Ayushmann Khurrana.
#4 Palm Springs
Dare I say Palm Springs is the best take on the Groundhog Day time loop formula? I probably would if Happy Death Day wasn't sitting right there staring at me. But regardless, it provides a fresh spin on the material by giving more than one character actual agency, and when both of those characters are the kind of caustically hilarious trainwrecks that only Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti can create, it's a hell of a good time to be stuck in a day with them.
#3 The Invisible Man
One of the last movies to be released in theaters in 2020 was also one of the best! The Invisible Man has enough hokey sci-fi elements to please fans of the original, but it modernizes the concept in the best possible way. Rather than slathering it in chintzy CGI and top 40 tracks, it harnesses the emotional power of a hot-button topic (namely the way women have been treated by men for centuries) to fuel a thrilling, enervating narrative.
I would have loved this movie in any year, but in 2020 watching Spontaneous is like having a bombshell dropped on your head. Its story about a group of teens who mysteriously begin exploding for no reason is impossible to read as anything other than a COVID-19 metaphor, even though it was pretty clearly intended as a school shooting metaphor. Wow, what a decade we've been having. Anyway, Spontaneous is an ingenious film for the teens of today, combining adolescent snark with earnest generosity, and telling a tale of stark, nihilistic horror that never feels too crushing because it's so goddamn funny so much of the time. And when it does decide to crush you? Boy, does it.
This is the type of movie I created the Jane Austen marathon to find, so it's appropriate it arrived unto the world in the same year that project ended. It's set in the Regency time period, but never skimps on the color or humor, breathing new life into old language with its exquisite candy box sets, terrific batch of performances (Mr. Knightley is the weakest link, but not that weak), and irreverent approach that shows the seams of all this buttoned-up carrying on. By which I mean we see Emma's ass. It's the single Jane Austen romance that most captures her sense of the ridiculous, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Best 2019 Film I Missed: Good Boys
This movie still wouldn't have made it into my top 10, so I'm not entirely sorry I missed the deadline. But it was a surprisingly sweet film that overcame its truly horrible marketing campaign. Sure, it's naughty and raunchy and relies on a lot of punchlines being "a child said the F word." But its heart is squarely in the right place, and it manages to be salacious without leaning on misogyny or any of the other horrible tropes that hamper rewatches of older films like American Pie.
The Five Worst Films of 2020
#5 After We Collided
The first After is a generic tissue paper white people romance that immediately dissolves upon contact, and this one is way worse. You do the math.
#4 La Llorona
I already knew going in that La Llorona had the look of one of them "elevated horror" pictures where nothing actually happens, but I'm on the hook for anything Llorona-related from here until the end of time. And it's a shame the movie was so pretty, because it would be a huge relief to hate everything about this text that reinterprets La Llorona into oblivion, stretching the legend much too far from its original source. And also hinging its tension on a bunch of incredibly stupid Scooby Doo fakeout gags. Two thumbs down.
#3 The Turning
The Turning is bad in almost every conceivable way, but it's at least a glorious mess that's fun to think about, which is why it's this far from the top slot. It even inspired me to read The Turn of the Screw, which I also didn't like! Good times.
#2 The Grudge
I still wasn't certain if this is the actual worst movie I saw this year, or just the one that rubbed me the wrong way the most (with its snarky mockery of the very rom-com tropes that form its entire plot, including the "why are we still doing this" sassy black best friend who has no function in life other than to serve the romantic travails of the mediocre white lead). There is a difference between those two things. But then I remembered that there's an entire three minute scene that's shot like this:
Best Worst Movie: Baaghi 3
Worst 2019 Film I Missed: The Lion King
I watched this at a particularly dark moment during quarantine, and dear god was that one of my biggest mistakes of 2020. I barely tolerate the original Lion King, and this unnecessary flume ride through the Uncanny Valley is not what that text needed to earn my appreciation.
Best Dramatic Actor: Ewan McGregor, Birds of Prey
Here he effortlessly embodies the one percent, slipping imperceptibly between polished man about town and pure amorality. He is 2020's ultimate embodiment of the evil of the banal.
Best Comedic Actor: Bill Nighy, Emma.
One of Emma's greatest strengths is that it breathes life and humanity into a text that can be perceived as stuffy and archaic. Nobody exemplifies this better than Bill Nighy, who takes what is perhaps the Jane Austen character whose comic aspects have aged most poorly, and made him into a lightningrod of gut-busters.
Best Dramatic Actress: Catherine Langford, Spontaneous
As someone who has only seen one episode of 13 Reasons Why, I never really had a reason to notice Catherine Langford in anything. Well, now I fucking do. Spontaneous is such a tightrope act in and of itself, and her performance expertly blends the nihilistic terror of its premise with the bubbly comedy instincts it embraces. Her character is like if a Kevin Williamson teen actually had a soul, and if performances like this are where teen media is heading, I for one can't wait for what's next.
Best Comedic Actress: Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs
I'm hesitant to even make this comparison because of my deep abiding love of Ms. Byrne, but Cristin Milioti's turn in Palm Springs reminds me of Rose Byrne's showstopping performance in Neighbors. From this point on she will no longer be "oh, that actress I know from [insert title here, probably How I Met Your Mother]." She will be Cristin Milioti, the woman who blazed across this movie leaving nothing but fiery debris in her wake, effortlessly blending vulnerability, pitch black sarcasm, and pitch-perfect comic timing so offbeat it borders on anarchy.
2020 MVP: Natasha Rothwell
Natasha Rothwell isn't always in the best projects, but she's always one of the best things in them. This year she busted guts in projects as varied as Like a Boss, Sonic the Hedgehog, Love, Victor, and Insecure, and that was just in the part of the year where we were actually getting pop culture!
Worst CGI Creation: The Bacon, Lovebirds
I get that we don't want to actually splatter Kumail Nanjiani in the face with bacon grease, but we also don't need to see a loving close-up of little CGI blobs of bacon floating above a pan like a Windows 95 screensaver became self aware.
Best Soundtrack: Birds of Prey
Whether it's the acid-tinged "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" musical number, Jurnee Smollett-Bell's smoky vocals as chanteuse Black Canary, or the heap of modern bangers delivered by women of all stripes ("Sway with Me" by Saweetie and Galxara is a standout), this film is never not a pleasure for the ears.
Biggest Laugh: The Chiron, Princess Switch: Switched Again
No screenshots exist of this moment, because why would they? But let me set the stage. Exterior, big giant snowy castle. A chiron appears, reading "Castle Montenaro" or some such. A bunch of scenes happen in this castle, then a ball begins the next night. Exterior, same big giant snowy castle, only it's nighttime this time. A new chiron appears, also reading "Castle Montenaro." Might I remind you that we never actually left the castle during this entire span? It's such a ridiculously basic flub that it really caught me off guard and tickled me pink, the only moment in the movie to actually elicit a genuine laugh.
Biggest Cry: The Ending, Peninsula
No photo, no spoilers. This sequel to Train to Busan could only be a disappointment, especially considering that it jettisons the well-constructed tightness of the setting in favor of an expansive post-zombie apocalypse Korea that is more Fast and the Furious than 28 Days Later. But the ending still packed an emotional punch, or at least enough of one that my stress-addled brain was willing to shed a few tears.
Biggest Scream: Old Man, Gretel & Hansel
Gretel & Hansel isn't a film packed with wall-to-wall scares, which is why the moment that a desiccated old figure rises from behind their slumbering forms packs even more of a horrifying punch.
Best Line: "If the Academy allows, I would like to get a Texas Chainsaw, split the Oscar trophy in five, and share it with all of you." - Bong Joon-ho's acceptance speech for Best Director
Don't look at me like that. It's certainly the line that stuck with me the most this year. It's not too often that you get an Oscar winner mentioning a 70's horror classic in their acceptance speech. Also, remember when people could gather in the same room as one another? Good times.
Worst Line: "I don't do fiction - have you seen how I dress?" After We Collided
Dylan Sprouse, what does this even mean? It's not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the previous movie's horrible misinterpretation of the end of The Great Gatsby, but it's pretty damn close.
Best Poster: La Llorona
Never let it be said that this movie didn't have its aesthetics down pat.
Worst Poster: The Hunt
And onto a movie with no recognizable aesthetic, and a poster that's too mottled blue to even bother attempting to discern whatever terrible visual pun is going on here.
Top Five Episodes of 2020
#5 "Zoey's Extraordinary Outburst" Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist was surprisingly deft at blending its wacky musical comedy flavor with bitter, heart-wrenching emotion. While I don't want to give short shrift to those tearjerking episodes, the emotional moment I found to be the most tender was the scene where, in the middle of an argument, two people dealing with enormous grief and loss decide to dance out their rage and fall into a giggling heap, exorcising an entire season's worth of demons.
#4 "Welcome to Creekwood" Love, Victor
Love, Victor is a spin-off of Love, Simon, a groundbreaking gay young adult movie that is extremely white and digustingly upper-middle class. And Love, Victor knows it, opening with a bang on this episode that declares to the audience it's aware of every one of Simon's shortcomings and is about to blow them all to smithereens. It's about as meta as something can get without actually breaking the fourth wall, kind of like The Rise of Skywalker but actually good.
This series of vignettes about characters' first experiences with, well, hand stuff, is both grotesquely hilarious and - as ever - an accurately awkward exploration of the horrifying depths to which puberty takes us all.
#2 "Lowkey Done" Insecure
This episode zooms in on one day in Issa's life, where her attempts to simply do a good deed go awry, at first hilariously, and then with more and more emotional bite. It steps away from the tumultuous drama of the season to remind us of what a fascinating and well-shaded character study this show is.
#1 "Ghosts" What We Do in the Shadows
When our lead vampires discover that they left behind ghosts when their bodies died and then meet them, pure hilarity ensues. This is way better than a measly flashback episode for exploring what our characters were like long before we met them, and the hilarious, frequently filthy ways in which theyinteract with their former selves are top shelf comedy television.
Bottom Five Episodes of 2020
#2 High School Musical: The Musical: The Holiday Special
OK, this might be a little my fault for expecting it to be a Christmas-themed episode of the show proper, rather than a sub-DVD-special-features level package of interviews with the cast on the subject of The Holidays leading into shiny, polished, and incredibly boring renditions of Christmas standards.
#1 "Due Date" Muppets Now
It takes a lot to turn me off of a Muppet project, but Muppets Now did it right out of the gate with this scattershot package of uninteresting tropes, sketches that stretch a single threadbare idea across three different segments, and the grating vocal stylings of Kermit 3.0. I haven't followed the Steve Whitmire firing stories well enough to know if putting my hat in the ring for him is a moral quandary or not, but I will say from an artistic standpoint that without him at the wheel, Kermit may never be the same.
Best SNL Sketch: "Sands of Modesto" SNL
This was definitely a lot funnier before we knew the full scope of how much COVID-19 was going to impact our lives, and for how long. But it's still a lovely bit of pitch black humor, prematurely embracing the ridiculousness of the world we now find ourselves in.
Best Musical Performance: "Dynamite" BTS
I must admit I had never before had a taste for the BTS machine (I prefer my K-pop groups like my country singers - women), but the choreography in this performance really is beyond reproach. These boys are well-oiled cogs that work in alarming synchronicity with one another's movements.
Worst Commercial: "Now, More Than Ever"
If I never hear this phrase again, or have to be assured that Arby's has my back in this global pandemic, it will still be too soon.
Top Ten Songs of 2020
#10 "Zurück in die Zukunft" Nena
Nena is back, y'all! I mean, she never really left after the U.S. one hit wonder "99 Luftballons" was inescapable in the 80's. But this throwback number fits right in line with any of her delectable Europop albums from the mid-80's.#9 "Una Mentira Más" Yuri & Natalia Jiménez
What's better than Spanish ladies being really sad really loudly? An ultimate "scream along in the car" melodrama song.
#8 "Pporappippam" Sunmi
I don't know about you all, but this was the song of my summer, and it at least helped me close my eyes and imagine anything fun was happening around me. And those synth horn blasts in the pre-chorus! Sublime.
#7 "Easy" Troye Sivan
Troye can be a little hit and miss with me, even though I appreciate his work as a whole. And while "Easy" isn't my favorite of his tracks, it floats ethereally through an cloud of electronic warbles that I find incredibly calming and appealing. And I must always give kudos to gay artists who use "he" pronouns when singing about their lovers. Big fan.
#6 "Nights Like This" Loud Luxury x CID
Yeah, I'm aware there's not a lot to it. But the infectious melody really gets my blood pumping in a way I can't really explain.
#5 "Aisi Taisi" Mika Singh
I love foreign pop songs that can capture the modern trends of the day without losing a single shred of the local style, and this Hindi track from the movie Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (on my top 10 movies, if you hadn't noticed) is a perfect electric pop single pumped to the gills with luscious Indian instrumentation and tonality.
#4 "React" The Pussycat Dolls
Pop culture is all about resurrecting old brands right now (and will continue to be for a long while as entertainment desperately claws to make enough money to earn itself a future). But when reunions are producing such delectable pop gems as "React," how could I complain? Building your entire song off a series of tuba blasts is a brassy move, pun intended, and it's just as big and bold as that motif deserves.
#3 "If the World Was Ending" Julia Michaels & JP Saxe
I really had no choice but to fall under the spell of this song, having gone through a breakup at the beginning of a global pandemic. The lyrics about yearning to maintain a connection with someone you're well aware isn't The One but is a human you still need support from because everything is fucking bugnuts right now? Yeah, I get it. 2020, man.
#2 "Angels Ain't Listening" Basshunter
Basshunter music was a staple of my high school days, and he's returned after more than half a decade with a track that blows all his Eurodance baubles out of the water. It harnesses the current trend of slathering a track in 80's synths to its fullest potential, knowing that synths were always best meant to be dark John Carpenterian underscores to brutally dour lyrics. It's Basshunter being introspective, which is fascinating because we've literally never gotten before. I mean, come on, it's Basshunter.#1 "Father Daughter Dance" Kesha
I have long maintained that Kesha's emotional tracks are among her best, but the sheer unvarnished yearning of "Father Daughter Dance," lamenting the relationship she never had with a father she never met, is bone-crushingly tragic. And that key change in the bridge? Yeah, sign me the hell up.
Bottom Five Songs of 2020
#5 "Alice" Lady Gaga
I guess I'm just not a disco gay, but Chromatica wore thin pretty quickly for me, and opening on "Alice" is a mission statement of the kind of underproduced mediocrity we were gonna get from this album.
#4 "I Hope" Gabby Barrett ft. Charlie Puth
I just really really hate that this song relies on the trainwreck of meter and grammar that is the line "And then I hope she cheats, like you did on me."
#3 "Let Me Reintroduce Myself" Gwen Stefani
Gwen Stefani is reintroducing herself to the world of pop, and reminding us all that she's been stealing beats and stylings from people of color from day 1. Hooray!
#2 "Never Worn White" Katy Perry
I shouldn't have expected different from the woman who sings "Unconditionally" like "un-kun-di-SHUN-ally," but oh boy does the word "delicately" fail to please the ear when sung as "duh-LICK-ut-lee." Also, what does it mean to be man enough to answer one's mama's prayers? Also, I get that not every pop song is autobiographical, but in a song about her impending nuptials with Orlando Bloom in which she revealed her baby bump, it's perhaps a smidge strange to imply you've never been married when your previous marriage was one of the biggest gossip stories of the 2010's. Just saying.
#1 "I Believe In Santa" Meghan Trainor
Nevermind what in the holy Jojo Siwa hell is going on in the video, this song is like a candy cane made of black tar heroin.
Best Music Video: "WAP" Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion
These women are just having fun, combining sexy and silly in equal measures, but what really pushes this video over the top is that M.C. Escher production design, liberally pouring its lovely pastel color scheme directly into your eye sockets.
Worst Music Video: "911" Lady Gaga
I desperately wanted Lady Gaga to drag herself away from countrytown and back to her weird self. I certainly got that. Beggars can't be choosers I suppose, but frankly I was asking for the "Alejandro" Gaga and not the "Artpop" Gaga. This video is so far up its own ass it can see daylight.
Best Quarantine Music Video: "En Mis Tacones" Fanny Lu, Patty Cantu, & Melanie Pfirrman
This song about women forcing men to walk a mile in their heels came early in the Stay at Home era, and the magical puppetmaster element is a really clever and enjoyable way around these Latin pop stars' inability to actually dance with their normal crew.
Best Guilty Pleasure: "Boys Will Be Boys" Dua Lipa
There's no type of song I will gobble up more readily than the faux feminist empowerment pop anthem. And this one is actually pretty good! As much as it is clearly ripped from the Twitter trending topic headlines, the lyrical switcheroo at the end of the chorus is very clever and drives its point home like Van Helsing's stake into the heart of a creature of the night.
Worst Guilty Pleasure: "Kings & Queens" Ava Max
This is the dark side of the "Boys Will be Boys" coin. This ditty is an undeniable earworm, but I'm so frustrated that of the manifold ways that Ava Max chooses to elevate women above the terrible men in their lives is by saying "if I had a dick, it'd be real big," which is cheeky but super off-message.
Best Album Cover: Chromatica, Lady Gaga
Maybe what bothered me the most about the album is that it isn't exactly like every detail on this wild, bubblegum punk album cover.
Worst Album Cover: ABORVFT, J. Sands
I've always toyed with the idea of doing a Top 10 Books list, but when I really sat down to do it, I realized that the only book I'd read from that year was Final Girls by Riley Sager and I didn't even like it all that much. Ditto the ensuing years. This year (I wonder why), I've had a lot more time to read, and the discovery of free audiobooks on the Libby app has really boosted my ability to get through material. I still don't have the ability to do a top ten books that came out in 2020, but I'd like to share five books that I read this year that really impacted me. And wouldn't you know it, some were even released this decade.
Top Five Books I Read in 2020
#5 Solutions and Other Problems, Allie Brosh (2020)
Allie Brosh's blog Hyperbole and a Half (and its subsequent print book) have been a major source of comic relief for my life since high school, and her essays about struggling with depression are some of the funniest, most meaningful passages ever written on mental health. She continues her efforts to provide a light in the darkness in this seven-years-later followup, which grapples with extreme nihilism and horrible tragedy that gave me my most potent sobbing fit in a year that had a slightly higher proportion of those than normal anyway, and yet provided so many laugh out loud moments alongside them, sometimes even delivering both simultaneously.
#4 The Lady from the Black Lagoon, Mallory O'Meara (2019)
As a rule, I pretty much never read biographies unless they're about people I already care deeply about. If every biography was written like The Lady from the Black Lagoon, I'd have to rethink that rule. Part exploration of the fascinating life of the woman who designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon, part memoir of author Mallory O'Meara's life in Hollywood and process of researching this book, Lady draws parallels between two amazing women and their solidarity against the patriarchy of the film industry across time.
#3 Aristole and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012)
An overwhelmingly large part of my literary diet is YA books about queer teens, so I thought I knew what I was getting with this one. But no, Aristotle and Dante is unlike anything I've ever read. Lyrical without being overly stylized, deeply felt without sacrificing the emotional reality of a lead who never quite understands what he's feeling in the first place, and telling an aching love story while still packing emotional punches within all the relationships in the novel, romantic or otherwise.
#2 Pet, Akwaeke Emezi (2019)
I had a good run with queer YA this year. Pet is a story about a young trans girl born into a world without monsters, who accidentally summons a guardian creature which tells her she must join the hunt for a new one. Again, the only way I can describe the prose is lyrical, and though the plot itself is pretty easy to suss out at an early stage, that doesn't diminish the impact of this allegory for all the monsters we face in our day to day life and how to slay them.
#1 Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel (1989)
Do you really need me to tell you that Like Water for Chocolate is good? I hope not. But from page 1, it instantly became my favorite magical realist text. Structuring itself around a series of recipes and home remedies, the very text itself highlights the sstory's link between the domestic duties typically deemed too boring or unsuitable for "high literature" and the magic of the human soul. This is one of those novels that feels whole, like every single word is in the exact right place and it could never have existed in any other way. That's the mark of true genius.
Here's Some Stuff That I Did in 2020
Welcome to Prime Time
To support Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 relief, I created a podcast where I reviewed one episode of the horrible 80's anthology TV show Freddy's Nightmares for every donation. Friends, I ended up watching all of them, and this was the sitting-in-front-of-the-TV equivalent of running the New York marathon. I was so happy to get to produce a fun podcast where I chat with my friends in an increasing state of misery though!
I'd already written periodically for the film web site Alternate Ending, but this year I became their support reviewer, covering films that their lead reviewer didn't want to watch, from the glorious to the holy shit what have I done.
Also, on their Patreon site, I created a monthly horror review podcast with co-host Tim Brayton where we review a different horror movie each month! We've already covered The Rocky Horror Picture Show (that one's free), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, and Anna and the Apocalypse!
We Are Horror
You can catch me discussing the high school flick Easy A on This Ends at Prom, The Birds on Stop! Horror Time!, Alone in the Dark on Keep Screaming, my Top 5 jump scares on Alternate Ending, and the Quarantine/REC movies and a platter of Blumhouse films on Geek K.O.!
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