Tis the season for year’s best lists and award eligibility posts. While I’m still trying to catch up on more reading before I post my favorite books and short fiction of the year, I figured I’d share some of my favorite movies and TV shows from 2020. Maybe you’re looking for viewing suggestion in order to nominate for the Bradbury, or other awards, or perhaps you’re just looking for something to watch while wrapped up in a cozy blanket as the weather gets colder. Either way, these are a few 2020 titles I really enjoyed, and I hope you will too!
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Yup. It came out in 2020. Can you believe it? It feels like a million years ago. Initially, I was somewhat skeptical about this movie, as I have become skeptical of many recent DC movies, though a few have managed to pleasantly surprise me. The trailers made Birds of Prey look worthwhile though, and I am a sucker for Harley Quinn, not to mention the general idea of a female-led, female-directed anti-hero movie. Birds of Prey did not disappoint. I get the sense that the movie struggled to find it’s audience, and that a narrative was put forth about its failure before it was even released, leading to a lot of people missing it, which is a shame. The movie is tons of fun. Hyper-stylized violence, energetic fight scenes literally exploding with glitter, fight scenes that simultaneously involve highly-impractical roller skates and highly-practical hair ties, several very excellent velvet jackets, superhero/anti-hero team ups, and a very good hyena named Bruce. What more could you want from a movie? It resists the male gaze, and actively deconstructs it at several points. It’s fun and it’s funny, and Margot Robbie is a wonderful Harley Quinn. It’s partly a double-crossing heist movie, partly a break-up movie, largely an over the top action movie, but above all, it is a love story, between a woman and one very special breakfast sandwich. If you missed it when it came out, I highly recommend catching up on it now.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
It’s not just the hit of nostalgia that frequently sent me off on google image searches and down Wikipedia rabbit holes as I tried to figure out which of the characters I had toys of as a kid, and what I remembered of their backstories that kept me hooked. It’s the reinvention and reimagination of the characters and the world, and the show’s underlying message of people being stronger when they work together, trusting and supporting each other, and love literally saving the universe. The character redesigns are wonderful, as are the new and/or the deepened backstories and relationships. There are queer characters, snarky characters, fat characters, awkward characters – all things princesses are usually not allowed to be. There’s even a non-binary character and no one ever makes a big deal of using they/them pronouns. There’s also magic and universe saving and epic stakes, and a few moments that genuinely had me choked up. I kept going back and forth trying to decide who my favorite characters were, and ultimately decided on all of them. The whole series is wonderful, and amidst the various horrors of 2020, it was a joy to watch the final arc and see the showrunners absolutely nail the ending.
Star Wars: Clone Wars: Season 7
Speaking of nailing the ending… Long-awaited and eagerly anticipated by fans, Star Wars: The Clone Wars finally got the wrap-up and series finale it deserved in 2020. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – 2008, to be precise – Star Wars: The Clone Wars debuted on Cartoon Network. Timeline-wise, it filled in the gap between the second and third prequel movies, between the time when Anakin went on a rampage and slaughtered an entire village of sand people and when everyone around him who somehow missed that warning sign was shocked when he turned to the dark side and ultimately became Darth Vader. Over the course of the series, we get to actually see the Clone Wars alluded to, but never really covered in the movies. We get to know the clones themselves, and get a deeper, more nuanced view of the characters (for example, did you know Darth Maul is actually interesting and there’s far more to his story than grunting, taunting Obi Wan, and getting cut in half?), as well as Anakin’s fall to the dark side. We also get to know Anakin’s young Padawan, Ahsoka Tano. Ahsoka grows from a somewhat bratty kid into one of the most badass force users around. Her story is full of equal parts triumph and tragedy, and the final season rightly focuses on giving her story closure, rather than rehashing Anakin’s slaughter of the younglings, or his final fight with Obi Wan on Mustafar. The events covered in Revenge of the Sith form the backdrop of the final season of Clone Wars. Everyone who has seen the movies knows what’s coming, but even if it isn’t a surprise, it is surprisingly effective, seeing Order 66 through the eyes of the clones we have come to know and care for over seven seasons, and watching Ahsoka cope with that one final loss and betrayal. The closing arc of episodes is beautifully and powerfully done, and include some of the best lightsaber battles in Star Wars. Not to mention the emotional content that feels like it’s missing from a lot of the movies, and some truly spectacular voice acting and motion-capture animation, including Ray Park reprising his role as Maul in the aforementioned battles. Together, the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series are where some of the best Star Wars stories are being told, in my opinion. After you’re done catching up on Clone Wars, go catch up on Rebels as well. You can thank me later.
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts has had three seasons so far, all of them released on Netflix in 2020. It’s a charming series, which like She-Ra, emphasizes the power of friendship and talking out your problems rather than resorting to violence. The show is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have moved underground, and the surface is ruled by mutant animals, some who can talk, others who are merely giant, or sport more limbs or heads or eyes than their real-world counterparts. In the first episode, Kipo becomes separated from her father and the rest of her burrow during a giant mutant attack. As she searches for a way back to her people, she makes new enemies, new friends, and discovers that there’s a lot more to the world and its inhabitants than she ever knew. The world Kipo inhabits is delightfully weird. There are a trio of goats who tell the future via vats of cheese, a group of fitness-obsessed skunks, and a K-pop-style boy band made up of narwhals, and that’s just scratching the surface. While the show is overall light, humorous, and family-friendly, there are darker moments and genuinely weighty emotional ones as well. One of the main characters is openly gay (the show’s creator insisted on it, including insisting he actually get to say the words “I’m gay” out loud and not have it merely hinted at or pushed into the background), and he gets to be in a healthy and adorable relationship, which is wonderful. The relationships in general are the heart of the show, friendships, family, and an ever-growing alliance against those who would tear it all apart. It’s bright, colorful, fun, and might occasionally make you tear up as well. Oh, and did I mention there’s a giant, six-legged corgi?
For a complete tonal switch from Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, how about a small Australian horror movie about dementia? Relic falls into the category of movies where I’m genuinely not sure how I felt about the ultimate resolution (see The Witch and Hereditary), but I’m certainly not sorry I watched it, and I would still definitely recommend it. A woman and her 20-something daughter travel to visit their mother/grandmother after growing concerned about her increasingly erratic behavior. They arrive to find her missing, encounter strange noises, and find alarming notes left about the house. The mother/grandmother reappears, offering no explanation for where she’s been, but even with her return, the unsettling events and the sense of a haunting continue to escalate. The movie is moody, atmospheric, and tense, and combines moments of truly unnerving body horror, with far quieter emotional/psychological horror. The imagery is striking, the acting excellent, and even if I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the movies choices by the time I reached the end of it, it has certainly lingered with me, and is the kind of movie I suspect I will continue to think about for many years to come.
The Queen’s Gambit
It’s not genre, if you’re primarily thinking about genre award nominations at this time of year, but the Queen’s Gambit is an utterly brilliant mini-series. Anya Taylor-Joy, who’s been incredible in everything I’ve seen her in, plays a young chess prodigy in the 1960s, going from orphan to world champion. The acting is amazing all around, as are the set design, costume choices, and locations. The show does an excellent job of regularly subverting expectations in the way the characters interact with each other and the dynamics between them. We get messy characters, imperfect characters, and a masterclass in how to put obstacles in a characters’ path, and how to allow them to have troubled and broken relationships without resorting to lazy tropes and archetypes. The whole thing is beautifully shot, and once again, Anya Taylor-Joy is amazing. The camera adores her, and with good cause. I’m pretty sure you could watch the show without sound or closed captions, and just her moving around on screen would still be captivating. Definitely highly recommended.
So there you have a few of my favorite viewing experiences from 2020, not counting things I watched or re-watched not originally released in 2020. I know there are tons of things out there that I’ve missed or haven’t gotten around to watching yet. What are your favorites? What do I absolutely need to bump to the top of my must-watch list for 2020?