We do this every year (well at least for the last 4), we give the “best of” and also touch on the worst. For most of us, this year was the cluster of all years: election news, the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, the wrath of Covid-19, the death of some really big pop culture icons, and the return of Mike Tyson. So we will do our best to go over what we thought were great examples of pop culture despite 2020. As always we drop a few of the worst of too. We hope the next year will be better for everyone and that normalcy is just months away. Have a great New Year.
There were so many good docuseries, TV, and films this year. I saw more than I ever did and I got Covid-19 to thank for that – he says sarcastically. But it was the truth. I did go and watch a lot of films and TV I haven’t seen such as Black Narcissus, The Right Stuff, The Crown (Season 3), The Mandalorian (Season 2), Spy, 1917, Richard Jewell The Seven Samurai, and many more. It was a tough year for music for me and as I get older I listen to the current radio less and less. But two honorable mentions from the music sphere: Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Harry Styles’ Fine Line (yes technically December 2019) were fine examples of good music and catchy tunes I could handle. Here are the rest of my picks for 2020.
Bee Gees: How Do You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO)
I remember being a kid and one of my parents, not sure which one, had a pre-disco era Bee Gees’ Greatest Hits, and played it enough that I have always been familiar with their early singles. “I Started a Joke”, “Massachusetts”, “NY Mining Disaster 1941” and “Run To You” to name a few. Theses are great songs. Of course the disco-era hits blasted them into the stratosphere of pop culture. So I have been a fan for a long time, they don’t quite reach the pantheon of The Beatles, The Monkees, or The Beach Boys, but they are next tier. When I saw HBO had a documentary on them, I bit and I bit hard. I love music docs and this one is done well. I always want to learn more about bands that I like. With only one surviving Gibb brother they had to rely on some older interviews. I learned a lot, their brief break up, the way they wrote music, their unbelievable bond and that they had other band members. That last one blew me away I thought there was only three of them. I was amazed that three competitive brothers and even a fourth in Andy Gibb (albeit a mostly solo act) were able to overcome amazing egos that come with great success to continue to stay together until death. Death is the one thing they glossed over. I wanted to know more of that impact, first with Andy and then, Maurice and Robin. You see it with Barry a bit in his current interviews and there is a sense he doesn’t want to discuss it, which is understandable. It’s heartbreaking that the other three died so young. The the music is great and listening to those three-part harmonies had me running to listen to the back catalog. They even explain how they came up with the beginning of “Jive Talkin”. If I had to criticize it – I wanted more.
MG: One of my earliest music memories was listening to Saturday Night Fever on 8-track on my sister’s stereo system. I wish I had kept some of those 8-tracks for collectibles – I’m pretty sure my parent’s trashed them. I agree with your take on the documentary. The skipping over of the deaths was kind of glaring. I would have liked to see this expanded to at least a 4-part series, but it was an enjoyable watch. It made me appreciate what amazing songwriters these guys were.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) /Palm Springs (HULU)
These were my two favorite films of the year. The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a fun socially-conscious film. It depicts the riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention and it’s sham trial against the Hippies and Black Panthers. It’s well acted, I was completely blown away by Sacha Baron-Cohen’s portrayal of Abbie Hoffman, so much so that I went and watched his terrific performance in Spy. I love a good courtroom fight the power film and Aaron Sorkin delivers. His writing was excellent and that quick dialogue worked. I didn’t even mind Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden who usually annoys me especially in those Beast films. I remember Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman on talk shows when I was a kid and always found it amusing that Rubin became a Yuppie since he was so into the cause. Hoffman stayed true to the end though. Sorkin had developed this for many years, but he definitely gives a nod to the current political climate making the movie even more relevant than you would think.
Palm Springs with Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti was the best comedy I have seen in a long time and being on Hulu may have fell off the radar a bit. Samberg and Milioti have great chemistry together. I love Samberg in Brooklyn 99 and I only know Milioti from her brief stint in How I Met Your Mother. It’s a Groundhog Day film for the new generation. It’s been tried before since that film came out but so far this is the best iteration. Samberg basically plays the same character he always does, the goofy, kind of charming screwball. J.K. Simmons makes an appearance as a man hunting Samberg. That guy makes every film better, except Spiderman 3, that film blew. It takes place at a wedding over and over again, Milioti is the sister of the bride and Samberg is a date of a guest. Saying any more will be saying too much and will take the fun out of it, but it’ worth a watch, it’s funny and does have a heart. Don’t expect life inspiration – just have fun.
MG: I meant to watch Palm Springs but the Hulu subscription was cancelled before I had the chance. I did watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 and found it very well done and engaging. I didn’t know much about that event or the trial, or any of the figures involved. Sasha Baron-Cohen is a great dramatic actor, despite being known for his outlandish films like Borat (see below). Redmayne is a great actor when avoiding dreck like Jupiter Ascending and Fantastic Beasts.
The Reagans (Showtime)
As a teen in the 80s, and not really having figured out politically where I would end up yet, Ronald Reagan was almost god-like especially in the pre-teen years. He was charismatic and had the leader like qualities that you wanted in a president. I thought he was going to be my JFK. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was mostly just an image and a sham. This docu-series which starts at the beginning and spends quite a lot of time with Nancy as well is illuminating. I thought it may be bias, especially when I saw his former campaign managers and cabinet members like George Schulze and James Baker show up. I was wrong it is more bias towards a failed presidency but it does share interviews with his supporters as well. We even see a lot of Ron Reagan Jr. who has very opposing ideas from his father. He gives the in-between a man who loves his father but understands his views and policies were not good for this country. We see Reagan’s rise from Hollywood B-list actor to Governor of California. We see how those Hollywood relationships helped him build a base. We get a lot of the relationship between him and Nancy with her often being the driving force and the queen behind the throne, using psychics to help decide on important matters. We see his policies not work. We see him late to the AIDS crisis which probably killed many more then it should have. We see a man who declares Reagan is not a racist but then we hear him use an utterly vile racist term on the Nixon tapes and plus he put in racist policies. Reagan did not believe in FDR’s new deal like he once did. He expected the poor to just pull themselves up and that the government isn’t for “handouts”. His trickle down economics didn’t work. His Star Wars initiative did not work. You don’t need a documentary to tell us this but it does a better job illustrating than I ever could. It’s well executed and is worth a watch for people who think our current president will be rewarded by history.
MG: I don’t have Showtime right now, but I would like to see this series if I get a chance. As a kid I also thought Reagan was the Great White Hope of the country, and it would be years later when I found out the facts that a lot of his policies failed, chief among them “trickle down economics”, which the first Bush aptly labeled “Voodoo Economics”. Amazingly, after decades of driving wealth inequality and massive federal debt, this is still a cornerstone of the Republican platform. Oops, sorry for the political tangent!
I’m Thinking of Ending Things/Mank/Ava (Netflix)
I’m quickly going to hit on all three of these. So much hits streaming services these days it’s hard to tell what is good. I watched I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix, it seemed interested but when I found out it was from Charlie Kaufman, the creator of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I had to check it out. I thought it was about someone trying to commit suicide, it was not. Like expected in a Kaufman film it was trippy, weird and I didn’t know what was going on. Totally seemed like a Kaufman movie made for him only. Maybe over time I will appreciate it. It has a lot of talking and the payoff to me was unsettling. David Thewlis and Toni Collette are good in it – so this one not a total waste but it will be forgotten over time.
Mank, like “Things” seemed like a complete ego project, I know that David Fincher has been trying to make this for a long time. I thought, Fincher and a movie about the writer of Citizen Kane – How could it go wrong? Unfortunately it goes wrong, the film is often boring. Oldman as “Mank” chews plenty of scenery and probably has an Oscar nomination in the future but the movie goes nowhere. Not sure it really has a point. Even the black and white is often dark and I know it was done on purpose to make the film look old, but why? It’s not a found footage film. Just give me a good movie – no tricks. I like all of Fincher films, even Alien 3, see the David Fincher Anthology but this one is a stinker. I was very excited for it too, I love old Hollywood stories so it was a major disappointment for me and maybe the one on the list that makes me the most upset. Someone else tell me did I miss something?
The last film was a total roll of the proverbial dice, with Netflix it’s like the roll of the 20-sided Dungeons and Dragons die. Ava has a great cast, Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, and Colin Farrell, but guess what actors don’t always make the film. I love all three of these actors there is so much good work out there by them. But directors and writers are important too. This one was missing both. Farrell and Chastain need to change their agent, they are too good to be in this film. Ava is about Ava (Chastain) a hitman that for some reason talks to her marks before killing them, she wants to know what they did to be deserve to be killed, so she has to be killed. Doesn’t seem like a deal breaker for me if she is their best assassin. Farrell though is obsessed with it, he is the head of whatever group this is, sounds private. The side story like a B plot in Gray’s Anatomy, is with her sister, who happens to be married to her ex lover, played by Common, it’s dumb and it takes away the time that could have made this film better. Common, seems like a good guy but he was awful in this. He was out of place. Hey, is that Geena Davis playing Ava’s mother? I hope this isn’t her comeback film. When I look at a film and feel I could write better dialogue or could fix story elements dramatically it’s time for the real writers to find new jobs.
MG: Of these three I watched only Mank. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “stinker” but agree with your points. I’m fine with black and white, but not when I can’t see facial expressions because it is so dark. Not sure if it was lighting, or just not enough contrast, but it was tough to watch, especially with a meandering script devoid of action. I liked Gary Oldman, but I had to watch this over 4-5 installments because I kept falling asleep, so that about sums it up.
On the whole, 2020 will hopefully be the worst year in my life for pop culture/entertainment. I still love going to the theater to see movies, and that was something I missed (by the way, in no way am I claiming that as a hardship compared to the millions who lost loved ones, jobs, businesses, etc.). I think I saw 1917 in January, then I went with the family to see Tenet in-between Covid surges (saw it in an otherwise empty theater), and that was it for going to the movies. Like many of us, I watched a lot on TV, but not that much more than I normally would, although my wife and I did binge all nine seasons of The Office, so maybe my TV time was more than I thought. I watched a ton of Netflix and a good dose of HBO, but felt that Amazon Prime Video came up short with new series’ to watch this year. Here’s my good and some bad.
Perry Mason (HBO)
I never watched the original show, but I gather from what I’ve read this had little to do with the Raymond Burr series from the late 50s. HBO’s version was a dark take on LA in the 30s, and Matthew Rhys in the lead role embraced that darkness with a vengeance. His was one of the best performances I saw this year, and it helped that he was surrounded by a solid supporting cast of veterans, like John Lithgow as an aging attorney “E.B”, and newer faces like Julie Rylance, EB’s secretary who becomes a key ally for Mason, and Chris Chalk as one of LA’s first black cops. There are a lot of dark themes and plot elements (my wife bailed on the series shortly into episode one at the reveal of a dead baby), so maybe it was good to watch this only once per week as each episode was revealed. The story itself plays out with plenty of compelling twists and turns, but its the script and acting that make this my favorite new series of the year.
DJ: Yeah I liked this show a lot and outside of the characters it’s night and day from the original. I thought all the performances were great. I was down on Lithgow for many years after Ricochet and Third Rock From the Sun but he has put in some good performances lately. It was dark, but sometimes a dark story is worth it and the payoff can be satisfying. It was more realistic than the 50’s show. Should be some Emmy nominations for this team.
The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
When season 1 came out in 2019, I dismissed this show as a “teen superhero thing” and didn’t give it much thought. Then I started hearing good things about the second season, released in early 2020, and since I was looking for a show to watch with the family, we gave this a shot and were quickly hooked. It turned out to not be a teen show, but a nicely cast ensemble piece that is a mix of family drama and superhero angst, refreshingly (mostly) devoid of bombastic battles between the heroes and super villains. There is an engaging sub-plot centered on these two assassin partners, played creatively by Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton (who was so good as serial killer Ed Kemper in Mindhunter). Kate Walsh plays a complicated villain/business leader and she jumps into the role with gleeful abandon. The show has some great set design, technical values, and lush cinematography. I particularly enjoyed the second season being set in the 60s around the circumstances of the Kennedy assasination.
DJ: I did not see Season 1 so no reason to see the second. Still don’t know if I am going to watch this. I finally watched The Boys on Prime and enjoyed that so maybe this is the next logical step – who knows?
The 100 (originally on CW – now on Netflix)
We were looking for another show the family could watch and gave this show a try, based on a brother-in-law recommendation. It quickly became one of our favorite shows of the year, and we’ve been steadily moving through all seven seasons, the last of which aired this year on the CW. To try and describe this I’d call it a mix of Battlestar Galactica (the new one), Lost and a bit of Game of Thrones. It takes place in the future after the Earth is destroyed by radiation from a nuclear war. The last remnants of the human race live on a dying space station stuck in orbit, and 100 teenage “criminals” are unwittingly sent to the surface to see if Earth is now hospitable. Without giving anything away, they find the air breathable, but the Earth far from hospitable. This show goes on a crazy ride of plot developments and twists that come at the viewer at a fast pace. The show covers a wide swath of topics/issues such as: racism, gender roles, religion, primitive vs. technology, artificial intelligence, suicide, sacrificing the few for the many, even the ethics of cannibalism(!). The acting can be a bit uneven at first, but there are enough seasoned character actors to anchor the show until the younger leads grow into their roles. It’s not perfect and won’t be up for any Emmys, but it’s a hell of an entertaining show and great for couples and family watching (teenagers and up)
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon Prime)
I didn’t love this movie, per se, but I loved that Sasha Baron-Cohen went for the political jugular in this year of a pandemic and monumental election. (who knew that Trumps post-election antics would rival any of the nonsense in this film). During the four years of Trump, I kept waiting for someone to deliver that moment like Joseph Welch in the 1950s McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?”. That confrontation seemed to finally break the hold this political crusade/madness had over the country. A lot of comedians have made hay out of Trump’s quotes and actions, but did it ever amount to much? I felt like Cohen was determined to puncture the mystique of Trumpism and expose the man and the philosophy for the fraud that it was. Since this film was undoubtedly NOT watched by those that needed it, Cohen probably did not succeed, but the humiliation of Rudi Guliani may have taken the air out of Guliani’s embarassing “legal” challenge of the election. Also, Maria Bakalova’s truly fearless performance was amazing – worthy of awards recognition, but I doubt any of the awards groups will have the courage to nominate her.
DJ: I didn’t love this film either but appreciated Baron-Cohen’s aggressiveness – I guess. There were some good gags and Borat the character is funny but as a movie with a plot just wasn’t worth it.
Tiger King/The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
These two series’ couldn’t be further apart in style and content, but I put them together for a reason. Back in March in the “early pandemic” phase of 2020, everyone was abuzz about Tiger King. We were all recommending it to each other and it provided hours of compelling entertainment to a lot of Netflix viewers (and plenty of fodder for late night comedians). However, by the time Tiger King costumes were out for Halloween, the show was now perceived as trashy and derivative, no one could no longer admit to liking it, and it did not make any critics’ “Best of” lists for 2020. The Queen’s Gambit, however, seems to be peaking at the right time, and carries a certain prestige of quality that earned it a spot on many writers/critics “best of” lists. I liked The Queen’s Gambit, but I think it is being a bit over-praised for the whole series. Anya Taylor-Joy is fantastic and mesmerizing in the lead role – you never know where she is going to go next with her performance. The narrative itself doesn’t quite match her intensity, it can meander and become unfocused, and the thrilling conclusion felt oddly detached from much of what came before. In summary, both of these series were well made and entertained me (I’d give the nod to Tiger King for bingeability), but it feels like no one else now wants to admit to liking King while some of the same people are basking in the glory of Gambit, but turning a blind eye to its flaws.
DJ: I thought Tiger King was good it almost made my list. That being said it leaves a dirty feeling after watching the whole thing. It was a fantastic look at a culture right here in the states. I hope it brings Carol Baskin to justice. The Queen’s Gambit I watched episode 1 and have yet to go back – I will – but episode 1 did not blow me away but it was good and I will give it another shot.
Other good stuff…
We’ve talked about The Crown before, but the fourth season might be the best one yet. The story of Diana and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher both make for some astounding TV. If Anderson isn’t up for an Emmy she will be robbed. Ozark season 3 also reaches a new high point. The story/plot twists finally slow down, allowing the acting to shine through, including a heart-breaking supporting turn by Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s brother-with-issues. I didn’t always care for his acting in Iron Fist, but he’s great here and also in his role this year in Mank.
As in previous years, take my selections here with a grain of salt. I tend to avoid things that have a stink on them and/or are already ripped by the critics, so my “worst” is not the worst of everything – just what I tried.
Lovecraft Country (HBO)
This show had some hype early this year, mostly due to executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams being involved, and the combo of fantasy, light horror and drama seemed in my wheelhouse. The first episode fulfilled this promise, so much so that I recommended it to my friends. Then the weird second episode came along, which I thought maybe was an anomaly. However, the next two episodes confirmed the show wasn’t as good as I thought and I soon stopped watching. My main problem was that I would get interested in the dramatic storyline, and then the rather cheesy horror/fantasy elements would be forced in, and not very well done. If anyone watched the whole series and it got better let me know.
Tenet (Warner Brothers)
It pains me to put this film here, because no one is a bigger fan of Christopher Nolan than me. However, this is the film where he went too far (just like what I wrote about Tarantino and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” last year in my 2019 year-in-review blog – which is a take I still stand by). I made the point/took the risk to see this in the theater because I know how much Nolan commits to taking advantage of the big screen. There were definitely some amazing visuals and tense scenes – a sequence where a plane is deliberately crashed into a building was a stand-out – but in the end, the intentionally complex narrative was ridiculously dense and non-linear, to the point of becoming meaningless, no matter how hard I tried to follow it. I’ll grant that maybe a second viewing will make things fall into place better, and thus make it less work and more entertaining, but you shouldn’t need multiple viewings to enjoy a movie.
Birds Of Prey: Harley Quinn – yada, yada (Warner Brothers)
I’ll exempt this film from my qualification – it was just bad and should be on any “worst” list of 2020. I liked the characters of Suicide Squad and thought Margo Robbie’s Harley Quinn was one of the past decade’s best screen versions of a comic book character. So I had high hopes for this film, but it was thoroughly unenjoyable. The story itself was not compelling and the villain, played by Ewan McGregor, was both bland and annoying, and saddled with clichéd violent outbursts. I feel like this film didn’t get ripped as much as it should have – perhaps because critics were afraid to overly criticize a female director. If that’s the case, pulling your critical punches because a director is female (or black or from any marginalized group) is only perpetuating discrimination.
DJ: I only saw the last one but plan on seeing Tenet. Birds of Prey was hugely praised. I don’t care who directed the film man or woman it wasn’t good. Plot was nonsense even for a comic book film. McGregor was laughable see Pedro Pascal in Wonder Woman 1984 – same thing. It’s a waste of good characters and good actors. I wanted it to be good. I think they took the plot and revolved it around Quinn because Robbie’s Quinn was popular and great but this is what happens when you rely on one thing or rest your laurels. The other characters could have been interesting too.