Twice a year, I make a list of the best media of the year. This is my chance to recommend non-movie entertainment, such as books, music, and podcasts, to you. In a year without traditional theatrical releases or many of the movies we were promised, I relied more than ever on other types of art to get me through.
- The Good Lord Bird on Showtime
First Reformed already showed us that Ethan Hawke was skilled at playing zealous religious figures burdened with righteous purpose and a melancholy temperament. The Good Lord Bird, which aired this fall on Showtime, based on James McBride’s book, just confirms that Ethan Hawke should play wild preachers for the rest of his life. In 2020, where we were constantly reminded just how stupid we as a country can be, we didn’t need a dignified, sanitized look at history. We needed something unorthodox and a bit scandalous. By exploring the life of abolitionist John Brown from the perspective of the Black people around him, McBride and Hawke pull off a series that never gives easy answers. Was Brown a madman? Was he the sanest person in the country? Was Brown a Christian hero? Did Brown believe himself to be a white savior? Well…. all of these might be true. While the seven-episode miniseries sometimes falters in its pacing, it is consistently insightful, uncomfortable, hilarious, and heartfelt. It’s can’t-miss viewing.
- Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II On Disney+
This technically should have come out during my first part of 2020 list, because this miniseries was released June 26th. But I saw it afterward, and this is my list, so I’m going to include it! This series gives a shockingly candid look at the making of Frozen 2. From the last-minute story changes to the herculean effort of writing Show Yourself, it’s impossible not to be sucked into the drama behind the drama.
I first got interested in filmmaking through watching and rewatching the behind-the-scenes featurettes of my VeggieTales VHS’s, and then when I got older, watching the hours upon hours of extras on the Lord of the Rings extended DVDs. Watching this series gave me the same thrill. For anyone who loves behind-the-scenes stories or has an interest in filmmaking or other creative industries, Into the Unknown is a great watch.
- Folklore and Evermore– Taylor Swift
After dropping her album Lover in late 2019 and her documentary Miss Americana early this year, no one would blame Taylor Swift for laying low the rest of 2020. After all, the pandemic and subsequent quarantining created widespread fatigue and burnout.
But Miss Swift brought us not only one, but TWO albums this year, both surprises, just a few months apart. And both, in my humble opinion, are excellent. If you like sad folk music in the woods, Taylor has you covered. If you like country songs that tell stories (especially ones about women murdering cheating men) Taylor has some songs for you! If you like “old Taylor,” with her confessional writing and references to her feuds, there’s a song for that too. If you like love ballads, wistful reminisces, and the work of Bon Iver or The National, that’s all here. I’m jealous of Taylor’s ridiculous productivity, but I‘ll take it if I get more trips into these woods.
- Future Nostalgia– Dua Lipa (came out in March)
Dua Lipa’s sophomore album is nothing like Taylor Swift’s offerings this year, but both women are at the height of their powers, and it is equally exciting to see. Future Nostalgia is bringing disco back with an album full of club tunes, with a coherent vision that can be described in three words: neon, bouncy, and fun. Dua Lipa has been all over the top 40 this year, and if you’ve liked her singles (“Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating”) the full album does not disappoint.
- Boreas- The Oh Hellos
The Oh Hellos are a sister-brother folk-rock duo from Texas. With lyrics that combine biblical allusions and mythology, paired with gorgeous vocals and energetic instrumentation, The Oh Hellos are perfect for fans of Mumford and Sons, The Crane Wives, and The Civil Wars. I can’t do much better than the band’s own description of the themes of the album, which feel perfectly suited to the pandemic-winter we are in right now. “Rose” and “Boreas” are highlights.
“Boreas, the northern wind, ushered in the harsh frosts of lonely winter… As we wrote these songs, we found ourselves confronted with the ways we’ve reflected this wind — how we often avoid discomfort, even at the expense of others, until we are left cold, hard, and unfeeling. In this record, we ask the winter to instead kindle us into something warmer and softer than who we’ve been.”
- Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh excels at writing unreliable, disgusting, and repulsive narrators in her works (Mcglue, Eileen, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Vesta Gul, the narrator of Death in Her Hands, is Moshfegh’s most likable protagonist yet (which isn’t saying much), but Moshfegh is still able to make every page become more and more disquieting and we spiral into Vesta’s mind in this twist on a murder-mystery. I generally think it’s harder to write earnest and hopeful stories rather than cynical and/or nihilistic ones, but if you’re going to read something nihilistic and grotesque, you might as well read from the best. And Moshfegh is one of the best.
- Gentle and Lowly, by Dane Ortlund
A friend of mine described this book as “a balm to the soul,” and I couldn’t agree more. Gentle and Lowly does a deep dive into the heart of Christ. What is his heart towards his people? How does he approach us sinners? How do we understand Christ’s love as an outflowing of God’s love, when God can seem so unloving in the Old Testament? How does understanding the gentle and lowly heart of Christ change us? For fellow believers who are constantly racked with doubt and struggle with believing Christ actually is who he says he is, I urge you to read this book and let its truths sink in, and let it bring you peace.
- The Personal History of David Copperfield
Based on the Charles Dickens novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a fast-and-loose adaptation directed by Armando Iannucci. Iannucci also directed The Death of Stalin, a brutally witty and sharp satire. This is another period piece, but a lot more wholesome and whimsical. David Copperfield is an ensemble film with a genuinely wonderful, oddball cast, but it is well-anchored by its leading man. As David Copperfield, Dev Patel is a delight. He has nice comedic timing, carries the film easily, and has undeniable charisma and star power. Irreverent adaptations are all the rage right now, and I think this is one of the best examples of how to do that approach right.
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin directs and writes here, telling the story of the real-life Chicago 7, an assortment of anti-Vietnam activists who are arrested for conspiracy after they hold a demonstration. The film explores leftism vs liberals and the complexity behind the freedom to protest, and how government often works to suppress activism.
When I initially watched The Trial of the Chicago Seven, I thought it was fantastic. It’s no secret Sorkin can write one hell of a screenplay, and I was enveloped in the courtroom drama, excellent performances, and raw emotions of the story. But afterward, I discussed the movie with my friend Sam (who wrote this piece about Tenet) and he brought to light some key observations that I hadn’t even considered, including:
- Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther party, is in the first part of the movie, and gets some of the most outrageous, moving scenes, but is reduced primarily to a symbol. Once he is out of the film, he is not spoken of again. In a film about leftist politics and the explicitly racist nature of the justice system, to silence and then eliminate the only Black character (and the presence of Black people in the story) is ridiculous. If I may speak in broad strokes for a moment: many Black people complain that the Democratic party in America takes them and their vote for granted. The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays into this completely.
- Systematic problems, like the difference between leftism and liberals, are made into personal problems. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman represents leftism, while Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden represents liberals. By the end of the film, they have respect for one another, presenting the divide between their ideologies as one that can be simply fixed with the friendship between two people. While, on some level, all ideologies in movies must be symbolically carried within single characters, and personal relationships across the aisle is a good thing, this depiction is simplistic, serving the emotions of the audience more than the story.
More has been said about the flaws of the film, and they’re worth considering. But I don’t think those flaws should make you avoid the film- if anything, they’re another reason to watch and consider it.
- Ambient Noise Mixes
Are you now working or schooling from home? Do you wish you weren’t? Do you wish instead you were studying by the fire in a hobbit hole in the Shire? Or riding the train to Hogwarts? Or drinking tea with Mr. Tumnus before he betrays you to the White Witch? Or do you just wish you had some ambient noise mixers to help you focus on your work? If you spend a lot of time writing or sitting at the computer like me, you may enjoy some kind of background noise but can’t always do a playlist with lyrics. I have loved using these mixes inspired by fantasy settings.
– Madeleine D.