We’d usually compile a ‘Best Of’ list for the end of a year, or some twist on a similar notion, in order to champion what was great and condemn what was bad about the past 12 months in film and television. But while TV remained a solid source of entertainment throughout 2020, the big movies either stopped being released in March or went to streaming with considerably less hooplah.
So, this year, we’re going to just mention things that helped us cope with 2020, in whatever medium of entertainment: the TV shows that gave us succour, the films that warmed our hearts, and even a podcast that became a reliable distraction from COVID-19.
We hope you enjoy reading it, and feel free to drop your own thoughts in the comments about things that helped you cope with a difficult pandemic.
With Gourley & Rust • Podcast
The world has no shortage of podcasts in which two dudes talk about a niche subject, but With Gourley and Rust stands severed-head and shoulders above many of their contemporaries for one clear reason: the show documents a blossoming friendship.
Launched in 2018 under the title In Voorhees We Trust with Gourley and Rust, the podcast follows comedians and new friends Matt Gourley and Paul Rust as they discuss the Friday the 13th films, one per episode. In 2019, they followed it up with In Myers We Trust. And now, in 2020, they answered the fan’s appeals and finally made it an ongoing series, With Gourley and Rust.
I was a big fan of the comedians before they linked up for this show, as their character work on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! was particularly brilliant. But With Gourley and Rust, they’ve become some of my favourite people in the game; two sweet-natured, smart and infectiously giddy pals who treat the show like a sleepover in which they’ve sneaked downstairs to watch a film without their parents knowledge. Their commentary is consistently on-point, but their tangents are some of the most delightful parts, in which they tell personal stories, pause for a good 20-seconds while trying to think of a good pun, and pontificate about how Michael Myers pees while wearing his jumpsuit. (For the record, I think he unzips the whole thing and has it down by his ankles).
In an extremely isolating year, it was a treat to hear these two enjoy each other’s company week after week as they worked their way through the Nightmare on Elm Street series. They’ve self-described it as an easy listening podcast, which couldn’t be more apt. It’s a true comfort that radiated the kind of warm fuzziness that comes with hanging out with old friends and making each other laugh at dumb jokes. In the most gruelling of years, two comedians talking about terrifying (and not so terrifying) films for three hours an episode has comforted me like nothing else.
You can listen to ‘With Gourley & Rust’ via Stitcher here.
Small Axe: Lover’s Rock • BBC, 2020
One of the hallmark film events of the year was the Small Axe film anthology by Steve McQueen (Widows), the first two of which (Mangrove and Lover’s Rock) premiered at the London Film Festival before broadcast on the BBC due to the closure of cinemas. It’s also available on Amazon Prime in some international territories.
Each one of the five films are excellent and confirm McQueen as one one of the finest British filmmakers working today, but Lover’s Rock is particularly special and was even proclaimed ‘Film of the Year’ by Sight & Sound magazine.
The Small Axe anthology celebrates Black-British culture and Caribbean heritage, with Lover’s Rock focussing on one night at a 1980s blues house party in West London. McQueen wastes no time engrossing us into the party, with his camera often moving through the crowd on the dance floor at a low height, as bodies sway… documenting every tiny touch, hand on waist, and hip movement as partygoers twirl around each other.
There’s a simple narrative of a young woman sneaking out of her parent’s house, meeting a boy and getting back in time before her family wake up, but the narrative is almost besides the point. The party reaches a euphoric climax as the crowd build up a cappella of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”, throwing up feelings of intense nostalgia for pre-pandemic days where we could carelessly dance, hug, kiss, and touch one another.
Ted Lasso – Season 1 • Apple TV
I purchased an Apple TV 4K box this year, which came with a six-month subscription to Apple TV+. So it made sense to watch a few of their exclusives, and the football sitcom Ted Lasso took my fancy as a more recent offering earning unexpected praise. Jason Sudeikis is a likeable actor who’s been in a mix of good and bad movies, but he seems to have found his niche as the lead of a warmhearted sitcom. He plays the eponymous moustachioed US coach, who moves to London to manage a struggling Premiership “soccer” team, despite having no experience or knowledge of the beautiful game.
It’s an obvious fish-out-of-water setup, but I’m a sucker for humour that pokes fun at the differences between Brits and Yanks. However, what surprised me about Ted Lasso, and made it the perfect series to take your mind off the COVID-19 pandemic, was its abundance of heart and positivity. Ted could have been a brash and ridiculous monster, with the humour coming from how he’s clueless about football and doesn’t like being in a foreign country… but, instead, he turns out to be a genuinely nice guy that everyone grows to love (however begrudgingly). I’m not sure if this approach is the best choice in terms of Ted Lasso‘s longevity, as Ted’s arc seems complete after just one series, but Apple have commissioned another two years… so I’m eagerly awaiting another return to AFC Richmond to see how the manager and players fare. And I’m not even a football fan!
You can read my full review of the first season here.
Snowpiercer – Season 1 • TNT/Netflix
When the coronavirus pandemic first started to make itself comfortable for the long haul, many streaming recommendations seemed both oddly literal-minded and too close to home: Contagion (2011) and assorted end-of-the-world movies, for example.
So what better way to escape worrisome reality than to explore an apocalyptic scenario that’s both utterly preposterous and somehow reassuring? TNT’s ten-part Snowpiercer, like Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film of the same name, is set on an enormously long train which (for reasons that don’t bear close examination) must constantly circumnavigate an otherwise frozen world to keep its passengers, the last remnants of humanity, alive.
But the apocalypse outside the train’s windows is virtually irrelevant: it’s just an excuse to create a completely confined, and unsurprisingly class-ridden, world that can be designed any way the train’s creators (i.e. the writers) choose.
The result is a political-thriller-cum-murder-mystery which treads little new ground, other than in its premise, but constantly delivers surprises and intrigue. It’s straighter and less satirical than Bong’s version (Jennifer Connelly could never hope to match Tilda Swinton in an absurdity competition), yet just as successful—perhaps even more so?—in its world-building.
Plus, for the allegorically minded, there’s always the option of watching Snowpiercer as the ultimate metaphor for self-isolation, or the ultimate social-distancing-gone-wrong horror story. It speaks to our times, but it’s also silly fun: for mid-2020, this was the perfect combo.
Tenet • Warner Bros.
After seeing the trailer for Tenet before the COVID-induced hiatus of cinemas, it now feels more suitable for 2020 than it did back then. The concept of inverting time has never been so attractive until now! From rebooting Batman to bending time with Interstellar (2014), Christopher Nolan has spent two decades creating audacious thrillers. In many ways, Tenet is a culmination of his career to date. The espionage narrative feels like Inception (2010), the duelling timeline echoes Memento (2000), and the cinematic experience evoked Dunkirk (2017). Not to mention a lot of people talking through masks, a la Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
While there have been a plethora of reboots, sequels, and prequels recently, Tenet genuinely feels like a breath of fresh air. The reason why Nolan remains one of my favourite filmmakers is his ability to create an original story that feels innovative and creatively engaging. Tenet‘s concept of time moving in two directions is bewildering to watch.
John David Washington was silky smooth as The Protagonist, proving e’s more than capable of carrying a blockbuster with his charisma, while Robert Pattinson gave a playful performance as Neil. The two of them made a compelling duo and helped guide audiences through a somewhat complicated plot.
One of the major components to Nolan’s filmmaking is that he likes to promote the cinematic experience in basically everything he does: from shooting on IMAX to wanting to support cinema. Admittedly, one may be viewing Tenet through rose-tinted glasses, as it was one of a handful of cinema trips this year, but there’s no denying it was a spectacle made to be seen on the big screen. While criticism can be levelled at the bombastic score occasionally overpowering the dialogue, the feeling of returning to the cinema after months outweighed any negatives.
For balance, you can read Dan Owen’s less impressed review here.
Ghosts – Series 2 • BBC
After hearing so many people rave about the BBC sitcom Ghosts (from the Horrible Histories and Yonderland troupe, neither of which I saw), I decided to give it a try. And boy, what a pleasure it is! It’s difficult to explain why it’s so funny: it’s not groundbreaking, it’s not satirical, it’s not an excoriating portrait of our times. It’s just… hilarious.
The premise is wonderfully simplicity: a young couple inherit Button House, a country estate that turns out to be haunted by a colourful array of former residents and visitors who’ve died there over the centuries; from a caveman to a local MP.
Horrible Histories stalwarts Matthew Baynton and Paddington co-writer Simon Farnaby are joined by comedians like Lolly Adefope and Katy Wix, although the MVP is Jim Howick as a Scout leader who died in an unfortunate archery accident. Ghosts has a school pantomime vibe to it, in the way the cast clearly know each other extremely well, and every one of them is given something to do in each instalment.
In 2020, Ghosts has been a warm-hearted distraction of innocent fun, which is a rare thing nowadays. It’s a genuinely good comedy that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
Star Trek: Discovery – Season 3 • CBS All Access/Netflix
Star Trek has definitely helped us cope with this bizarre year, particularly the third season of Discovery currently running on Netflix internationally. I was so glad this had completed filming (on location in Canada and Iceland) and could get through post-production to air during the pandemic! It was definitely a more uplifting return to form, helping us through the last part of 2020.
When major world leaders take delight in denying facts, or stirring hatred and mistrust, and even trying to break the democratic process itself, it’s been hard to check in with the ‘real’ news headlines each day. But with a vaccine being rolled out, we all hope for a better New Year and New Decade.
Star Trek: Discovery provided welcome escapism as it imagines a more hopeful and egalitarian future. Sure, the USS Discovery faced huge problems this year, after being flung into the far future, where the Federation is wrecked and Mad Max-style extortionists plunder the galaxy… but the crew (of all races, creeds, and genders) stood by their ideals.
Gene Roddenberry’s original message about working together to get off the planet is still alive. Every time the characters beam down onto to a new world, one gets that thrill of vicarious exploration, which has been so important during a year of social lockdowns. You root for them as they face up to bullies and use diplomacy to achieve workable, peaceful solutions. And you share their delight in ultra shiny new nanotech! We want this to be the future humanity is heading towards. So thank you, Captain Saru and Michael Burnham!