What an interesting year it turned out to be, film and TV-wise! I was happily ensconced in my favorite movie theaters for the first part, where I saw some forgettable films (post-awards season droppings), including another reworking of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” starring a little-known actress named Anya Taylor-Joy, whose performance I found rather cold, and who would show up later in the year in a little series named “The Queen’s Gambit.”
And then came March and the pandemic: Theaters were out, streaming and regular TV were in. I reviewed somewhere between 48 and 60 works for the screens large and small (reviews still available on malibutimes.com) and I’ve sifted out the most memorable of them here. Most are still available to stream if you missed them the first time.
It was an excellent year for documentaries, beginning with “Crip Camp” on Netflix, about a mid-20th century summer camp for disabled children that eventually turned out many of the future leaders of the disabled civil rights cause. There was “Lenox Hill,” a mesmerizing portrait of a huge hospital on the East Side of New York City. And for a change of pace, there was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Originally we took Mr. Rogers for granted, relegating his gentle and corny personality to our children, but here, we got to change our minds. There was “16 Shots,” about the murder of a black youth in Chicago, “Athlete A,” which exposed the systematic sexual abuse of young (sometimes very young) women by a trusted Olympic Games doctor. “I’ll be Gone in the Dark” depicted a reporter’s journey into the dark psyche of a serial killer. “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” examined the outrageous shenanigans of its subject. I salute one of my two favorite shows this past year: “My Octopus Teacher,” one man’s personal journey of being brought out of depression/burn-out by a loving connection to a sea creature. In December we got to see “Murder on Middle Beach” and “The Bee Gees: How Can you Mend a Broken Heart? “
There were a bunch of THRILLERS AND POLICE PROCEDURALS definitely worth watching: “The Outsider,” based on a novel by Stephen King, a writer we can depend on to make us feel unsettled; “The Stranger” is another in a series of British-made adaptations of Harlan Coben’s mysteries; the Icelandic “The Valhalla Murders” is definitely worth watching. “Giri/Haji” (which translates as Duty/Shame) is an ambitious, often soaring, and often messy eight-parter that takes place in Tokyo and London. “Run” stars the glorious Merritt Wever, which is enough reason to watch, but it’s also quite good. Season six of “Bosch” is one of the best so far. “False Flag” from Israel is an intriguing tale of espionage, “The Tunnel” is the original French/British version of the later (and equally good) American adaptation called “The Bridge.” “Devs” is an intriguing sci-fi mystery from brilliant writer/director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina” and “Annihilation”). Here’s three nail-biters from Scandinavia: “Van der Valk,” “Young Wallander” and “Occupied.”
Adaptations from theater to screen are often clumsy, but these were really well done: August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” starring Viola Davis and the late, great Chadwick Boseman in a stunning production; Hannah Gadsby returned with “Hannah Gadsby: Douglas” and she showed us an entirely different iteration of her journey that included a quiet rage offset by a mischievous twinkle in her eyes and a sweetness that bleeds through. Also excellent: “What the Constitution Means to Me” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Well-done dramas included “The Queen’s Gambit,” my other favorite of the year, starring Anya Taylor-Joy (see “Emma” above), an actress whose coldness perfectly suits this amazing drama. If you missed “Unorthodox,” about a woman who escapes a stifling religious sect, do catch it now. Israeli actress Shira Haas is riveting in the lead role. Finally, there are two small films definitely worth seeking out if you can find them: “Mr. Jones,” about Gareth Jones, a young Welsh scholar who, after interviewing Hitler in the mid-1930s, tried to warn Lloyd George and his cabinet about the monster waiting in the wing, and “First Cow,” a bittersweet tale of an odd friendship during the American Gold Rush.
Happy viewing and Happy New Year to all.