Things I recommend you watch, listen to and play

personal, films, games, tv, music, 2020

I enjoyed the process of writing about my best purchases of 2020, and so here is another consumerist post, this time listing my top 3 films, TV shows, musicians and games of the year. I previously used to post lists of books I read every year, but paradoxically having more spare time because of working from home did not help me with reading as now a lot more things were competing for said time (while you're pretty much limited to reading if you commute). So I simply haven't read a lot in 2020.

All this content was mostly either released this year or not too long ago (but only came to my attention relatively recently), so there is no very strict criteria other than that, as well as there is no particular order in which they are listed - if it's here, then I loved it.

Films

Motherless Brooklyn (Google Play)

Noir is not an overly popular category and doesn't get a lot of new films, so if you like it, you already have a reason not to miss this one. It is hardly new though - while very well, if not flawlessly, executed, it just follows the traditional plot, so if you have seen a few good (neo-)noir films before, you'll be able to tell how it is going to end soon after you start watching.

What makes it special is Edward Norton's performance. Hi is playing a detective suffering from a few neurological disorders, and he does it very well - there is no whitewashing, so you don't see yet another extremely smart savant with a few - of course cute and lovable - quirks (a usual trope when directors try something like this). Rather, you get a very good idea of what it probably feels like.

A great role that is genuinely ace acting, and it does a lot in terms of representation without the feel that it was the only purpose of giving a character that trait.

Mosul (Netflix)

Not really a great film outside of context - a middle tier action flick, "not great, not terrible". Why it is more powerful and so is more exciting and emotional to watch that the genre boundaries suggest is because it is one of the few, if not the only, well produced 'mass market' films about wartime Iraq that doesn't feature Westerners.

Both bad and good guys killing each other for a couple of hours are Iraqis (and sometimes Iranians). There are neither American superhero SEALs saving everyone, nor a heavily hinted idea that it is solely because of the US that this place is torn apart, both of these opposite narratives ultimately denying Iraqis any agency. Mosul is different.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Amazon Prime)

A story of coming to terms with your age and consequences of your previous choices as well as circumstances outside of your control, delivered by Stewart and Binoche. Two lead actresses don't overshadow each other, which is already a rare occasion.

In one of the reviews I read that this film tells the same story as Birdman, but from a female perspective. I think this is a very good way to describe it, only of course it's doesn't make it inferior (the story they both tell is not new in the first place). I'd also add that as how Birdman is male-centric, it is also very American, while Clouds of Sils Maria is very female-centric and also very European. I think, they are both very good and even gain from being compared to each other.

While we are at it, isn't it funny how everyone used to make fun of Twilight films, but Stewart and Pattinson grew into really strong actors? Who knew.

TV Series

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

This something you have probably already seen, but the last season was streamed in early 2020, and that gives me an excuse to repeat that this is a great show. The main thing it does for me is that it is extremely relatable, even though I am not a millionaire TV star, I don't have a drinking problem, have fewer friends and I am not even a horse.

What I mean is that pretty much every episode has a scene where you can recall a similar thing happening to you in the past, the same thoughts crossing your mind - not exactly like that, yes, not in the deliberately exaggerated way, but the conflict and the feelings were largely the same, and so are your memories that are suddenly very vivid. This is why I think this series should be loved by middle aged people more than by the young simply because they have more history behind them that this show ruthlessly excavates.

Better Call Saul (Netflix)

Another big title that doesn't need yet another introduction, but if you somehow did not see it yet, you certainly should (the last season is still pending). The characters and their problems are far from being relatable in this one, so it is the sheer talent with which everything is put together and the writing that make it great.

While it is a prequel for Breaking Bad, I didn't watch it before I started with Better Call Saul, and when I did later I found the original to be less enjoyable. Breaking Bad is, in my opinion, much less believable, and the transformation of the main character as the story unfolds (which is also the main idea of the prequel), is more difficult to imagine actually happening.

The only problem this show has is the one many could only wish for - it gets better towards the end, so if you didn't quite enjoy the first season or two and stopped, give it a chance, you won't regret it.

Ad Vitam (you get it, Netflix)

It is a short single season French show set in the not too distant future and exploring the problems of coming of age and mortality. The budget wasn't too generous and it shows - we're reminded that the action takes place in the future mostly just by cars having a plastic hump at the bonnet and blue or red neon lights everywhere. Unexpectedly, this seems to work by putting the focus on the story (similar how to it doesn't bother you in the theatre that all the action happens at the same stage).

The acting by the main duo is great, and while the series could probably be even shorter without harming the plot, it still qualifies for a 'hidden gem' category.

Music

John Frusciante (everything, really)

I've been an RHCP fan for decades, but it wasn't until this year that I also listened to Frusciante's solo albums. What can I say, I wish I did it earlier.

First of all, that is a lot of music (the latest album was released in 2020 / and it's electronic / and it isn't even his first electronic album). And we are not talking about a few particularly good tracks with everything else just thrown in to make it sell as an album - while some tracks are still better than others, the quality is pretty consistent.

Then there is a great variety - you get lo-fi experimental rock, acid house or something more like what you would expect from an RHCP guitar man. You can build a hours long playlist exclusively from Frusciante's tracks that still isn't too repetitive.

Atmosphere - Whenever (2019)

They keep doing the same thing with every new album including this one released in 2019, but the point is that they've perfected it. So there is this, and that Whenever is perhaps more romantic than their previous work, in a good way.

As with any musicians that put a great emphasis on the lyrics, this is not the music for every occasion, but the poetry is really good, and so there will be a day on which it resonates with you especially well.

The best track there is of course Son of Abyss, followed closely by Lovely.

Ibrahim Maalouf - 40 Mélodies (2020)

Just a 43 tracks album by one of the best modern jazz trumpeters in the world, that also includes his best tunes like True Sorry.

I think he manages to maintain the right balance with freestyle-ish segments that 'wander off' the main theme, but never too far away from that (a problem with many modern jazz musicians that tend to overdo this part) - in short, you're still able to hum to his tracks. They are more 'melodic' than the classic records from the golden era of jazz (Your Soul is a good example of that), so I see why he could be called a bit dull and predictable in comparison, but looking at other modern performers, it's better to err on that side than on the opposite.

He also has his distinct style thanks to recognisable, but not overly dominating Arabic musical motives interweaved with otherwise classical jazz structure very gently - a good example would be Layla's Wedding that blends it with what otherwise is a tap dance theme.

Games

Into The Breach (PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch)

This is game is from 2018, but I only discovered it in early 2020, and it is still being released on new platforms. A simple turn-based strategy built around short battle scenarios where you constantly have to choose the least bad move, and the s0oner you recognise that your units' health is a spendable resource (that you just shouldn't run out of, not to preserve at all costs), the better.

Hades (PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch)

In true roguelike games you only live once, and when you die, you have to restart. Hades is an interesting twist on this principle - once you die, you die and have to start again (no saved games!), but some of your character parameters persist between the runs (of which there are going to be dozens if not hundreds), and the story remains uninterrupted.

I was first put off by its visually overloaded battles (too much is going on at the same time!), but the game isn't unnecessarily and frustratingly difficult, like, for example, Cuphead - you can feel that you are getting better at it as you play more, so you don't get bored.

Yoshi's Crafted World (Nintendo Switch)

Just a simple kids' game that is also fun enough for adults to play (with the kids watching). I am not a fan of the whole Mario universe thing and think that most of its 'masterpieces' are overvalued, but this one is just beautifully designed.

It is also built in a way that you can always re-play an older level again, which is good because they have different themes and difficulty, and so some of them might be more suitable for your kid's age or special interest.

Not much else to say, but I have spent a lot of time with it this year.

Things I recommend you buy and use

personal, 2020, stuff

(this post was inspired by other similar lists - like this or this - which I also recommend you to read)

This year was certainly an odd and difficult one, and even if you were lucky to avoid the worst of it, it had likely changed your habits by making you spend more time at home. This is how I noticed that some of things I bought and started to use more often (or for the first time) in 2020 had a good impact on my everyday experience, way above their often negligible cost.

So here are some of those simple things that didn't cost a lot and yet kept me happier than I imagine I could otherwise be.

Vertical mouse

I used to have one in the office that was gifted to me by my colleague - he didn't like it, and I, as a new starter, didn't have a mouse. It worked surprisingly well for me, and after just one day it no longer felt weird to use, and then I even started to notice how uncomfortable was my (much more expensive) 'traditional' mouse I used at h0me. Still, it wasn't until I started working from home full time that I finally decided to replace it.

I've got this one from Amazon, but the same model, as it often happens with cheaper products, seems to come from different Chinese 'mushroom brands' while the actual device remains the same, so I don't think there is a huge difference between them and you can probably get any other similarly shaped model.

While at it, I also decided to ditch replaceable battery for a built-in one. For a long time I was always trying to choose devices with standard AA/AAA batteries (that I would replace with rechargeable ones), but now I admit it really isn't worth the hassle. Yes, a non-replaceable Li-Ion battery will lose the capacity eventually, but it will take a long time because unlike with your phone, you are not going to put it though a charging cycle every day.

Bone conduction headphones

They are pretty unique in a sense that they go on your temples leaving your ears entirely unobstructed, so you can still hear what is going on around you. That is invaluable for sports, especially running and cycling. The quality of sound is surprisingly good - I mean, it is certainly worse than what you get with a pair of nice conventional headphones, but if you are (like me) used to your HiFi setup, your bluetooth headphones are not going to fully satisfy you anyway, so what is really the difference.

The brand you'd want is AfterShokz - it is pretty much 'the' manufacturer with everything else being knock-offs. I used to own one of the first AfterShokz models years ago and it wasn't particularly great, but since then the build quality has massively improved. I am pretty happy with my current pair and see no need to upgrade even though their range currently on offer is probably even better.

The only problem with this type of headphones is that because of the headband you can't wear a beanie hat with them (cycling helmet is fine as it sits higher), and if you have longer hair it might also be less comfortable for you, but otherwise it is going to greatly improve your workout. Apart from safety coming from being aware of your surroundings and traffic, another benefit is that you can just wipe them down after a session - keeping traditional over/on/in-ear headphones clean and sweat-muck free is a bigger hassle.

External microphone

It is surprisingly difficult to find a webcam that can reliably beat the one built into your laptop (and apparently, here is why), but you can certainly improve your microphone game - and yes, your colleagues, friends and family on group calls would notice.

The gold standard for USB mics is Blue Yeti, and after studying many in-depth reviews I believe that this is indeed the best choice. If you, however, don't need anything but cardioid pattern and also want something cheaper, I recommend another safe choice which is Samson Meteor. Both cute and clever design, thick metal case, headphones jack (to hear your own voice without latency), great sound quality, mute button and indicator, and it is also substantially cheaper.

I was surprised to discover in the process that mini-USB (not micro-USB!) standard is thriving in the world of microphones. Last time I saw any other device relying on it was more than 10 years ago. So if this is something that puts you off, it shouldn't as it really isn't a sign of obsolesce in this particular industry.

Mechanical keyboard

I've been a fan of 'ergonomic' keyboards for a long time, and my trusty Microsoft Natural 4000 worked for more than 12 years, hauled from one office to another. Then at my last job I had a smaller desk and decided to stick to 'barebone' setup, where you just use your laptop with no external screens or other peripheral devices and so you can work anywhere - say on a couch - or even on a different laptop (e.g. your personal one) without feeling much of a difference.

Working from home made this argument less convincing, so I needed a new keyboard again and took this opportunity to try out a non-sophisticated rectangular but a mechanical one.

After reading a lot of reviews and posts, I quickly got overwhelmed with info and simply went for something I've been recommended in one of my group chats: Keychron K6, with UK layout, metal frame and brown Gateron switches (brown switches are a safe choice for newbies as they are less loud but still 'clicky').

My own experience first was like typing on a mechanical keyboard was nice, but not THAT nice, just different, perhaps, but not necessarily better - and then at some point I simply realised that I don't want to type on anything but it. And when you complete your setup with a wooden wrist rest, it also becomes quite ergonomic.

A few months of active use later I can confirm is good, although when the battery is low, you start experiencing connectivity issues (it doesn't go from 100% functionality to 0%, it's a gradual decline on your last 10-15% of the charge). It is, nevertheless, a solid low-mid level option.

Keychron often runs 15% discount campaigns (including now as this post is being published), plus if you put a keyboard in the basket and leave without checking it out, in a couple of days they'll send you a 10% discount code.

Paper shredder

Not sure about other countries, but in the UK you tend to get a lot of mail as it is the preferred channel of communication for many companies, organisations and government agencies (grrrr!). That pile of paper grows pretty quickly, and you have your full name and address stated on every sheet. Same about all those stickers on the parcels you receive.

Shredder really solves this problem, by which I mean when you're too anxious to put the papers in the bin as you received them, but also too lazy to cut the personal details out every time.

Don't bother with the manual crank-driven ones (yes they exist). They are more compact, and first you think that you'll only be using it occasionally, so that'd do for you. I've been there, and it won't.

Also be careful to choose a cross-cut (as opposed to strip-cut) model - it would be only a little bit more expensive, but massively more secure.

Pull-up bar

I wrote a post about turning my garage into a simple gym earlier this year (and so I am not including items described there in this list, even though they had a major impact on my quality of life), but since that time I improved it a little bit, a by far the most important addition was this pull-up bar from Decathlon:

This particular model is easy to mount (a single piece that goes on the wall instead of two separate plates that need to be carefully aligned) and can be folded as shown below:

Not only it unlocks a wide range of exercises for you, it also serves as a platform for other equipment, such as a weight pulley. This whole idea of putting equipment in the garage has been very helpful during the the lockdown, and now I don't even know if I would need a gym membership again for anything other than sparring sessions.

Precise stylus

This is a bit of niche one, but I have upgraded my very old Samsung Note 3 this year (still stuck on Android 5.1), and went for Google Pixel because of its camera. It meant, of course, that mobile sketching became nearly impossible, because it's just the Note line that has that unique Wacom layer under the screen supporting pressure-sensitive styluses.

The best thing you can still do with a simple capacitive screen is to get a precise stylus like Adonit Switch 2-in-1. You don't need its pen functionality really, but the screw-on cap is very handy and protects that small delicate disc at the tip well.

The stylus is easier to use that it seems, and it allows for some non-sophisticated sketching on any phone or table, even though small details would be still difficult to execute - you'll need to zoom in more often because of that or simply to adjust your style to it.

If you don't sketch, then I'd recommend you to try because it is fun, but you might also find this stylus very useful if you ever had to work with Excel documents on mobile.

Nintendo Switch

The blessing of Switch (and Nintendo ecosystem in general) is that it was never powerful enough to run big titles, even when it was first released, so there is no feeling you're stuck on an ageing platform as games get more and more demanding - a massive repository of indy games and ported old classics is more than enough for an occasional gamer like myself. In short, it most certainly will be a relatively long term investment even if bought now, years after release.

Although I did finish Witcher 3 on it, and it was... good enough? You have to brace for higher game prices though.

The portability aspect of it is working great for me, but probably not in the truly intended sense - even if I were still commuting, I don't think I'd be taking the console with me as that time is better spent reading. However, being able to roam your flat freely with the gameplay seamlessly switching between the external TV and built-in small screen is something that changes the whole experience - which I why I wouldn't recommend buying a Switch Lite that can't be connected to a TV.

Also, one of the best games of this year, Hades, is an excellent fit for a Switch.

Key organiser

Most key organisers cannot accommodate large mortice keys, but this one can ( the faux leather loop can take a 65mm long key). After spending some time figuring out the right number of silicone washers to space the keys while still keeping the screw in place, it holds together surprisingly well (i.e. you don't find a handful of loose parts in your pocket when you don't expect it).

In addition to looking more neat, the main benefit of it is that your keys no longer rattle, meaning you can simply put them in your shorts pocket on a run rather than having to squeeze your keys into a separate 'wrist key holder' (yet another item that needs washing and just feels awkward to wear). This is why getting this small thing changed a lot for me as I started to run regularly when the first lockdown started, and dealing with keys was one of the major annoyances.

The downsides are that it is less convenient to actually operate keys, especially if you have a night latch lock where you need to keep tension on the key all the time while the door is opened. It is still a small price to pay for not having to deal with a rattling mess.

***

Well, this is it. I now think I might might also put up a similar list of non-material impactful apps and games later - maybe be even before the next year is over!