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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.