With 2020 being a complete wreck of a year, entertainment—whether in books or on screen—have been a balm, providing a valuable form of escape during tough days. So, here are some of the movies, shows, and other media that helped me make it through the year.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Following a final breakup with the Joker, Harley Quinn finds herself in a sticky situation as folks start to come out of the woodwork to kill her. At the same time a number of other women in Gotham are also fighting their own battles, with the group eventually coming together to battle a deadly enemy. Harley Quinn is a delightfully chaotic asshole of a character, and she’s given full reign to shine in this movie, which is action packed with killer fight sequences and as quirky and fun as Harley herself.
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women anchors the March sisters’ adventures in a beautiful, grounded reflection of humanity. The choice to shift back and forth between the past and present brings additional weight to each scene, as we see how the moments impact each other. In particular, I was drawn to Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo March, a character I’ve always resonated with. Combined with the excellent writing, Ronan expresses Jo’s passion for writing and independence, while also evoking the complex feelings of loneliness that sometimes come with that freedom.
I found Midsommar to be a captivating film, hinging on the weight of a loss and grief so intense it can crush a person under its weight. After experiencing the terrible loss of her family, Dani (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend and his friends on a summer trip to Sweden to participate in mid-summer celebrations at a commune. Bright vibrant pastels infuse the scenes with a dreamy quality, managing to be achingly beautiful while carrying a constant ever present sense of unease that grows to become increasingly terrifying. Pugh’s performance is the centerpiece of this movie, expressing layers upon layers of grief, hiding just underneath her skin, waiting to explode. This is a movie that lingered with me, long after the credits rolled.
Brown Girl Begins
Directed by Sharon Lewis, Brown Girl Begins is an adaptation of and prequel to Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring. In a post-apocalyptic future, a young woman comes into her own power while resisting the forces of the local crime lord who runs the Burn. Delving into Caribbean religion and lore, the story provides a vision of magic and loas within an apocalyptic future cityscape. It is impressive how this indie movie manages to do a lot with minimal budget.
When a wealthy novelists dies of what seems at first to be suicide, a gentleman detective is drawn in by a mysterious note to investigate and determine the truth. He’s presented with a huge household of suspects to consider, including the dead man’s conniving, greedy family, his nurse, and the other staff. Knives Out is a fantastically fun take on the classic whodunit, bolstered by amazing actors and excellent writing.
Television was my go-to form of entertainment this year, whether it was rewatching old favorites for comfort or discovering new ones. These were some of the shows that had the greatest impact on me this year.
Hellier, Seasons One and Two
Hellier captivated me from minute one. The paranormal documentary series (available on YouTube and Amazon Prime) reveals a several-years-long investigation that begins with a strange case of Kentucky goblins and leads to a greater expansive discussion of synchronicity, the Mothman, and other strange phenomena. For all the out-there concepts and theories discussed, what grounds the documentary is its focus on long-term research. It’s fascinating to watch these folks dig and dig and dig into the strange events and synchronicities that occur, hitting dead end after dead end — only to then discover some new evidence that keeps them digging. It’s a strange and fascinating journey.
The Haunting of Bly Manor
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a Netflix miniseries about an American au pair who signs on to educate and care for two children at an isolated manor in the English countryside. As she settles into her routine caring for the two children, she begins to discover that the house has deep and dangerous secrets. What makes this show shine is its cast of interesting and likable characters, along with a storyline that focuses on not only on physical hauntings, but also on the ways people can be haunted by their own past and heartbreak.
Downton Abbey, All Six Seasons
Downton Abbey was one of those shows I told myself I’d get to eventually. When I turned it on, however, I didn’t expect to binge watch all six seasons over the period of a couple of weeks, only to start over at the beginning and binge watch it again. But that’s what happened. The story of the Crawley family and their household staff provided the perfect blend of drama, wit, and charm to sooth me when I was going through some tough times early in the year. Everything about this show, from the acting to the sets, costumes, and writing is pristine. I loved every second of it.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, All Three Seasons
Avatar: The Last Airbender is another one of those shows that I can’t believe it took me so long to watch. The entire series is a masterpiece of storytelling, mixing adventure, magic, and martial arts with a compelling storyline featuring an awesome found family—not to mention one of the greatest redemption arcs of all time.
The Good Place, Season 4
Anytime anyone asks me for a new show recommendation, I ask them if they’ve seen The Good Place. The show follows the humorous adventures of four humans in the afterlife, somehow navigating moral philosophy while being wildly entertaining. The main characters of this series—Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael, and Janet—each have their own interesting journeys toward becoming better people, growing and changing along the way. The final season is phenomenal, providing a perfectly satisfying conclusion. This is a show I will return to again and again.
Horizon Zero Dawn
From the moment I pressed start, I was completely captivated by Horizon Zero Dawn. Set in an post-apocalyptic future in which dangerous machines roam the wilds, this third person action role-playing game follows the story of Aloy, a young woman who has been outcast from her tribe since birth. Evading and battling machines and raiders alike, Aloy seeks to uncover the truth about who she is and where she came from, while also finding a means to save her people from a growing danger. Named game of the year in 2017, this third person action role-playing game has everything you could possibly want—impactful storytelling, phenomenal worldbuilding, gorgeous design, and creative, fun gameplay. I honestly didn’t want to leave this world. (Horizon Zero West is expected to be published in 2021, and I hope to be just as engrossed in the sequel.)
Journey was one of my favorite game experiences of the year. Although on the short side (about 2–3 hours), the adventure design, colors, music, gameplay, and subtly crafted story all create a profound sense of wonder. You play as a cloaked figure wandering through an expansive desert, exploring and uncovering the hidden past behind the ruins of these lands. This meditative journey left me feeling profoundly calm, relaxed, and grateful by the end. (If you want to share my experience, check out the video of my stream on Twitch).
What Remains of Edith Finch
In What Remains of Edith Finch, a young woman returns to her family home with the hope of learning the truth about her family. The Finches are either are either terribly unlucky or under a family cursed, each of them befalling strange and untimely deaths. Much of the game is a walking simulator, as Edith wanders through the home, peering into and exploring the rooms and uncovering each of the family member’s story. When she reads each story, the gameplay style shifts with the voice of the author, making the effect all the more powerful. Playing this game was an emotionally charged experience, one that brought me to tears on a number of occasions. This is storytelling at it’s finest, and I highly recommend it.
Since my commute dropped to zero, my podcast listening has also dropped significantly. However, there are a few gems that I’ve consistently stayed loyal to throughout the year.
What’s Good Games
If you love gaming as much as I do, then I highly recommend checking out the What’s Good Games podcast. Hosted by Andrea Rene, Brittney Brombacher, Kristine Steimer, and Riana Manuel—each of whom has a history of working in the video game industry—the show provides gaming industry news, commentary, and analysis. Each of these hosts bring an abundance of intelligence, charm, and silliness to the show, making the discussion of games a delightful experience. Honestly, this the only show I’ve faithfully listened to each week without fail.
“Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart,” note the hosts at the beginning of each episode. Writing Excuses is a podcast about the process of writing and publishing—primarily focusing on science fiction, fantasy, romance, and other genres. Despite what the tagline says, the assemblage of published writers who host the show are, in fact, incredibly smart, managing to pack a significant amount of knowledge and advice into each short episode.
Another information-packed podcast with small-bite episodes is Imaginary Worlds, hosted by Eric Molinsky. The show explores science fiction, fantasy, and other genre films, shows, games, and stories. Providing interviews from creators and fans alike, the show dives into the behind the scenes of how the imaginary worlds we love are made and why we love them. I also appreciate how the show takes a critical look in certain cases, examining how these stories impact the world.
Part of the Escape Artists network, PseudoPod is a horror podcast that has introduced me to profoundly beautiful, terrifying, and disturbing stories written and narrated by creators from a variety of backgrounds. Stories such as “Five Fridays During Lent” by Christine Lucas, “The Unhaunted House” by Richard E. Dansky, “Of Marrow and Abomination” by Morgan Sylvia, and “Pomegranate Pomegranate” by Jack Weslake have left me unsettled, awed, and shook. In addition to producing excellent horror, Escape Artists is actively working to make sure all of the editors and creators to make their podcasts possible are paid for their work, which I thoroughly respect.
Artists On YouTube
Over the past few months, I’ve taken an interest in returning to art as a form of relaxation. I’ve been practicing sketching and watercolors — and to help learn new techniques and methods, I’ve turned to the YouTube art community for inspiration, guidance, and amusement.
Arleesha Yetzer (arleebean)
Yetzer primarily paints watercolor and/or gouache portraits with a slightly speculative bent, resulting in her own loose, gorgeous style that I find so inspiring. In addition to showing her painting process, her videos include soothing voice over narrations with valuable insights.
Mako was one of the first artists I discovered when I went looking for lessons on how to paint with watercolors. She excels at providing tips, advice, and projects for beginners (like me) who want to learn more about how to work and play with watercolor.
Both a crafter and a painter, Moriah Elizabeth has her own vibrant, playful style—painting squishies, thrift store finds, and a variety of other items in a bright, rainbow of colors. Though the style and mediums she utilizes are not the types that I’d likely apply myself, I find her videos nonetheless inspirational because of her sheer joy of creating, her willingness to reveal “failures”, and her delightful sense of humor throughout it all.