It it possible to do a top ten for a year like 2020? Let’s see!

With all the upheaval 2020 has brought to cinematic release and TV production, here’s my attempt at a Top 10 of what I’ve most enjoyed this year.

I won’t be ranking the 10 in any particular order because that’d be difficult and I’m really worried about focusing on what’s ‘the best’ that I’ve seen this year, as much as what’s stuck in my head and lingered, and given the depressing world conditions, the valued quality I’ve appreciated is what’s been the most enjoyable.

Off the top, there are a few shows that weren’t necessarily newly released in 2020 but that are maybe new to me, their latest season was something I enjoyed this year, or in some cases just that watching them has proven to be a highlight over the last year where there’s been precious little to look forward to.

‘This is Us’ is only a handful of episodes into Season 5 but I am so grateful for its existence. I love this show, it’s superbly written and acted, throwing twists and turns in the best ways that make it always the most rewarding hour of TV each week. I was so thrilled when they managed to get the season together under new Covid production conditions, and it’s just what was needed. So far, the season has been good, not at its best but setting up some threads that I’m sure will become more fulfilling in a few episodes time. The season has a very different feel, you can tell things have been considerably scaled back out of necessity, but that’s no bad thing as it’s slowed character development down, making meaningful moments out of daily interactions. I love how they’re taking a little more time to build one of the key relationships, though with each great moment I feel the risk growing that things will go wrong and I’ll end up disappointed as I’m very invested in things working out for the characters. That’s a key part of the appeal of this show, despite teasing the future with flash-forward scenes, you never really know what’s going to happen, even if you think you do, and you end up caring deeply.

My lockdown gem has been ‘Bob’s Burgers’, a show that didn’t take long for me to get into, and it’s remained consistently enjoyable for 10 seasons (I’m about halfway through the tenth right now). Having something uplifting that I could rely upon to make me chuckle has been invaluable this year. I’ve formed a habit of watching an episode some days with lunch, and most days before bed, a little half-hour filler that is my default option for ‘something’ to watch. 

Following on nicely from that is ‘Central Park’ by the same creators as ‘Bob’s Burgers’. It’s only released the first season so there wasn’t much to watch, the 10 episodes only lasted me a few days, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Another show for which I was late to the party was ‘The Crown’, as I’d only watched a couple of episodes before this year. With the fourth season on the way, I really went for it this time, determined to catch up by the time it was released, with a few weeks break between the second and third to ease the jolt of the cast change. Season 3 included an episode set in my town, which was funny to see the streets and buildings I know so well but haven’t seen with my own eyes for months as I’ve been staying at home. I’m looking forward to seeing how they tackle the more modern history, as what comes next is not just fresher in living memory, but specifically my own. 

Considering my personal reaction to the news it was coming to Disney+, ‘Hamilton’, was the closest thing to a big exciting release this year. While cinemas were all closed with little to look forward to seeing, having this finally available to watch safely at home, costing me nothing extra as it was included in Disney+, it was the closest I’d come to feeling as I do when I travel for a midnight screening of a Marvel movie. It’s a near-flawless example of how to film a stage performance and something that I’ll be going back to time and again to enjoy. 

‘Tenet’ is the only film I’ve seen in the cinema since March, which has to be the longest time between cinema visits since I became an adult, possibly in my entire life (though cinema trips weren’t very frequent in my youth). I’m looking forward to watching this at home soon, as it will benefit for another viewing and especially in an environment where I can adjust the audio for clarity, but it was made for the big-screen spectacle and I’m glad I got the chance to see it in that way. 

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ has been the Netflix hit of the year and has consistently stayed in their top 10 for months since it released (number 5 in the UK today), after binging it in a day it’s not hard to see why. It’s a shame this is a limited series as I’d happily watch another short season with excellent storytelling, interesting characters and the fascinating world of competitive chess. 

‘Parasite’, is the film this year that’s most stuck in my mind, there’s been nothing quite like it. It’s superbly put together in every way and has some wonderful twists that had me on the edge of my seat. I know I’ll watch it again at some point and I think that’ll be interesting as knowing where it’s going will change the experience but allow me to focus on all the details. 

‘Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga’ is not the best film of the year, not even close, but it’s up there as one of the most joyous. It revels in the exuberance and campiness of the contest, along with some truly great songs. Though it’s not Will Ferrels best, it has plenty of quotable lines and jokes that will make it rewatchable, and it’s worlds apart from ‘Holmes & Watson’ that also came to Netflix this year, which if I was writing one, would absolutely top my list of worst things I’ve watched this year.

Slipping in just under the wire as my last pick is an unexpected one, ‘a 40-minute documentary on Netflix called ‘Speed Cubers’. I’d heard it mentioned in a podcast as a recommendation and I heartily recommend it myself. It’s about the most heartwarming ‘rivalry’ between two world-record speed Rubik’s cube solvers. Though they’re competing to beat each others time, the way in which the older champion supports the younger challenger is one of the most uplifting things I’ve seen. There are tears, it’s emotional, and with such a fittingly short runtime, it’s well worth watching if you want to fill less than an hour with something good. 

Netflix’s Newest Feature Is A Great Idea… But It’s Not There Yet!

A new feature dropped on my Netflix this week, a new icon that offers to just ‘Play Something’, essentially a random shuffling option, and I see the reason for it, there’s a good purpose for a feature like this, though I don’t think the implementation is quite as it should be yet.

The idea makes a lot of sense, it’s ideal for when you want to just ‘watch something’ but don’t have specifically what that’d be in mind. I’ve wanted something like this, even if I didn’t realize it as I’m sometimes a little overwhelmed for choice, though not considering the Netflix library as a whole.

Personally, I don’t find myself aimlessly scrolling through all Netflix has to offer for something to find. The closest I get to that scenario is when I occasionally know the genre I fancy and look to see if there’s something in that section that stands out. Regularly though, I go to where the best of Netflix has already been curated by someone whose taste I trust, an assortment of things I am likely to enjoy, my watchlist.

When I tried the feature last night, the suggestion was ‘Virgin River’, not something I’ve ever had in my watchlist, and though I’ve never seen it I don’t think it’s even particularly similar to anything else that’s in my watchlist or history. Shuffling and suggesting things I’m not all that interested in will ultimately make me less likely to use the feature, it feels like a waste of time if I just keep skipping to the next suggestion for ages before landing on something (likely already on my watchlist) I might be tempted to stick with to watch. 

I’ve checked my settings and can’t see the option I’m looking for, though if someone else has it on theirs please let me know as I’ll be interested to hear about it. Essentially, all they need to do is give options to narrow down the selection the ‘something’ could be chosen from, one for the whole Netflix library for those who want that, one that narrows it to just the profile watchlist, and possibly another popular categorization. 

It’s a interesting first version of the feature, a promising idea that, if Netflix refines it a little, could become a popular feature I’d use regularly.

Could Black Widow Get A Wonder Woman 1984-Style Release?

Here I was, putting the finishing touches on a post entitled ‘Could Disney do a Mulan-style release for ‘Black Widow?’. Yet the perils of writing about film in 2020 overtook me, as things in the movie world have shifted yet again, and there’s now a different release strategy that looks far more likely.

To summarise briefly, I was going to argue that between their reportedly underwhelming results from the ‘Premier Access’ release of ‘Mulan’, and the upcoming release of Pixar’s ‘Soul’ at no added cost to subscribers, I expected Disney to take the data gained from these two approaches and find a middle ground between them. Arguably it seemed likely Disney wouldn’t develop the PVOD infrastructure that we now know is built into Disney+ for a single-use, ultimately leading to them offering ‘Black Widow’ on ‘Premier Access’ for a more modest fee and with extended exclusivity.

Now, I’m not so sure.

Warner Bros just confirmed that they’ll be releasing the highly-anticipated tentpole ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ on their streaming service HBO Max on December 25th, the same day as the cinematic release in the US, though it will be available internationally a week earlier where HBO Max isn’t an option.

Simultaneous releases for big movies like this have been almost unheard of because the theatrical exhibitors don’t agree with them. Until now it’s been considered a strategy that would cannibalize their audience, but this year, it’s a pandemic that’s cannibalized the audience, so studios and theatres are willing to try anything to stay afloat. The theatres know they can’t keep their side of the deal like before, the box office numbers they’re bringing in are a fraction of what they used to be, so they are more willing to compromise to avoid films going entirely to streaming because they hope to get as many customers as legal capacities allow with a big tentpole like a DC movie to show. There’s an eager audience with a strong desire to see it on the big screen as intended, and the number of people wanting that experience doesn’t have to fill every seat, it can’t, so they just have to equal 50% or less, which dare I say it, should be easy enough for a four-quadrant sequel like this.

There’s also the international aspect to consider. ‘Wonder Woman’ took more than $412 in the US and $409 internationally at the box office, hugely outperforming expectations. Where HBO Max isn’t an option, WW84 should be able to fill many cinemas to their reduced capacity limits quite easily, especially around the end of year holidays as it’s more likely to appeal to the whole family than WB’s last attempt at reigniting cinemagoing, ‘Tenet’. Here in the UK, we don’t yet have HBO Max unless you want to get clever with a VPN, so I’m already making plans to get a nicely distanced seat booked at the boutique cinema near me, which I believe will adjust their screening schedule to make sure it’s there on opening night. So making a big movie like this available in cinemas wherever possible, while also catering to your locked-down biggest market via a home-based option, seems like a pretty good plan. 

So, the question now is, will Disney follow a similar approach for their delayed MCU movies like ‘Black Widow’? There are some solid reasons to think they might.

Rather than going the route of PVOD for $30 again, it seems there are already signs Disney’s moving away from that system. Their subscriber numbers for Disney+ far exceed their original projections, so they’re taking more than they were forecasted to anyway, without having to add an additional fee. Currently, there are only 9 million subscribers to HBO Max (though that will jump up in December in time for WW84’s release) while Disney+ has over 70 million, the latter having rolled out to a number of countries earlier this year. 

Disney+ ‘Premier Access’ backfired badly with ‘Mulan’. Firstly reviews weren’t overly glowing, leaving a lot of buyers feeling like it wasn’t worth the premium cost they’d just shelled out. Then stupidly just weeks later Disney released it on all other PVOD services, ones that didn’t require a Disney+ subscription on top of the cost of the movie, essentially giving a better deal to non-subscribers than their Disney+ customers, which was a really bone-headed move. Now, many who would have been tempted to pay for something via ‘Premier Access’ will be wary, holding off for a better deal, or just, like myself with ‘Mulan’, waiting a few more months for it to be included for free. 

A few weeks ago Disney announced they’d be accelerating their plans to focus on direct-to-consumer services, restructuring the business considerably in aid of their streaming services. This has had an almost immediate impact on the release schedule as it looks like they’ll be moving a number of their big films to premiere on Disney+. There were already some live-action family-focused ones such as ‘Godmothered’ set to go to the service, but I expect that will soon be followed by others including ‘Cruella’ and ‘Pinocchio’, films that would otherwise have been expected to go well in cinemas like the other live-action remakes of classics such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Lion King’.

Some of those are far off anyway, while ‘Black Widow’ has been ready to release for months, and it potentially an instant huge earner, maybe close to a billion dollars if it’s anything like the rest of the MCU. However, like ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ I don’t think it will be shifted exclusively to streaming on Disney+ as there are still some countries where the service isn’t available, and even where it is, there are still some cinemas open and eager to show the film. Some of my local independent cinemas regularly show films that are simultaneously on PVOD, if the film is good and will be worth seeing on the big screen they sell enough tickets to make it worth it. A cinematic simultaneous release could suit ‘Black Widow’ very well indeed, covering most eventualities if circumstances shift, and presenting tempting avenues for the audience to finally see this film they’ve been waiting so long for. 

I’m really looking forward to finally seeing ‘Black Widow’ whenever it’s released in whatever way I can, hopefully at the cinema though I’ll be happy enough to watch it at home if needed, especially if it’s included at no extra cost in my Disney+ subscription. While nothing quite makes up for not being able to see films like these on the big screen with an audience, what’s worse is not seeing new films at all, especially when we know they’re finished and ready to be seen. 

Super Saturday: Revisiting ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ A Decade Later

A few weeks ago (maybe a bit longer now that I’ve taken so long to catch up on finishing writing) Entertainment Weekly reunited the majority of the cast of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ for a Zoom ‘table-read’ of the full script on YouTube. I am a huge fan of that film, ever since I first saw the trailer in the cinema over a decade ago and immediately loved the parts it showed, then completely loved the full film when I saw it in the cinema a couple of times in the first week of release.

Immediately clear is how well the script really holds up as a brilliant piece of entertaining writing even without the extensive visual effects, seeing it performed like this puts the focus entirely on the clever dialogue, compelling characters, and surprisingly complex story.

It was great to see so many of the original cast, many of whom have gone from strength to strength, making time to connect for this reunion. A decade after the film was in many cases one of their first major roles, almost half of them are now busy being A-listers and in many cases superheroes, yet most of the big names have made themselves available and are giving it their all. 

The same week this was released I’d installed a new home cinema sound system and it dawned on me that Scott Pilgrim would be a perfect film to test it with, the mix of dialogue, fight scenes with loud explosive sounds and energetic musical performances make it an excellent tester movie. Often when testing a home cinema adjustment I’ll pick a scene or two with a feature I’m particularly interested in, skip to them and confirm the changes have worked. I found myself, just 24 hours after having watched the film read through from start to end, watching the movie in its entirety, it’s that good.

The read-through highlighted so many things I’d previously vastly underappreciated. Knives Chau is a bigger and more important role than I remembered, certainly one I’d not given full consideration before this, a reassessment greatly helped in this form by Ellen Wong being so enthusiastic. When I then rewatched the movie I found my attention refocused on the character and how complete and satisfying her story arc is. The film may have some mixed messages on relationships and fidelity, however, it makes the point clear that you want to keep on good terms with your exes or it may come back to kick you in the backside, literally. If that’s all you take away from watching the film or the table read it’s time well-spent. 

Audiobook Review: Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Audiobook Review: Born A Crime (Stories from a South African Childhood)
Written & Read By: Trevor Noah

Not far into listening to this audiobook being read by Trevor Noah himself, it became abundantly clear that this is a perfect example of the benefits of hearing the author reading it over reading their own words, especially autobiographical ones, over reading from the page for myself. Not only couldn’t I bring all that’s needed to this story, but I’d unintentionally take a lot away from important aspects of it.

An early-years autobiography of Trevor Noah, the South African comedian who was born to a black mother and white father in the Apartheid era. His life is fascinating and much of the focus in this book centers on the key point of the title he was essentially born a crime, being of mixed race in apartheid South Africa, his parents’ relationship was illegal and he was living evidence of that. 

I’ve often enjoyed Noah’s stand up, I saw him on UK TV years ago on a show that features a few 10 minute stand up sessions, he stood out as my kind of comedian, whose comedy is built on a foundation of intelligence and an interesting perspective. When, years later, he was announced as the person who’d be taking over from Jon Stewart as host of the Daily Show I immediately saw the potential, he’s really intelligent, multilingual, multicultural, well-read, and all these things that make his comedy interesting, give him a perspective on current events that’s usually worth hearing. 

Throughout the modestly apportioned chapters, Trevor Noah builds a clear picture of his childhood, the state of the country, the changes it underwent, and the resilience of his mother and himself to make the most of their circumstances, brilliantly detailed though the events recounted are sometimes spaced far apart. The final chapter has some of the most dramatic events that other writers might have at least teased in the opening chapters, if not used as where their story starts.

A key part of Noah’s story is his ability to speak a selection of African languages, and when he reads accounts of his own life he gives the characters what are presumably approximations of their own accents and voices, and even a more minor point is that he’s able to pronounce their names correctly. If I was to read it in my head it would be at the very least inaccurate, if not unintentionally but unavoidably racially insensitive.

Based on Trevor Noah’s stand up I was already looking forward to the feature film adaptation that’s in development, with Lupita Nyong’o already signed on to play Trevor’s mother Patricia, but now I’ve heard the book I’m convinced this is going to be a really enjoyable film and if handled aright it could even be a major awards contender, unlike this cake that was recently made on ‘The Great British Bake Off’ (or ‘The Great British Baking Show’ for all you Americans), that was meant to look like Lupita Nyong’o.

After enjoying the author’s reading of this book so much, I think I may now do this as my routine method for enjoying works of non-fiction. In this instance it was almost vital to have him reading it as anyone else would have been unable to give all the pronunciation, intonation, or accents that brought the account to life and greatly deepened my understanding of his experiences. 

Born A Crime is available in multiple formats, including a child-friendly version of the book for younger readers which I think is a really brilliant idea to bring this story that’s full of lessons on racial issues to a wider audience and possibly even makes it suitable for use in classrooms. My firm recommendation is to download the audiobook read by Trevor Noah himself, it’d be a great use of an Audible free trial for example, as he brings linguistic abilities that few readers would be able to even attempt, that greatly maximizes the enjoyment and understanding of his life and story.