Pose - Netflix
FINALLY a dance/music TV show that centers around the lives of queer people of color, particularly Trans women! They are TALENTED they are GORGEOUS they are STRUGGLING. This show expanded my worldview and my heart, and seems to have brought more empathy and gentleness to storytelling around Trans experiences. And the performances at the balls are to die for! Follow up with "Disclosure," a documentary which I admittedly still need to watch.
Legend of Korra Season 1 - Netflix
If you too were forever changed by the action-spirituality-friendship fusion that was Avatar: The Last Airbender, you'll be obsessed with this continuation of the series (especially if you love seeing powerful queer female characters!). The first season of Korra shines with themes of steam-punk inspired technology, the journey to adulthood/independence, and mastering your aggression with mindfulness.
Fleabag - Amazon
This might be my absolute FAVORITE combination of plot/acting/script/general storytelling out of this whole bunch. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is A GODDAMN GENIUS (also she co-produces Killing Eve which I also enjoyed this year). Fleabag is a hilarious limited series about a sassy, intelligent, young woman-about-town who is trying to run a guinea-pig themed cafe that she opened with her best friend, who recently passed away. She's horny and lovable, has an odd relationship with her sister and stepmother, is self-destructive and terribly endearing. She pushes boundaries and I just love her and the Fleabag character so damn much. I'll have to write more about it another time because I can't quite sum up how I feel about it here...(realizing I've definitely surpassed my 3 sentence limit...)
Sex Education - Netflix
I so much admire how modern television acknowledges the burgeoning sexuality of young people (yeeeeah, I know it still gets exploited for entertainment but I swear this show is sweet!). The story follows a geeky, endearing teenage boy who starts doling out free sex advice to his in-need classmates--this is made all the funnier since his mum is a professional sex therapist. This show demystifies and lovingly confronts sexuality in all its complications.
Queen’s Gambit - Netflix
You've probably already seen it and subsequently bought/received a chess set during the holidays! Anya Taylor-Joy's wide-eyed depiction of orphaned chess phenom Beth Harmon (JK she's just got really huge eyes) makes you root for her from the first episode where she slays her janitor in a secret game of chess and then gets addicted to drugs. This shit is dark (childhood addiction is not pretty) but I found myself thinking about her story when I wasn't watching the show. Kind of like Sherlock, you get to see inside the challenges of a genius mind while watching its human owner struggle through their trauma. Ultimately this show is triumphant and totally worth a watch. And might be the reason I died my hair red...
Living With Yourself - Netflix
This is one of those that as soon as I finished it, I immediately took to Reddit to check the reviews (the highest compliment I can pay). Starring the hilarious yet relatable and heartbreaking Paul Rudd (probably at his best), this series involves clones, self-improvement/self-loathing, and determining who the "real you" is. Best revelations from Reddit include an idea that the show is about what it's like to live with mental health issues that make you feel like your best and worst self--told through the plot devices of clones. What would you do if a clone replaced you and you found out?!
Little Fires Everywhere - Amazon
The facilitator of the Racial Equity Institute (based out of Raleigh, NC) said this show was basically pre-watching for taking her workshops. The series is based on books that don't feature main characters that are black, but producer Kerry Washington insisted that the show take on the issues of internalized white supremacy and racism AND IT'S BRILLIANT--never before had I seen the subtleties of racial tension in America so honestly depicted as in this show. Alongside the WASP-y Reese Witherspoon, this show also dives into family dynamics, sexuality, and the expectations of socioeconomic status. If you've been wanting to explore this year's BLM movement in a fictional visual setting THIS IS IT!
Sherlock - Netflix
Oh god it's so FUN (especially the first two seasons). Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman hilariously STING as best friends/business partners/criminal co-investigators with a complicated friendship. We get to look into a brilliant but dark mind and see how that creates challenges for him and his buddies, all while solving absorbing mysteries (SO SATISFYING).
PKD’s Electric Dreams - Amazon
Since Black Mirror hasn't been producing all year, I've been forced to look elsewhere for my sci-fi fix. I'm really drawn to the anthology and limited series formats because they require the filmmakers to tell an efficient story, not draw it out over 10 seasons because the producers say they need to. Also PKD boasts an impressive cast: Janelle Monae, Bryan Cranston, Steve Buscemi, Holliday Grainger...Phillip K. Dick's Electric Dreams series is SO GOOD. I cannot pick one episode, I just can't. If you too are obsessed with provocative, gritty, imaginative sci-fi, look no further than this engrossing anthology.
Unorthodox - Netflix
Some of the most thoughtful, well-paced, and intimate storytelling I've seen on Netflix. A modern woman raised in a traditional NYC-based Jewish community goes through with her arranged marriage, but later escapes to Berlin where she befriends a group of music conservatory students and reconnects with her mother. Her blossoming ensues through ritualistic head shaving, bathing in a lake where her people once suffered, dancing with handsome men in clubs, and plugging into the transformative power of music and friendship!!
The Expanse - Amazon
A must-watch canonical televised sci-fi of our era. The crew of the Rocinante can go waaaaay out into the universe yet they can't get away from the drama of a bunch of hot people living in close quarters and trying to survive a new world-ending threat every season. But ALERT: this is not exclusively political intrigue or trash TV; this is compelling, hard science shit.
SAVAGE X FENTY Show (2?) - Amazon
Rihanna is a game-changing, genre-fusing artist and I love her more every year. This is technically a fashion show of her lingerie line but it's also a huge performance piece featuring live music, incredible group dance numbers, and fantastical sets that have a sort of sexy new-world alien-vibe to me. Honest to god I wept when they were dancing around that giant floral centerpiece to "Self Control" by Frank Ocean.
His Dark Materials - Amazon/HBO
This was one of my most cherished book series as a youngster; I loved how it bridged science and spirituality, provoking mind-expansion as I considered the many worlds Pullman described. The 2007 movie did no justice to these books--but the HBO-produced television series is almost everything I dreamed, just the way you hope a visual guide to your favorite books will be. The effects are amazing, most of the cast is wonderfully believable (I know y'all Redditors are mad at Lin Manuel-Miranda's rapidly shifting motivations in this but c'mon we all know he's a talent and adjusting to TV acting takes time). Mrs. Coulter's character is especially captivating (and terrifying) as we begin to understand her drives--both clutching mother and stop-at-nothing explorer. Reliving my fave series through this show (especially the first season, which is superior to the second IMO), is one of the highlights of my year. Will definitely be watching it again!
Gentleman Jack - HBO
If you know me you know I massively love two things in cinema: period pieces and queer stories--this show is both!! What's more, it's a heartfelt comedy led by the RIVETING Suranne Jones as Anne Lister, a real-life lesbian running her family's estate in 1832 West Yorkshire, England. This chick is amazing--she wooed and married a well-to-do young lady and regularly confronts her male contemporaries with class and firmness. I felt like a stronger person when I was watching this, and you might too!
What We Do in the Shadows - Hulu
I already have an affinity for vampire stories, but an irreverent mockumentary series about bloodsucking roomies making a life in modern-day Staten Island? Dear lord yes sign me up. The episodes are delightfully short, packed with vulgarity and silliness (not like South Park level, a little less on the nose). I think my favorite vamp is the "Energy Sucker" who just bores the life out of you, literally!! Lots of classic horror tropes are made fun of and it's just honestly a good-times romp written by smart people.
Marriage Story - Netflix
The movie opens with married partners Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson describing what they absolutely love about each other. On screen, we see those delightful characteristics play out and we instantly fall in love with them. The illusion of their undying love (and indeed of "true love" in general) is disrupted by a cut to the two of them in therapy--they're reading farewell letters to each other in a therapist's office as they undertake "conscious uncoupling." This is a story about their marriage, divorce, and family and it taught me more about love than six years of Bible camp (obviously).
Death of Stalin - Netflix
Recent period piece (is that a thing?)--Ridiculously reimagining the death of an influential dictator--An all star cast--General absurdity--Old white men unabashedly scrambling for power. It's stoic enough that the "big strong men" in your life might really like it. At least one of the cast has been culturally cancelled this year though, so it's up to your discretion whether to consume this piece.
The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch - Netflix
It seems like a lot of pieces came out this year exploring traditional Jewish culture in the modern world (Unorthodox) and I'm INTO IT!!! This is a super fun bildungsroman about a young man who questions the importance of his family's conservative values--especially after meeting a super hot shiksa (non-Jewish) girl in the midst of his mom setting him up with lots of viable Jewish mates. It's comedic, it's thoughtful, it's quirky, you might fall in love!
I Am Not An Easy Man - Netflix
I already love a good gender-bender anything, but this French film takes it to another level. Let's imagine a world where men and women's roles have been reversed--women have historically had the social/financial/political upper hand and now dominate every industry. They're stronger, hornier, busier, and expected to be in the workplace instead of the home. They objectify men, sleep around without fault, and love seeing their man in a yummy pair of short shorts. It's such a simple concept, flipping the script like that, but it really landed with me. It showed me how arbitrary and culturally-shaped so many of our BS standards are. Check out the picture below, it says it all.
Midsommar - Netflix
This is the only horror movie on the list because frankly, I'm a big ole softie scaredy cat and don't do well with chop-chop jumpy murder stuff. Thank god Ari Aster's film isn't that! It's terrifying mostly because it's so aesthetically beautiful. Bursting with flowers, all-day Swedish sunlight, milk-skinned young nubile maidens, and happy dances are juxtaposed with horrifyingly bloody rituals. It's not the typical "let's slice up a human" approach to horror. IT IS ART!!! Went straight to Reddit after watching this and found out there's a ton of cool art people have been inspired to make about the film, in addition to glowing reviews and fun conspiracies. If you're in the "stick your ex in a bear skin and burn him alive but make it fashion" kind of mood, this is the film for YOU, freak!
Hidden Figures - Disney +
This was one of the most inspiring, heart-fulfilling films I saw all year. The story of the brilliant, pioneering black women who conducted rocket trajectory calculations in the 1960s made me so proud of the unsung heroes in history, and excited that attention is finally being given to folks who aren't ole white dudes. The cast portrays these women as strong, loving, and standing up for themselves in a time when they weren't especially encouraged to do so. This movie makes you feel so grateful and like we can do anything with perseverance and good friends! (Image of the original heroes below)
Booksmart - Hulu
Guys I LOVE the trope of "It's Our Last Week of High School We Better Party And Get Laid As Fast And As Much As We Can." I've only ever seen this comedic genre handled by male characters but finally we got some FUNNY LADIES UP IN HERE!!! Prior to their graduation weekend, hilarity ensues as the good/smart girl and her shy/supportive best pal try to get it in before weekend's end. Beanie Feldstein expertly takes the helm of this genre after her brother Jonah Hill's 2007 role in Superbad. What's more, it's directed by actress and total talented babe Olivia Wilde. Every scene of this film was such a fun ride and I felt like the two leads were as close as my own best friends. Plus, there are lesbians!
Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Hulu
Aaaaaand more lesbians! It's been a barren wasteland out here as we thirst for more film/TV about intense gay love but WE HAVE ARRIVED AT THE OASIS Y'ALL!! This story is told in that quiet, slow-paced French style that makes you want to tear your hair out but at the same time, you can't tear your eyes away. We watch the love of two 18th century ladies unfold when a painter is hired to depict a young woman so that her future husband can see what she looks like. Seeing how lovingly the painter adds strokes to her lover's shoulder is just as sensual as watching any smoldering smooch.
Let Them All Talk - HBO
This is one of the most unusual but effective storytelling examples I saw all year! As it's about a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and the characters she's based on her estranged best friends, it seems the movie is told in a literary style and mostly concerns female relationships over time. It's wordy, character-driven, and set primarily in one interesting location (a huge cruise ship that offers lots of setting options). We see Meryl Streep doing her thang like she always does (amazing, of course) and super performances from the rest of the *very* strong cast
Rafiki - Tubi
Lesbians! Again! I watched this film as part of a buddy's university class on queer black love stories and I am obsessed with it! Set in Kenya, the story revolves around two young women whose fathers are competing local politicians. They have the love story that you absolutely crave for a young beautiful couple but, as you probably guessed, shit goes south. But stay tuned! You won't leave this film hurt (unless you're considering your own trauma and hey, that's fine too, friend). Also the colors in this movie are delicious, you'll feel like you're eating a sumptuous multicolored dessert as you groove under the African sun (and stringent socio-political expectations of women).
JoJo Rabbit - HBO
I saw this on New Year's Eve, so it's the last movie I watched in 2020! Having learned about the horrors of Nazi Germany all my life in school, Taika Waititi's JoJo Rabbit is a fascinating departure from the usual reverent, somber tone that Holocaust films (rightly) assume. Somehow, this comedic approach just makes sense as we watch the titular character navigate Nazi kid camp and discover a Jewish girl in his attic. The lead actor is freaking adorable and brings innocence and imagination to the sorrowful situations he encounters. Absolutely worth a few watches, at least.
Most Upsettingly Terrible Movie:
Wonder Woman 1984 - HBO
Goddammit. This is such a travesty. The first film in this series was empowering, exciting, and relevant, even though it was set in a World War. 1984 is idiotic. I am so upset with the makers because they hold so much responsibility in creating a superhero movie about a woman, responsibility that they totally gave up on. Although the first scene is rad, the ongoing plot makes no sense, has way too many convenient plot moments to stomach, and the cast is disconnected and unbelievable. Kristen Wiig (someone I adore!) doesn't get any resolution other than a pissed-off look past the camera. I'm seriously all about Wonder Woman's whole "love saves the day" bit, but they really did not deliver with this one. Just terrible. F+.
Best TV Throwback for Theatre/Golden Age of Hollywood Nerds:
Smash Season 1 - Amazon/HBO
If you've ever been or been with a theatre nerd, you've probably watched this. I adore the first season of this show (I'm working through season 2 and honestly not impressed so far but feeling hopeful). It's got fantastic musical numbers, fierce competition, and helped me understand a little more what producing a large-scale musical looks like--I LOVE production pieces! (I've been told that now, I need to watch the Chorus Line documentary to really get a good look!). Obviously I'm Team Ivy for Marilyn because she's just BETTER but I do get Katharine McPhee's good-girl-next-door thing, I really do. Her performance of "Our Day Will Come" is sooooo nice. But Megan Hilty just nails everything she does. DM me to fight about it.
Okay: Ryan Murphy. Everything he made in 2020. He is fantastic and I watched nearly all of the things he produced this year (Pose, Ratchet, Hollywood, The Politician, and The Boys in the Band being a few). He’s a star to me because he's added so much to the film/TV canon for gay characters and musical theatre (he even did Glee!). What's more, a lot of it emphasizes the darkness, horror, and sex in storytelling, a subversive tone that I looooove. However, enough of his projects this year lacked a convincing emotional depth and dynamic change of characters, so they didn’t make it on to this list. EXCEPT FOR BOYS IN THE BAND which really deserves a spot but since I typed all this out I'm realizing tons of pieces deserved it...perhaps a part 2 is in store. Thanks for reading! Happy watching! :)