For the first time in a decade of film journalism, I don’t have a year-end best of list. The short explanation is that I didn’t watch enough movies for an informed slate. The longer one is that in September of 2019, my mother- and father-in-law welcomed me into their family. Less than a year later, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were saying goodbye.
I won’t go into too much personal detail here. Not on a blog with “burrito” in the name in a post that involves Michael Scott. What I will say is wear a mask, stay safe, and don’t let anyone convince you that you’re living in fear by doing so. Looking out for others is empathy, not cowardice. And if you are in any way involved in peddling conspiracies: your hot take is not more valuable than a human life. This isn’t Philosophy 101, you don’t get to keep raising your hand if you haven’t done the reading. There are real people suffering as a direct result of your words and actions.
In the darkest days of the summer, publicist emails about new releases made me want to throw my phone out the window. It wasn’t a reaction to any title in particular or movies in general. It was the thought of searching for meaning in someone else’s story for readers I’ll never meet while a real, nonfictional tragedy was unfolding. Part of a critic’s job is to provide context for moviegoers so they can make an informed viewing decision, or find new layers of meaning in what they’ve already seen. But any insights I might have managed to scrape together would be insincere. I had nothing to offer, so I’d just be going through the motions, meeting a word count but with nothing new to say. That hollow version of criticism would not fair to the reader or the film, I’d be none the happier having done it, and our path through grief would be no clearer.
I reviewed fewer films in 2020 than any year before, and didn’t watch much except for when I was on assignment, or part of my Russian/Soviet film project. I abstained from the Boston Online Film Critics Association’s annual BOFCA Awards, but I can recommend their list, and am looking forward to catching up when I can. Of the 2020 films I did see, my favorites include: First Cow, Time, Black Bear, The Assistant, Da 5 Bloods, His House, Jumbo, and Dinner in America.
With fewer movies to watch, we watched a lot of TV. It started as a way to pass the time, but became something to look forward to, a way to cut through the heavy emotional fog that enveloped most days.
TV doesn’t rot your brain. Inertia does. There are no guilty pleasures; watch whatever helps you get through difficult times, and make no apologies. Here are some of the shows that got us through ours.
What We Do in the Shadows
We’ve all watched something solely because our friends won’t shut up about it, hated it, then heard we needed to grin and bear it until unfathomably far-off point. I stopped listening to anyone who says I “should” or “need to” watch anything after The Walking Dead season 2 (I know it gets better, I do not care). I wouldn’t recommend The Killing to anybody no matter how much I liked seasons 3 and 4, because I know you have other things to do with your life.
English needs a new modal verb with less immediacy than “should.” Something that expresses that the other person may find an activity rewarding while respecting their agency, because then I might have watched What We Do in the Shadows sooner. It is really, really good and sidesplittingly funny, but it only gets there after the laugh graveyard of its first three episodes. I might actually recommend fully skipping them, starting with “Manhattan Night Club.”
Yes, I’m expressing my love for this show by dwelling on its horrible first impression because that’s how good it is. We learned that our lockdown wouldn’t just be a waiting game in the middle of WWDITS, and it rose to the challenge. It’s silly, unpredictable, and sent us down a Matt Berry wormhole.
The Office (US and UK versions)
I’d always thought I didn’t like the American Office for softening its source material’s harder edges. The thought of a likable David Brent, Tim as an amiable audience surrogate, or Gareth being actually absurd instead of only self-aggrandizing struck me as cop-outs by people that missed the point. It wasn’t until Jen started watching it as comfort food that I joined in and realized that it did exactly what I’ve always felt adaptations and remakes should do: don’t let the template of the original prevent you from creating something new. All of those were good changes, and there was not a single weak spot in all of its nine seasons, including the ones post-Michael.
We then went back and watched the British Office, and I realized I was wrong about that one too. I apparently stopped watching around the time Tim accepts the promotion and starts avoiding Dawn. I’d always seen him as opportunistic, willing to drop his idealism and dreams for a little extra validation. Turns out he’s a sensitive guy who clammed up after a moment of vulnerability, avoiding Dawn out of fear of further harming either of them, not resentment or insecurity. Young me would have related to this a lot, so guess what, he was an audience surrogate all along.
What I’m saying is don’t trust me when it comes to sitcoms. And if there’s ever a show that doesn’t need a plug, it’s The Office, either version, but here it is. They’re different and good in their own ways. You heard it here last.
I don’t even mind that the UK Christmas special sent us to Whamhalla in the one year where it should have been a lock.
Atlanta (season 1)
I had a feeling I’d enjoy Atlanta based on its pedigree and the enthusiasm of its fanbase, but I wasn’t even close to ready for it. Magical realism, dream logic, with a grounded sense of absurdity. Sophisticated ideas without an ounce of pretense. Redefining what sorts of stories can be told in which settings and from whose perspective. And it’s freaking funny. As an added bonus, now I understand why Zazie Beetz was suddenly in every single movie.
What must it be like to work with Donald Glover before “This Is America” and Atlanta? It seemed like the whole world already knew and loved him, but how can you know that the funny guy from that network sitcom with the meta jokes was going to reinvent music videos and TV comedy at the same time? Is it like the Dobie Gillis writers watching Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde? Eric Andre in Don’t Trust the B? Charlie Kaufman in the Seinfeld writers’ room?
I couldn’t find a good video of the moment, but I was hooked when Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) tells Earn “We’re friends now.” You’ll feel the same way.
All of Aunty Donna (Big Ol’ House of Fun twice, and every video on their YouTube channel)
Hey, other countries, tell us who your Aunty Donna is. We need to know.
Most of our early griefbinging was for giggles and escapism. When the time came for catharsis, we found it in Kidding. It’s hard to believe that anyone actually made this show, that it wasn’t just willed into existence by 2020 itself, like Sadako’s videos in Ringu.
My main apprehension about Kidding was that it would revolve around dark secrets, or it would rely on sex, violence, and swearing in a Mr. Rogers-esque setting for cheap gags. (I prejudge too many shows, as it turns out.)
There’s a lot to love about Kidding that others have no doubt described better than I could. But in the context of 2020 and the pandemic, what I latched onto was how there are no happy endings because there are no endings, period. There’s always a next chapter, even when it feels like everything that can happen already has. The divorce episode was beautiful and perfect, and the best possible thing for Jeff (Jim Carrey) and his family, but it had devastating consequences, which then started a new and uncontrollable collapse of best laid plans.
Was the episode therefore the wrong thing to do? That answer doesn’t exist in the Mr. Pickles universe, or in ours. That thing you’re holding on to, the thing that you think will cause your whole world to unwind if you loosen your grip, is not protecting anybody. But letting it go won’t solve anything either. You have no control, but you do have responsibility to yourself, the people you love, the people you hate, and the ones you will never meet. Maybe that sounds pessimistic but I think it’s beautiful and clarifying.
What a stroke of brilliance to sell us a character who’s been repackaged ad nauseum by making him both hero and villain a police procedural, then coddling us with all of the familiar trappings of a CSI before ripping our fucking faces off. It kills us the way Hannibal kills his patients: make them comfortable, give them the illusion of free will, then tear everything to shreds.
Is there any show better equipped to capture the pressure cooker of 2020? Every day you wake up to a brand new shitshow, the enemy is somehow all powerful yet hopelessly bumbling, and even your home devices know everything about you.
The Masked Singer
Of all the stupid bullshit I expected to be hooked by, The Masked Singer is the stupidest and bullshittingest. In the days leading up to the election…and the days of the election…and the days after the election…all of which were somehow also the election…we watched some reveals on YouTube with a resounding “Why the hell not? Better than doomscrolling.”
One thing led to another, we started watching full episodes of the current season in earnest, and got thoroughly sucked in. It didn’t matter that I had no idea who half of the contestants turned out to be. There were so many moving performances by artists who belong on the stage, often once-household names who may not pull crowds like they used to but never lost their talent. And the overwrought mystery can sometimes pay off, like how we spent an entire season sure that the popcorn was Cyndi Lauper. (I won’t spoil it for you.)
I’m also fascinated by things that must cost a small fortune yet look so cheap, like the towering elephants or statues that might as well have been Instagram filters. The costumes that would have fit in at Carnaval reduced to an overacted “take it off” gag. The obviously talented dancers who at some point decided to flap their hands at all times in every costume.
Not a burrito, but The Painted Burro just announced their closure for the winter. Here are some carnitas enchiladas (camera phone is not great, but the enchiladas are). Can’t wait to go back there when times are better.