As we all know, not a lot happened last year in the entertainment world besides drama and delays. However, I think a surprising amount of what actually was released was quite good. A lot of art that came out was extremely timely and also benefited from the lack of competition. However, some of what we did get was particularly good in its own right. It was a challenging year, and we didn’t get to see many anticipated films in the theater. In light of that, I think it’s all the more important we give credit where it is due and take a look at the positives. That’s exactly what I’d like to do today. For simplicity’s sake (and due to the relative lack of content), I’m going to limit myself to a top 5, which can be any form of entertainment from 2020. Let’s dive in.
5.) The Artistic Rebirth of Taylor Swift
I want to preface this by saying I actually like most of Taylor Swift’s music. Her relationship-based songs don’t bother me like they do others. She transitioned from the rare country artist I could tolerate to the equally elusive enjoyable pop diva. I don’t care much for her very first self-titled album, but beyond that, most of her music ranges from decent background noise to absolute bangers. All this being said, for me, her self-reinvention as an indie-esque folk singer was one of the biggest pleasant surprises of 2020. Her two pandemic releases, Folklore and Evermore, were both surprise last-minute announcements. That’s hardly the only or most crucial divergence present in the twin albums, though; the style, tone, and content are entirely unlike anything the singer-songwriter has done before. The songs across the companion albums mainly tell stories based on Taylor’s original characters, showcasing many different perspectives on various topics. My favorite on Folklore is “The Last Great American Dynasty,” which isn’t at all about what I thought when I read the title. I like most of Evermore about the same, but “No Body No Crime” sticks in the mind. I’m by no means a music critic, so I don’t have too much else to say. However, I really loved this transformation of an artist I already enjoyed. This is a maturation of style and persona that came at just the right moment. I’m not necessarily saying these are the best albums of 2020 (although Folklore would be my personal favorite), but a big, surprising moment in popular music.
4.) Helluva Boss
Unlike the other entries on this list, I had never heard of Helluva Boss or creator and animator Vivienne Medrano until very recently. I actually saw a video by SaberSpark (who I highly recommend) talking about new cartoons from 2020 and was shocked that Helluva Boss escaped me. I like to think I stay pretty well-informed on what’s happening in the world of animation, and this was a really slow year, but I hadn’t heard or read anything about this series. The pilot and two additional episodes are free on YouTube (along with much of Ms. Medrano’s work), so naturally, I watched them. Surprisingly, the pilot didn’t grab me, and I was left wondering what Saber and some others liked so much about it. But the episodes are brief, ranging from 11-16 minutes, and I’ve had plenty of time of late, so I kept going. The series pilot is just called “Pilot” and strangely not considered episode #1 of the series; that distinction goes to “Murder Family.” I considered turning “Murder Family” off after its introductory scene. I don’t want to spoil it, but the events leading to the murder in question made me angry, and it’s all very over-the-top and silly. However, the episode quickly grabbed my attention when I understood what was really going on and why that initial sequence was included. The joyful, childish antics of the teacher and her students were shown in contrast to what comes later. This seems painfully obvious now, but at first, I simply got the impression that this is what the whole show would be like. “Murder Family” isn’t a fantastic episode. Still, it successfully got me invested in one of the characters, Moxxie (Richard Steven Horvitz), and it’s very creative. The pilot wasn’t bad, but I didn’t like the characters or find it witty.
However, “Loo Loo Land” is the one I really loved and which now has me eagerly awaiting more. This episode focuses on another character, a sort of owl-like demon named Stolas (Bryce Pinkham). Of the three episodes available at this time, “Loo Loo Land” is the funniest, most visually stunning, and does the most with its characters. “Murder Family” challenged Moxxie’s morals and pushed his buttons, but “Loo Loo Land” is about a family that’s falling apart. The episode wisely opens on a flashback of Stolas comforting his daughter Octavia after a nightmare. This is the relationship at the heart of the episode, and Octavia wasn’t featured previously. They do a lot with a little time, creating a breathtaking sequence in which he lulls her to sleep with a beautifully simplistic song and striking visuals. This show always looks good, even the pilot, but between this scene and one later in the episode involving an animatronic clown at an off-brand Lucifer-themed amusement park, “Loo Loo Land” is a visual feast. Of the three, “Loo Loo Land” also has the strongest emotional through-line. It explores a man’s trials discovering himself and going through a divorce, as well as the unfortunate effects this has on his teenage daughter and their relationship. However, I also think it’s the funniest. Through its humor, it dives into the backstory and desires of Blitzo, a character who was pretty one-dimensional until now. Most animated comedies for adults fail in my eyes because they work almost exclusively towards the humor and not making you care about the characters. This isn’t always the case, but it’s why I can’t get into many of the more popular ones. I wouldn’t have known it from the pilot, but if the other episodes are any indication, Helluva Boss is on a path to excel at this delicate balancing act. I can’t wait to see more. Of Vivienne’s other projects, so far, I’ve only seen the pilot of Hazbin Hotel. This series shares its setting in Hell with Helluva Boss. There are no more episodes on YouTube, but the series has been picked up by A24. This pilot is entertaining, but it lacks the wit and emotional investment of “Murder Family” and “Loo Loo Land.” That being said, I think it’s actually superior to Helluva Boss‘ pilot, and I have high hopes for the series.
3.) Over the Moon
I don’t want to go on too much about things I’ve already reviewed here, but this movie warrants a spot on the list. This film has an impressive cast and a unique, catchy soundtrack that ranges from upbeat earworms to tearjerkers. As usual, Netflix didn’t do any marketing for it (although they did surprisingly release merchandise through Mattel). I only heard of it from Hamilton fans excited to hear Philippa Soo as Chinese Moon Goddess Chang’e. Directed by veteran Disney animator (and designer of some of their best characters) Glen Keane, Over the Moon is a sheer delight. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the film’s presentation regarding the legend of Chang’e or Chinese culture, but it can’t be worse than 2020’s Mulan, right? This film is gorgeous and has a look all its own, there are several stand-out songs and a vibrant cast of memorable characters. This is my favorite animated movie of 2020 and one I plan to revisit soon.
Despite being a filmed stage production and something I didn’t even think I’d like, Hamilton is far and away my favorite “movie” of 2020. This show gets so much right it’s hard to know where to start. The cast is beyond good in their parts; it’s like they were born to play these historical figures, many of whom they don’t even resemble. The performances and music are so good that after a couple of songs you’ve forgotten all about that. This is a story with an epic scope and predestined sense of tragedy, yet it manages to feel intensely personal all the while. Hamilton embodies the spirit of the American Revolution and the boldness of youth in its first act. In contrast, the second act acts as a sort of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” parable. I almost made this #1 because, for me, seeing Hamilton was one of few good things that happened in 2020. This is one of the most thematically rich stories I’ve ever experienced in any medium, and I’ve rarely enjoyed an entire cast of characters this much.
Even the most despicable characters have redeeming qualities (okay, maybe not King George) and are wildly entertaining. Reading the biography Hamilton was inspired by, it’s evident that Miranda took creative license regarding the characters (a musical can’t have hundreds of named characters) and some details. But it’s impressive that the man’s spirit, the message of his life, and the lasting impact of the people in his life shines through. Whether a story is factual or fictional, I think this is the way to approach adaptation. If people want the exact details, it’s on them to do the research. But if you don’t maintain the feeling the story exudes, the essence of the characters? You’ve already lost. In my review, I neglected to mention the power lighting and staging has over the piece. “The Room Where it Happens” has this lighting effect where figures occasionally stand in boxes, which is really cool and visually communicates what Burr is talking about. The staging and choreography are all fantastic, but that song and “Non-Stop” especially stand out to me in their utilization of these subtle technical elements to hammer in narrative and thematic details. When it shows Hamilton confronted with every significant figure in his life pulling him in different directions, all the while questioning his relentless pursuit of personal success and inability to slow down? Sublime.
1.) Star Wars
I could have chosen something more specific, and I’m sure many people would have said season 2 of The Mandalorian. However, the only thing that could top what is very likely my new favorite movie (or at least a tie with old reliable) is the restoration of a series that impacted my life (and many others). The sequel trilogy dashed my hopes for the Star Wars franchise. There were promising elements in The Force Awakens, most of which were quickly squandered in the two following installments. This being said, I want to focus on this as little as possible. In 2020, Star Wars TV went above and beyond in almost every area. I liked season 1 of The Mandalorian quite a bit, but I think season 2 is a significant improvement. I liked the slow, small-scale vibe of season 1, and unlike some people, the self-contained episodes didn’t bother me. However, season 2 kicked into overdrive and gave people a lot of what they wanted and didn’t get from the movies. I loved Ahsoka’s return and seeing Bo-Katan in live-action, and the final scene of “The Rescue” was just hope incarnate. I saw Luke’s appearance as the surprise Christmas gift we all needed. While I at least enjoyed all of season 7 of The Clone Wars, the “Siege of Mandalore” arc was truly something special. To me, this felt more like a movie than the sequels did in the way it deftly wove natural character progression and magnificent action sequences with the fall of the Republic. Its tie-ins with Revenge of the Sith improve the best prequel rather than feeling fanservice-y.
As much as I loved this season of The Mandalorian, The Clone Wars‘ final 4 episodes edge it out for me. Ahsoka is my favorite Star Wars character who didn’t appear in the original trilogy, and we needed to see this part of her story. She returned in Rebels older and wiser, but it’s wonderful and heart-breaking to see how she got there. I wish her other arc in this season had been more substantial. But it’s evident that the Siege is why they wanted to make this final season. Filoni and his crew, I mean; we all know Disney did it because they wanted money and to regain goodwill with the fans. Many of this arc’s themes have been explored before in the films and in previous seasons of TCW. The hardships and meaninglessness of war, the inability to protect those you love, and politics’ interference with doing what’s right are some notable examples. But behind the resplendent combat sequences and stunning effects work, these episodes are about what’s about to happen with Anakin and Palpatine and how it affects Rex and Ahsoka, not to mention the clones who won’t survive. This is the darkest ending to any Star Wars movie or TV show – darker than The Empire Strikes Back because Han survives, and Luke redeems Vader; darker than Rogue One because only a few people sacrificed themselves, and it was for something bigger than them. When Order 66 goes down, and Ahsoka’s entire regiment perishes in the fallout, it isn’t for the greater good. They didn’t do this to stop the Empire or to save someone else. They’ve served their purpose in fighting Palpatine’s proxy war, they die, and it was all for nothing. Ahsoka looking out on her decimated troops and ship would have been enough to get the point across, but they don’t stop there. The epilogue in which Vader finds the saber he gifted her in the snow and ash really brings it all home. And this is to say nothing of what they did for Maul (a character earlier seasons of TCW and Rebels had already salvaged) and his philosophical repartee with Ahsoka. Who would have thought the guy with two lines in The Phantom Menace and The Clone Wars movie’s annoying brat would carry the best-filmed Star Wars content since the original trilogy? This is why Dave Filoni is getting more of his own shows.
Soul is my second favorite animated film of 2020 and would have been on my list if Over the Moon wasn’t so good. This is another movie that felt extremely timely to me. It would have been a good movie any year, and it’s impressive how mature it is and how seriously it takes its subject matter. But to be reminded to savor every moment and not just live for the big things? To realize that eating a slice of pizza is more of your life than reaching your wildest dreams? That you won’t be happy with everything you ever wanted if nothing is ever enough for you? In the year of our Lord 2020? It’s hard to even know what to say. Pixar has always excelled at making difficult concepts approachable, but this is on another level in that regard. The Incredibles says that everyone should be allowed to chase their dreams, and Ratatouille says anyone can achieve their dreams. Soul is a somber reminder that your dreams aren’t supposed to be your whole life. You can’t ignore everyone and everything you already have in the pursuit of something bigger and better. At the end of a year that many people (myself included) viewed as “wasted” in terms of progress and personal growth, this needed to be said, and nobody could do it better than Pixar.
Castlevania was always a good show. The first season was short but effective, and season 2 was extremely fun to watch. But season 3 is a different beast entirely. The gorgeous animation was somehow improved, side characters and new characters became some of the most interesting, and thematically, this show kicked it up a notch or ten. Isaac and Saint Germain’s storylines were particular highlights, as were the always good music and stunning visual scheme. But what made this season stand out the most to me is that when you step back and look at the entire story, all of the characters are after the same thing. Well, almost all of them; Isaac is actively trying and failing to avoid it. This season centers on human connection of all types: lost loved ones, young love, the connection between friends, and even the connections between strangers. This is a masterfully plotted season because it takes the most obvious idea explored to some capacity in most stories and makes it fresh and exciting. I love the ambiguity in that we never learn who Saint Germain lost; we only know that he’ll do anything to find and re-establish his connection with this person. I really hope this character comes back. Meanwhile, they contrast this with someone who hates humanity and has no desire to make friends or form bonds of any kind. And, despite it all, he seems to find and befriend interesting souls wherever he goes. Now that Trevor and Sypha are together, it’s a question of whether one another’s company is really enough, and if it’ll even last. Alucard is left the most vulnerable of all, alone with no more family and friends until a mysterious pair shows up… and even that leads to its own problems. Even the vampire villainesses are seeking companionship, either with one another or, in Lenore’s case, a human. Even in a world of wizards and vampires, everyone needs someone to help and be there for them, or they just go crazy. This almost made the list, and I just made a choice so there wouldn’t be a tie for one of the spots.