I was going to start writing up this recommendations post a few days ago, but less than 24 hours after our annual family post went up, the Capital building was occupied by armed insurrectionists incited by our current president and I spent most of the afternoon glued to the news and social media and, well, the short of it is that I didn’t feel up to writing about my favorite media of 2020 for a bit.

So here we are now. It still feels a bit surreal to be writing this fluff at this moment, but I still get enjoyment out of offering these recommendations to you and hope that in reading this, you are offered a short window of connection, joy, or distraction.

Movies

I miss movie theaters. I miss seeing movies in movie theaters. I miss the excitement of a movie release. It feels harder to really get excited about a movie coming out on a streaming service and while I am glad to be able to watch new movies from the comfort of my couch or bed, there’s something about the moviegoing experience that most of 2020 will always be missing for me.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

To the one of you out there thinking it: yes, this movie technically came out in 2019, but most of us couldn’t see it until 2020 anyway and besides, I saw it in 2020. So there. This, it turns out, would be the last movie I saw in a theater.

This movie is a masterpiece. Every shot is gorgeous, as if the painting themes of its plot have magically worked their way behind the camera. The two main actresses are stunning in their ability to convey raw emotion as the camera lingers on their faces. Having watched it twice now, I found fresh moments of joy, pain, and desire in the second viewing that surprised and touched me anew.

More than any other movie in recent memory, this movie successfully answers the eternal question: “what is love?” And damn, it nails the landing.

Oh, also, this movie is pretty much just women? There are few men onscreen and it’s written and directed by a woman. And there’s something striking about what that means for the way the movie looks at women. And it’s all very intentional and there are smarter essays out there about all of this, but it creates this unique space that continually gives the viewer more to absorb, to consider, to question.

Over the Moon

Over the Moon is essentially a Disney princess movie where every character is Chinese. That’s it. That’s the pitch.

And it’s a fine movie! It gets a bit too action-y in the middle and there are some jokes that don’t quite land for me, but it’s a mainstream animated family film targeting English-speaking children where every character is Chinese! And the central premise is based on Chinese folklore! Also, it’s a musical where Phillipa Soo gets to sing a Gaga-like pop anthem as a moon goddess.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that just checks so many boxes on that list of “was this thing written for me?” that it really needs to chunk it to not make the list. (It doesn’t chunk it, and it even gets me to tear up at the end because I’d argue it does a better job than most Disney movies at addressing childhood vulnerability.)

Birds of Prey

I can’t believe this was in 2020! I saw this in the beforetimes, in mid-February when the virus was still a blip in the news and the Democratic primary was what I was thinking about. Doesn’t that feel like years ago? And yet.

This movie is so much fun. It’s like the Bad Moms of superhero movies. Is it an unabashedly, melodramatic girl power movie that lets Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor overact? Sure. But guess what? It doesn’t care. Everyone’s having fun and you’re invited along for the ride. And for a genre that has gotten bogged down in recent years with self-importance, this movie is a breath of fresh air. It’s Thor: Ragnarok with better action.

Because the action scenes and pacing in this are top-notch. Each chase or fight scene looks distinct, and there are multiple shots that I still recall because of their visual impact.

One last pleasant surprise here: in a movie where Margot Robbie headlines as Harley Quinn, there is a certain expectation that there will be plenty of camera time spent ogling a sexy lady. That expectation is soundly trounced, showing that you can have a supremely entertaining Harley Quinn story that doesn’t rely on some external male-gaze-y view of her sexuality.

I didn’t watch First Cow or Minari yet, so it’s very possible that either of those could have made my list. Also, if you haven’t seen it, you should watch Hamilton, but I’ve been telling you that for years.

Shows

The Babysitter’s Club

I didn’t read the Babysitter’s Club books as a child so I had no nostalgia attached to this show, but I was interested and wanted to watch it with the kids mainly due to its diverse cast of girls.

After watching the season, I would die for any of these girls. This is a show that is heartwarming and funny and also somehow sneaks in lessons about friendship and honesty and self-discovery and family and feminism and trans rights.

It stars Alicia Silverstone and Mark Evan Jackson, in case you’re an adult who likes recognizing actors! It made me wish I had a group of friends like the babysitter’s club when I was a kid and made me want to curate a world where every kid can have their own babysitter’s club. It shows children being children but dealing with semi-adult problems – and succeeding! But not always!

Above all, it shows friends and families that show up for each other when it matters. And if that isn’t what I want right now out of my shows, I may as well turn off the TV.

The Wilds

I will forever be searching for the mix of soapy hijinks, sci-fi mystery, and wrenching human drama that LOST provided in its best moments.

The Wilds comes close and for that, I adore it. It’s a group island survival tale with flashbacks and flashforwards, which bounces between moments of true human connection and nearly absurd levels of wacky psychological conspiracy. The girls all play to their archetypes well, with each stereotype starting to unravel as their backgrounds are explored, recalling some of those feelings I had watching the first season of LOST.

What I like best is how the show plays with predictability. It knows that we’re a decade past the end of LOST, it knows that many viewers will make comparisons, and it’s able to both indulge that (with, say, a fairly predictable turn at the end of the pilot episode that opens up the storytelling possibilities) and play with it (with a mystery that kept me guessing until the finale). I hear they’re going to make another season and I’ll be happy to throw myself back in to the wild and messy waters.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Maybe this is on here because I’m on a rebound from the end of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and was just itching for another relationship-comedy-musical show to fill the void. There are a lot of little flaws with this show, it’s true.

For a show where there’s a lot of singing, a decent portion of the cast don’t have the strongest voices. There is perhaps a bit too much bad-decision-making from our main character. The tech start-up satire isn’t as clever as it thinks it is.

But oh, who cares, this show has such heart. And there are songs and big choreographed numbers and the leads can sing and the Peter Gallagher storyline gives me such feels. And, fine, the tech satire is funny enough.

It appears, though, that if you want to watch the first season of this right now, you need to do it on Peacock, and for that I apologize. That’s like all the people telling me to watch Ted Lasso on Apple TV+. Buy me a new iPhone and I’ll watch it, ok?

We also just recently started watching Bridgerton and oooh is that a fun, saucy little show.

Book

I read few enough books in 2020 that I can count them on one hand, but I’m recommending two of them!

This is Chance! by Jon Mooallem

Jon Mooallem’s previous book (Wild Ones) changed the way I’ll look at animals and our relationship to them as human beings for the rest of my life. While I didn’t think this book would do something quite so dramatic, I held out hope.

And it’s quite different, this work. It’s still a sterling piece of reporting that centers on a single historical event and the woman at the center of it and spins out tales of disaster and connection and humanity. It was a hopeful read in a year when it felt like disaster was winning and connection was waning and humanity was giving up.

It also – subtle at first before it shows its hand – ties itself to the play Our Town in a way that did exactly what I thought couldn’t happen again; by the end, it made me rethink something fundamental: the way we view stories about individuals in history and – by extension – in the present day.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

This book is a deceptively easy read. The screenplay format slides off the page and it’s easy to get lost in the frenetic energy of the action of the Chinatown movie that the main character moves through, with as much or little agency as he is allowed to have at any given moment.

Underneath, though, this book pumps with Chinese American blood in its veins. It is continually inventive in how it presents itself while offering up questions about the rules and roles that our Chinese culture, our American viewers, and our own ideas place on ourselves.

I am often asking myself: what does it mean to be Chinese American? And while I’m not sure that Interior Chinatown – or maybe anyone, for that matter – may have the answer, it certain knows the right questions to ask.

Podcasts

Without a commute, I stopped listening to podcasts in 2020.

I have no recommendations, but I really wanted to listen to According to Need. Maybe I still will!

Music

I also didn’t listen to much music in 2020, but – and I know, I’m basic – I really did enjoy both Taylor Swift albums that dropped.

I even bought the folklore cardigan!

Ah well, I know you don’t come to me for music recommendations.

Game recommendations, though? Oh yes, my definitive games of the year list is in the works and will be unleashed soon. I can promise you that list will contain more than just works by Taylor Swift.