This year was very strange, for a million reasons you are all intimately familiar with, but not everything was terrible! I mean, I definitely never ever want to repeat it, and maybe I have played “A Long December” by Counting Crows an embarrassing number of times of late (Is it playing right now? Yes, it is.), but that’s not what we are here for. The pandemic changes the way I consume media. I was much less patient with shows and movies and books that didn’t grab me right away. From 1984 10 2019, it was rare that I didn’t finish a book or movie or series or twitter thread. In 2020, though, I abandoned a lot of things after about 15 minutes. I also haven’t seen as many movies as I usually do (I kind of cannot believe I haven’t seen Tenet yet, but here we are), and I have spent a lot of time consuming televisual and literary comfort food that did not make this list. But there were some genuinely great things that I deeply appreciated this year, and here are ten of them.
House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas
This is a weird one to lead off my list, because it desperately needs editing and there is way too much going on. I don’t mind that so much, because as I mentioned here, I like my books plotty, but also maybe a book that is essentially a whodunnit doesn’t need to end with a ten chapter, inter-dimensional battle, you know? Still, I really loved the world-building in this one. Again, possibly too much going on, but there are Fae and shapeshifters and vampires and witches and merpeople and humans and fauns all living together in a modern metropolis mostly governed by angels(!), and somehow it actually works. I may have thought the third act dragged, but I am still very much anticipating the sequel.
Oligarchy! by Scarlett Thomas
My absolute favorite book this year. Scarlett Thomas is my favorite author, and this is her weirdest, funniest book. Since it is about a British girls boarding school where the students keep dying of eating disorders, you might think, “Actually, that doesn’t sound very funny,” but I promise you it is. Like all of Thomas’s books, this one embedded itself so deeply into my psyche that it permeated my dreams, and I woke bolt upright at 4 am, convinced I had figured out the shock-twist ending. I was, of course, completely wrong, but it is so joyous to be that fully immersed in the world of a book. Oligarchy! has me seriously considering getting the phrase “Fat girls don’t get fed to tigers” tattooed on my body, just because, now, ten months after I read it, it still makes me belly laugh.
Call Down the Hawk (Audiobook) by Maggie Stiefvater, narrated by Will Patton
This is a cheat, because the book came out in 2019, and I read it in 2019, but my Overdrive history proves I listened to the audiobook in January of 2020, so I am counting it. With very few exceptions, I do not enjoy listening to fiction on audiobook. I can read much faster than a narrator can talk, and I am frequently annoyed by weird line-readings, or, horror of horrors, cross-gender dialogue. However, this is one of the exceptions. Will Patton is wonderful, and his slightly smoky southern accent is perfect grounding for a story about people who can remove objects from dreams. This is something of a spin-off of Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, taking one of the main characters and spinning out a web of family history, people with his same ability, the people they have dreamed into existence, and the people trying to stop them.
Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey was the Last Movie I Saw in Theaters, and it was a bop. Joey is wrong about this movie (although we have agreed to disagree). The action is great, Harley’s narration is just the perfect amount of bonkers, and the supporting characters are believable enough for a comic book movie. Plus — and I know this will make some of our readers roll their eyes — it was really great to see a version of Harley Quinn that was untouched by the male gaze. I know people had complaints about Ewan MacGregor as Black Mask, and I will admit to not being familiar enough with the character to have any expectations of him going in, but I also kind of love it when a villain is just a spoiled brat. It is a touch of banality that grounds the over the top insanity of the rest of the film.
Enola Holmes isn’t the kind of movie that would usually make my year-end favorite list, but to steal from the great Pauline Kael, this is “the rare movie whose charm adds up to more than the sum of its parts.” Millie Bobby Brown as Enola is plucky enough to pull off the direct-to-camera narration, and the glaring historical inaccuracies somehow barely rankle. I will confess, I secretly — or, I suppose, no-longer-secretly — deeply love Mycroft Holmes, and casting the very charming Sam Claflin in the role was a surefire way to get me on board. Also, my eight year old son is in the dread “I hate anything tainted by girlishness” phase, and he was not only enraptured by the film, when it was over he asked about reading the books.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
I can’t explain what Fiona Apple has meant to me in a quick little blurb about her fifth studio album, but Tidal was released when I was 12, and her music has been formative for me in a way that very little other art has. Her newest album, with her continued exploration of percussion and a keen focus on her relationships with other women, soothed a piece of my heart that I didn’t realize was even broken.
Mrs. America (FX/Hulu)
This miniseries was a richly woven tapestry about the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, with an absolutely stellar cast led by Cate Blanchett. Seriously, every single actress is a standout, and while the series is centered around the vile Phyllis Schlaffly, every character gets her moment. The penultimate episode, “Houston,” is, in my opinion, one of the all-time great single episodes of television, in which the show’s only fictional main character, Alice (Sarah Paulson), gets lost at the National Women’s Conference and has brief but meaningful interactions with a slew of characters. That sounds kind of banal, but I promise you, it isn’t!
Rose Matafeo: Horndog (HBO Max)
I actually watched way more stand-up this year than I usually do, but Matafeo’s special is the one that stuck with me. Her use of the word horniness is a bit different than how you used it in eighth grade, so maybe don’t go into it thinking it is about her sexual quests or something, but it is a wonderful — and very very funny! — exploration of the things we put our energy into and the ways they can break our hearts.
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
The best sports movie of the year. Honestly, Scott Frank’s direction of the chess matches was masterful and showed a creativity and visual inventiveness that I can only compare to that of Edgar Wright, who is the most interesting visual storyteller alive, in my opinion. The acting and costumes and production design were lush and fabulous in a way that I do not associate with chess.
The first Shondaland production to hit Netflix after TV megaproducer Shonda Rimes ditched Disney for the streamer, Bridgerton is probably not most GeekTyrant readers’ cup of tea, but it is so many things that I love. It features one of my all-time favorite romantic tropes: characters pretending to fall in love and then OOPS! actually falling in love, plus the costumes and sets and locations are wonderfully over the top. Are they period accurate? Absolutely not, but genuinely, who cares. Word to the wise though, it is surprisingly smutty (one of the main plotlines is about the specific way in which two characters are doing the deed), so don’t watch it with your family while you are gathered for the holidays.