Like everyone else this year, I saw very little at the cinema in 2020. My favourite of the few films I saw was the wild, disturbing ride The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers), partly because it’s been my lingering memory of what it’s like to watch a great film in the cinema, booming foghorns and all – and I loved the alienating square aspect ratio. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma) was no less an intense depiction of people trapped together, and, equally, Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) contained foreshadowing of lockdown and a lack of fresh air. Steve McQueen’s films from his Small Axe TV anthology series were no less rich and rewarding than his cinema fare. The first two, Mangrove and Lovers Rock, were outstanding – particularly the dazzling choreography and soundtrack of the latter. On a similar note, the short film Strasbourg 1518 (Jonathan Glazer) is entirely choreographed dance, and was the most alarming film of 2020 that I saw.
Of more recent films (i.e. from the last decade), my absolute favourite was The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019), which I couldn’t stop thinking about for all sorts of reasons, and the knowledge that there’s an upcoming second part is tantalising. Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019) was delightful in all respects, the best film about film that I’ve seen for a while. I found Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, 2019) surprisingly affecting, particularly Antonio Banderas’ performance. The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci, 2019) was the most fun I’ve had with a recent film, in part due to the pleasure of spotting favourite TV character actors. I loved Aniara (Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, 2018) – exactly my sort of setup, about a Mars migration that turns into an endless voyage – the intertitles signalling greater and greater timescales alone were powerful. And though I loved A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015) in every respect, Ralph Fiennes’ creepy dancing remains its most memorable moment.
I watched a lot of classic films this year, partly as a response to lockdown, but also partly because I’ve developed new habits: I no longer fret about not finishing a film in a single session, and I’ve been watching them via BFI Player and MUBI on my (admittedly large-screened) phone, often starting at 5.30am after being woken by my youngest son. Watching films like this, with chunky headphones, in bed in the dark, has been the closest simulation of a cinema setting.
One of my biggest ‘discoveries’ this year was the wider work on Akira Kurosawa, in particular The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) and High and Low (1963), all of which rank as some of the best films I’ve seen this year. I finally watched, and loved, the long version of Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982), but surprised myself by enjoying Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955) equally as much. Other classic films I watched for the first time and adored included La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954), Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) and The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), all stunning. I was blown away by Tartuffe (F. W. Murnau, 1925), particularly its framing story and metatextual elements. Two of my favourite finds were Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine, 1958) and Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer, 1965), and I adored the ‘fake news’ docudramas Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971) and the lesser-known Alternative 3 (Christopher Miles, 1977). For tense pulp thrills, my favourite films were the incomparable Night Tide (Curtis Harrington, 1961), the near-perfect thriller Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997) and the fantastical short film Quest (Saul Bass, 1984), included on the recent Phase IV bluray. My favourite horror film this year was the woozy masterpiece The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg, 1952).
My immediate response to the announcement of the first lockdown was to panic-read substantial classic novels I’d always intended to read. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1872) worked as intended: I found it totally absorbing and entirely reassuring. I suspect that Candide (Voltaire, 1759), Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925) and Lanark (Alasdair Gray, 1981) and The Third Policeman (Flann O’Brien, 1967) will each be influential on my own writing in the coming years. My favourite horror novel was Thérèse Raquin (Émile Zola, 1867), which packed a punch partly because I didn’t realise it was going to be a horror novel. My most important reading discoveries in 2020 were the novels of Richard Yates, my favourites so far being The Easter Parade (1976) and Revolutionary Road (1961), the latter being as great a Great American Novel as The Great Gatsby. My most exciting discovery of 2020 was the Jorge Luis Borges-endorsed, proto-SF novella The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940).
In terms of more recent works, my favourites were A Cosmology of Monsters (Shaun Hamill, 2019), which has one of the most absorbing first chapters of any book I’ve read, Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer, 2014) which I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading, and The Wall (John Lanchester, 2019) which made me seethe with envy. I read a lot of non-fiction for writing research purposes, but the factual books I enjoyed most for ‘fun’ were High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Spectres & the Object Hereafter by Kristen Gallerneaux (2018) and Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse: What You Urgently Need To Know (Nina Schick, 2020).
It’s been a great year for TV drama. My wife and I binged both series of the hysterical (in all senses) Succession, I was entirely won over by the calm pace of Normal People, and the decidedly more frenetic I May Destroy You seemed to redefine the possibilities of TV drama with every episode. Staged was an impressively comprehensive and complex response to the first coronavirus lockdown, and was very funny to boot. Upright was the TV show that most upset me, offset by all the tremendous joy, and was probably my favourite TV show of the year. Armando Iannucci’s space workplace comedy Avenue 5 turned out to be far better than expected, and I hope there’ll be more to come. The most exhilarating TV I saw this year was World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, closely followed by the meticulous, gorgeous and subversive Anaïs Nin adaptation Little Birds. And, likeeveryone else, I thought The Queen’s Gambit was staggeringly good all round.
After around eight years without videogames, purchasing a half-decent laptop this autumn has allowed me to dabble in games I’ve missed in the interim period, though anything particularly open-world or particularly recent stutters like crazy – for which I’m grateful, as I’m terrified of losing too much time to gaming at the expense of work. Still, I managed to work through Portal-esque puzzle game The Talos Principle (2014), Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) (the latter better than the first in the new trilogy but representing an almost unsurmountable graphical challenge for my PC). I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (2014) far more than expected, appreciating the slow pace. I admired a huge amount of What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), which as well as providing a compelling story, acted as a showcase for the possibilities of videogames – particularly the scene involving slicing the heads off fish on a production line whilst simultaneously guiding a prince around a kingdom whilst also learning about the fragile mental health of the factory worker in question. But the only game that I truly loved was Firewatch (2016), in which the player fulfils a patient role as a lookout in a Wyoming forest, whilst developing a relationship with your supervisor over walkie-talkie. The landscape is stunning, the nudges along the path of the narrative subtle, and the story is deeply affecting, perhaps partly because the game is over within three hours or so.