SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) - Well, that's 2020 done and dusted. Rather than focusing on all the negative aspects of the year (a few come to mind), I've decided to shine a light on some of the films, music, video games and books that helped me get through this most unusual year.
- Bill & Ted Face the Music -Initially, the idea of a Bill & Ted sequel was nothing more than a nostalgic opportunity to bring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter back together. By late August, when "Bill & Ted Face the Music" was finally released, it was far more than simply getting the band back together. It was a silly film about saving the world through the power of music.
- Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn - "Birds of Prey" was released in February. A different time that feels like it took place in an alternate universe. The film itself does take place in a brightly-colored alternate universe where Harley Quinn finds herself the subject of conversation following up a messy break up with the Joker. It's a messy film. That tends to happen when the person telling the story is certifiably insane.
- Boys State - When "Boys State" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival it was warmly received as frightening examination of American politics. When it was released in August it was that and so much more as America found itself in the middle of a pandemic and a discordant election campaigns. It's a call to action. We have to do better than we have done. The future depends on it.
- Crip Camp -What starts out as a documentary about a summer camp for kids with disabilities run by a group of well-meaning hippies becomes a thrilling, inspirational examination of civil rights. Allow the voiceless to find a voice and the world forever changes. Make it a double feature with Jerry Rothwell's "The Reason I Jump," a documentary about nonspeaking autistic people, and you'll never see life in the same way. The world is in desperate need for change.
- Emma. - Once upon a time I thought little of Jane Austen (or Louisa May Alcott for that matter). I was too busy contemplating William Shakespeare. I've come to appreciate Austen, particularly recent adaptations that frame her novels as satire. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as the title character who, despite having little experience or awareness of the subject, meddles in the love life of those close to her.
- First Cow - Kelly Reichardt's latest film is an Old West tale about a cook and a Chinese immigrant who plot to steal the only cow in Oregon. There are so many scenarios that I could never have imagined on my own and I love it when ambitious artists bring them to my attention. I've taken all the cows in America for granted. I'm sorry cows.
- Hamilton - There's nothing on this planet that compares to seeing a fantastic stage play with an enraptured audience. There's an energy, a sort of current that moves like a chill as it runs through a group gathered together. 2020 has been a year where communal experiences have been few and far between. Disney+'s release of "Hamilton," a year ahead of schedule, was a reminder of how inventive, informative and transcendent art can be. It doesn't replace the live experience. It's the best we've got and gives those who haven't had the opportunity to experience the phenomenon a peek into what the fervor is all about.
- His House - I like to go into a film as blind as possible. I knew nothing about "His House" other than it was a horror film. I wasn't expecting a haunted house story that is also a look at what life is like for many refugees who flee their countries for a "better life" in foreign lands. That's only a faction of what director/co-writer Remi Weekes packs into 90 minutes. It is incredibly difficult it is to make a film that is both grounded in a sense of reality and heavily influenced by the fantasy of cultural folklore. "His House" does that.
- I'm Thinking of Ending Things - Director/writer Charlie Kaufman adapts Iain Reid's novel about one hellish date night where a woman (Jessie Buckley) finds herself traveling to meet the parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) of the man (Jesse Plemons) she is dating while also coming to the conclusion that she'd rather not be in a relationship with him. It's a pitch-black comedy that heads in unexpected directions. There are moments where the film flirts with being strange for the sake of strangeness but the performances, particularly Buckley's, keep "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" from going off the rails.
- Love and Monsters - Sometimes you just need to escape reality by taking a journey into a post-apocalyptic world populated by giant-mutated bugs and a love story so incredibly sentimental that it is destined to end in disaster (or at least disappointment). Dylan O'Brien stars as the lovesick young man who hasn't seen his girlfriend since humankind were forced to find shelter underground (it's been years), Jessica Henwick plays the the long-lost girlfriend and Michael Rooker gets to help chew the scenery. Sometimes B-Movies are entirely necessary.
- Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - I don't want to give you a history lesson, I'll let August Wilson do that with his play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe). Chadwick Boseman stars as Levee, an ambitious trumpet player looking to rise above his session work with blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Boseman is one hell of an actor and his performance here shows off his considerable range. And rage.
- Minari - "Minari" is scheduled to be released in theaters in February, more than a year after I watched it's premier at the Sundance Film Festival. Director/writer Lee Isaac Chung has crafted a marvelous story set in the 1980s about a Korean immigrant (Steven Yeun) who moves with his family to Arkansas to pursue his dream of having a farm.
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always - Eliza Hittman's "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" was steamrolled by the pandemic. Sidney Flanigan is fantastic as Autumn, a teen who discovers she is pregnant and is forced to travel to New York City to have an abortion. Talia Ryder is great as Skylar, Autumn's cousin. Hittman's script is sharp, smart and heartbreaking (just like "It Felt Like Love" was). Hittman's films are the difficult conversations that we need to have and engage with.
- On the Rocks - Sofia Coppola's latest film stars Rashida Jones as Laura, a woman, who suspects that her husband is having an affair. Bill Murray stars as Felix, her womanizing father, who wants to be supportive. Felix is the most charming, self-consumed man in the world. Felix should be insufferable. Murray makes him something else entirely. "On the Rocks" is magical in unexpected ways.
- The Personal History of David Copperfield - I was so excited about seeing Dev Patel in "The Green Knight" that I looked past "The Personal History of David Copperfield." If I was assigning rankings (rather than listing in alphabetically) to this list, Armando Iannucci's whimsical, fantastical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel would make the top five. Co-written with frequent collaborator Simon Blackwell (the duo are the minds behind "Veep," "In the Loop," and "The Death of Stalin") and boasting one of the best casts of 2020 (Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Gwendoline Christie, Ben Whishaw and Benedict Wong to name a few), "The Personal History of David Copperfield" is a wonderful jaunt into the mind of a writer.
- Possessor - Brandon Cronenberg's "Possessor" is equal parts horror, sci-fi and action. It's also a hallucinatory nightmare that holds nothing back as it presents a future where an organization of assassins uses crude technology to place their consciousness inside of another person's body. It's violence is graphic and unnerving. Its opening scene should be viewed as a litmus test.
- The Mandalorian - Star Wars was based on the serial films that George Lucas watched in theaters as a child. Television series are essentially the modern equivalent to those short films. So, it should be no surprise that "The Mandalorian" works as well as it does. The first season existed on the fringes of the Star Wars that audiences are familiar with. The second season pushed the story into more familiar ground. Considering how much of the Star Wars narrative has been established, it is fairly amazing that Jon Favreau could find enough space to tell a story that features any surprises.
- Soul - Take a struggling jazz musician and throw in a trip to the after (and before) life and you have the core of Pixar's latest experiment and triumph. The humor is sharp, the message is heartwarming and the animation is as beautiful as you would expect (and yes, that includes the more abstract elements). "Soul" also saw me putting together one of the more complex segments of my career to give a behind-the-scenes look a group of Salt Lake City musicians to compose an original composition based on the film (the five-minute version is here). When Disney calls, you pick up the phone.
- Wolfwalkers -This hand-drawn masterpiece is the latest effort from Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart is every bit as mesmerizing and fanciful as their "The Secret of Kells" and "Song of the Sea" as it explores the friendship between two girls, one Irish and the other English, during an era when hatred between the two countries couldn't be more contentious. It's also about folklore, magic and stories lost in time. Scroll to the bottom of this article to watch my interview with Moore.
- Wonder Woman 1984 - "Wonder Woman 1984" is an odd creature in that it feels like the sort of superhero film that existed before Tim Burton's "Batman." Specifically, it feels like the Superman films of the 1980s. I enjoyed it for what it was and all its strangeness. The ending is far better than the one "Wonder Woman" gave us. I liked it. I'm not going to over think this one.
I tend to be a little more adventurous when it comes to the music that I'm listening to. However, 2020 was a year where I found myself drawn to the comforts of things familiar. Fortunately, there were plenty of new releases from some old friends. Bandcamp Fridays also became something to look forward to as the music site waved their fees on the first Friday of many of these lockdown months.
- Handful of Snowdrops: Blanc - Canada's greatest (and mostly undiscovered) post-punk outfit released Blanc, a follow-up to 2018's Noir. While the group is often compared to Clan of Xymox, their brand of guitars and electronics feels less formulaic and not completely rooted in past glories. The band also released Music, a collection of instrumentals; Echoes, assorted cover versions featuring tracks originally performed by the likes of The Cure, Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, Tears for Fears and Future Islands; and A Short Story (Highlights in Low Light), a career-spanning collection.
- Erasure: The Neon - Andy Bell and Vince Clark return with an electronic release (the tree tiered World Be Gone release was more ambitious, forlorn and less conventional) featuring the expected pop hooks and romanticism. I tend to fall in love with Erasure records after seeing the songs performed live. Hopefully 2021 will allow that to happen.
- Kylie Minogue: DISCO - Golden saw Minogue shifting her sound to the more acoustic tone of Nashville. DISCO is a return to the dancefloor. I prefer Kylie when she's more electro (2007's X) or indie (1997's Impossible Princess). "Say Something" is a fantastic single, "Magic" has grown on me and given a little more time I suspect I'll be able to wrap my head around the rest.
- SPC ECO - Throughout 2020, dream pop group SPC ECO (Curve's Dean Garcia, his daughter Rose and the occasional guest) have blessed us with new releases at the beginning of each month. This included two full-length albums (June LP and Sept Soundtrack), eight EPs, a handful of singles and a remix. Garcia has also been digging his way through a box full of Curve DAT recordings. There are currently six "Bootleg Series" releases. Curve Oddities: Bootleg Series 5 is a great place for fans to get a taste of what the other titles in the series have to offer.
- The Twilight Sad: Oran Mor 2020 - Up until a couple of weeks ago, I would have been focusing on the Glasgow's post-shoegze act's April live release of It Won/t Be Like This All the Time Live which includes a wide selection of the band's popular tracks and an incredible cover of Frightened Rabbit's "Keep Yourself Warm." However, December brought a new gift in the form of a Oran Mor 2020, the audio recordings from the stripped-back live film that was broadcast a few weeks before. Performed by James Graham on vocals and Andy MacFarlane guitar, the skeleton versions featured here aptly display the raw emotional vulnerability that makes the group an unforgettable live experience.
- The Psychedelic Furs: Made of Rain - The first new album of material from the legendary college radio favorites since 1991's World Outside. Anchored by Richard Butler, Tim Butler and guitarist Rich Good with contributions from founding guitarist John Aston and frequent collaborator Richard Fortus (Love Spit Love, Guns N' Roses). Made of Rain is a fantastic record that reestablishes the Furs as something to be reckoned with in the here and now and not just a great nostalgia act.
- Rosetta Stone: Cryptology - If you had told me that there would be a legitimate Rosetta Stone release in this century (It Seems Like Forever, a collection of Miserylab songs re-recorded and rebranded for mass consumption, doesn't count) I wouldn't have believed you. Porl King wasn't interested in digging up the past. He's too busy working on an alternative timeline with In Death It Ends. And yet, Cryprology does exist. What's more is that, once you get past the generic artwork, it's a really good record. While not as polished and layered as the proto-goth-rock of the An Eye for the Main Chance era or as complex and noisy as the post-industrial brilliance of The Tyranny of Inaction and Hiding and Waiting, Cryptology features a mix of social commentary and critical self-reflection.
- Liela Moss: Who the Power - Give Liela Moss a stage and she'll fill it. Primarily known as the lead singer of The Duke Spirit, Moss has been cultivating a solo career in recent years and her second album, Who the Power, is a swirl of pop, rock and electronic music. Most will be drawn to the more upbeat "Atoms At Me," I'm smitten with "Stolen Careful."
- Marc Almond: Chaos and a Dancing Star: Marc Almond's career exists outside of traditional genres. Chaos and a Dancing Star is more rock and roll than it is dance, a torch song or a northern soul record. It does, however, feature its share of dance, torch song and northern soul textures. Collaborators include Neal X (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), Martin McCarrick (This Mortal Coil, Siouxie and the Banshees), Kimberlee McCarrick, Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and Chris Braide. "Chaos" is a little on the nose considering all things 2020; it's still a fantastic track.
- Pet Shop Boys - I was to see the Pet Shop Boys and New Order in San Francisco during the fall. That didn't happen. I had to make due with the Chris and Neil Funko POP! figures (in "West End Girls" attire).
- Roger O'Donnell: 2 Ravens - We didn't get the long-promised album from The Cure (there were a pair of shoeless Robert Smith solo performances that were excellent). We did get 2 Ravens, the new solo record from The Cure's keyboardist Roger O'Donnell. O'Donnell's solo work has been delightfully eclectic as he has entertained his love for Moog keyboards and jazz-influenced chamber music. 2 Ravens being of the chamber variety with Jennifer Pague adding some strange-yet-effective vocals to a handful of tracks. I love writing to O'Donnell, he leaves space for the listener to color in with their own imaginations.
- (The London) Suede: The Best Of Suede. Beautiful Ones. 1992-2018 - The plan was to run away to the UK to see Suede a few times in 2020. Those gigs have been pushed into 2021 (and may or may not be accessible for overseas travelers). As a consolation gift we did get a beautiful career-spanning compilation that came in a variety of sizes and formats. I went with the white 6-LP set (signatures not included).
- In the Nursery - Twin brothers Klive and Nigel Humberstone have been creating music under the moniker In The Nursery for nearly 40 years. During that time they've explored a variety of neoclassical paths punctuated by military snares and the occasional female vocal courtesy of Dolores Marguerite. This year they released a variety of oddities including Miscellanea, a series of seven digital releases featuring rare and unreleased music. I'd recommend starting with Miscellanea 7 and exploring from there.
- Night Beats: That's All You Got (Single) - Danny "Lee Blackwell" Rajan Billingsley recruited Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Robert Levon Been for this slow-dancing number that glows warm with a sense of rock and roll nostalgia.
- Taylor Swift: Folklore - For the better part of 15 or so years disinterested in Taylor Swift. I've never cared much for country music and while I've been know to fall for the occasional pop princess it wasn't until Swift found her voice outside of music that I took notice. I was on hand for the premier of "Miss Americana" at Sundance more out of curiosity and left the screening even more curious, open to the idea of supporting her as a person, if not as an artist. The lush, shoegazed arrangement of "Mirrorball" from Folklore is one of my favorite tracks. Ever.
- Actors: Love U More (Single) - We'll wrap up the music section with this teaser from Canada's premier synthpop foursome . Remember dancing? Yeah, that used to happen.
Books, Video Games and Tarot Del Toro
I spent the first few months of the lockdown working my way back through the Dark Souls trilogy. Partly in anticipation for the PlayStation 5 remake of "Demon Souls" and partly because I longed for something with a sense of familiarity. For that same reason I also played through "The Witcher 3" a couple of times. I would have liked to have read more. Unfortunately, working as a journalist during the pandemic has been one of the most draining experiences of my life. Most nights I need to shut down. I didn't win in the PS5 lottery. "Demon Souls" can wait.
- The Unexpected Son - I published a book this year. It's a childhood memoir that I've been working on for 15 or so years. It's a love note to my gay, Mormon father, who was the first person in Utah diagnosed with AIDS and my mother who kept him in our lives. If you're interested, you can find more info here. Hopefully 2021 will be kinder to bookstores, authors, artists and everyone else who has struggled to make it through the year.
- Torchlight III - If you were to take bits and pieces of every enjoyable dungeon crawler video game ever made and lovingly assemble them into a single game it would look exactly like "Torchlight III." Sometimes you just need to mindlessly hack and slash your way through a steampunk inspired underworld.
- Final Fantasy VII Remake - When a code for "Final Fantasy VII Remake" showed up in my inbox I had nearly finished "Torchlight III" and wasn't emotionally ready to dive into "The Last of Us Part II." So, I rushed off to Midgar to save Tifa from a fat guy with a tattoo mustache. I love how they've updated the fighting mechanics. You still have to rely on strategy, rather than button mashing, but it felt far more fluid than my previous experiences with the series. The only thing that bothered me throughout the game was Barret's tattoo.
- Marvel: The Bronze Age - "Marvel: The Bronze Age 1970-1980" is the third and final installment in the collaboration between Marvel and The Folio Society is another beautiful collection that includes classic adventures from Spider-Man, Iron Man and The Eternals, complete with a 64-page facsimile of Giant-Size X-Men #1. This, along with the previous volumes "Marvel: The Golden Age 1939-1949" and "Marvel: The Silver Age 1960–1970," are without question the most beautifully designed and constructed books in my collection.
- Tarot Del Toro - I don't know if there is anything more perfect than a Guillermo del Toro tarot card collection. His films are filled with magic and folklore and the art design of his films is always evocative. This, along with "The Nightmare Before Christmas: Pop-Up Book and Advent Calendar," ended up in my growing Insight Edition book collection.