The Best of 2020
A (highly personal) ranking of the year’s best culture
Despite it often seeming like there was nothing else left to do, I found myself reluctant to watch, listen or read something new, or anything at all, for that matter. Just keeping up with work, studying and all the daily mundane tasks of life have felt particularly exhausting and sitting down at the end of the day to enjoy something requiring even the least thought has not always been appetising.
There’s been a number of things released this year that have looked incredible and have been really well-received by people I tend to agree with when it comes to culture but which I simply haven’t been able to bring myself to watch. I May Destroy You is high on that list of works that I know I should watch, but have put off knowing I won’t be able to give it the full attention it needs. Hopefully I’ll get around to it in 2021. All this is to say, this list isn’t definitive — for everything I have got around to, there’s tens that I’ve missed completely.
Thankfully, I have actually enjoyed some of 2020’s releases. In most cases, they’ve snuck up on me. Catching a fragment of something online or while flicking channels would make me realise exactly what I’ve been needing, leading to intense binges and repeat consumption. It’s difficult to draw out a pattern from the list.
There’s defintiely some escapism and personal indulgence here. There are also other works which speak more directly to the politics of the year. And there’s some that manage to do both. I’ve tended to avoid the extreme ends of the ‘easy-watching — hard-hitting’ spectrum. Although there are a few things that lie further out, this year, my sweet spot seemed to be for things that managed to be substantive, with enough to think about afterwards, while still being a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
One thing that has caught my eye in a number of works is a modesty and generosity of spirit. Whether it’s Nigella Lawson or Rina Sawayama referencing the peers who have shaped their work or the open, inconclusive endings of Intimations or Wind of Change, the acknowledgement that nothing is made in a vacuum can hopefully be something positive to take away from this year.
There’s no real ranking to the list. Instead, I’ve tried to make each work tie into the next, in some form or another. Enjoy!
Wind of Change — Patrick Radden Keefe
(Pineapple Street Studios/Crooked Media/Spotify)
This year has reminded us that the way we live can be transformed unpredictably at a moment’s notice. This, of course, was also the case in 1991 as the Soviet Union, the seemingly-permanent superpower collapsed into capitalism. The implications were cultural as much as political. Wind of Change looks into whether culture had any role to play in the collapse itself.
Specifically, New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe looks into a rumour that Wind of Change, the Scorpions’ song that became an anthem for the fall of the Iron Curtain, was created with the aid of the CIA.
As a work of journalism, it’s masterful. Every lead is looked into, every source interviewed and all in an order that makes sense. There is always going to be a limit to what even the best-connected journalist can find however, especially when facing an organisation as opaque as the CIA and ultimately, Wind of Change doesn’t manage to answer the question it started with.
Somehow, this doesn’t matter. In fact, the question is really more of a way in for the podcast to look at an utterly wild story that takes in underground rock bars, drug deals and revolutions. With its rich tableau of characters, you almost lose sight of the question altogether, and when the eight-episode season ends, you’re glad to just have been taken along on the ride. Travelling back to a decade of hope, excess and intrigue through music and storytelling made a perfect remedy for the year of cabin sickness.
Future Nostalgia — Dua Lipa
Sadly, this year didn’t give us much of a chance to experience music in a club setting but the fact that Dua Lipa’s second album still managed to make such an impact is a testament to just how good it is. Almost all of the tracks could conceivably bring a dancefloor to life but there’s still enough substance in them to make sober repeat listens worth it.
Future Nostalgia really is an appropriate name for the album, drawing as it does on disco and early electronic music in a way that feels familiar without being repetitive. There’s also enough range across the tracks to stop you getting bored, with the workout-friendly Physical, while staying in the same musical universe, creating a completely different mood to the frustration of Boys will be Boys.
However, just as impressive as the album itself is Lipa’s ability to adapt it to this moment. The quirky animated music videos made for each track make the most of the in-person restrictions to great effect while the remix album, Club Future Nostalgia, brought in a bumper crop of guest features from Madonna to Mark Ronson and managed to recreate the feeling of being in a club remarkably well.
Managing to adapt to being solely an online presence with such ease and effectiveness has really made her the popstar of the year.
Lover’s Rock – Steve McQueen
Really, all five films from McQueen’s Small Axe anthology could have made it onto this list. The Oscar-winner’s series of Black British history addresses a different topic in each film, creating five films that stand on their own as richly original but which, when viewed together, become something more than the sum of their parts.
Lover’s Rock is by far the most joyous of the five. Following the ups and downs of a single night in a West London house party, McQueen triggers all the visceral memories of parties in us. The awkward tensions between groups and downright violent advances are right there amongst the thrill of sneaking out of the house and heading out giddily, lover in hand under the dry morning sun.
Unlike the other films in the anthology, Lover’s Rock doesn’t centre on the Black community’s experience of racism. McQueen doesn’t let you forget the racist context of the period through periodic reminders but the focus of the film is very much on Black energy and joy. And, of course, music. McQueen pays as much attention to the soundtrack as he does to the sumptuous visuals.
From the first scene to the last, almost all of the runtime is underscored by reggae and when it is silent, we’re all the more aware that something is wrong. The music culminates in a euphoric moment where the party-goers, putting aside any tensions or coldness between them, come together to sing Janet Kay’s Silly Games in a thrillingly rousing moment that shows the power of music. It’s (almost) as good as the feeling of being at an actual party.
Small Axe - Series 1: Lovers Rock
In 1980, black youths find freedom and romance at London house parties.
Les Misérables — Ladj Ly
Though it was technically released in 2019, the pandemic meant that Les Misérables’ cinematic released in the UK ended up falling in the middle of this year’s summer. And the film is all the better as a result, with the widespread movement for Black lives and against police violence surrounding the film with an added relevance.
Set in Montfermeil, the Parisian banlieue most famous for its role in Victor Hugo’s novel which this film shares a name with, Ly in a sense picks up where Hugo left off, showing how centuries later, the area is still riddled with the same poverty, crime and mutual mistrust between the authorities and those they are meant to serve. Now, underscoring all this is the added factor of race, with the area being mainly inhabited by communities of colour.
The César-winning film starts in a somewhat-familiar social narrative framing. On one hand is a local police team, emboldened by the crime rates to act without restraint or consideration, to the shock (though limited) of new recruit Ruiz (Damien Bonnard). Their largest interest is directed at the predominantly-Black youth living in the area, interrupting their mostly-harmless fun to assert their force. Alongside them are various local power players who, like everyone else, have no faith in authority or official systems and resort to any means to hold onto their position in the volatile environment.
As things escalate however, the documentary voice, with its languid fly-on-the-wall tone and exquisite drone shots, falls away as a police chase leads to a boy being injured by a tear gas canister being fired at point-blank range. The police’s aggression, and their ruthlessness in trying to hide the evidence, is the spark that ignites the local youth into finally taking action. The final scene, running to almost half an hour, is a masterpiece in creating tension, the lump-in-the-back-of-your-throat kind and when the anger finally boils over, there’s no relief, just a profound despair that it came to this. As harrowing a watch as it can be at times, it’s a necessary one, speaking directly to the incompatibility between policing systems around the world and racial justice.
The Arrival — Bush Theatre
(dir. Bijan Sheibani)
It’s not been possible to see much theatre this year, for obvious reasons, but I think it’s important to include something from the stage in the list, if not just to pay a small tribute in my own way to an industry that’s been hit incredibly hard this year. I saw The Arrival in January, which, I remind myself was actually part of this year, even though it didn’t feel very ‘twentytwenty’.
Thankfully, I’m confident that The Arrival would have made this list even without a pandemic. The Barbershop Chronicles director’s writing debut felt incredibly personal without losing any of the stripped-back sharpness that makes Sheibani’s direction feel so fresh.
Framed around the premise of two brothers reuniting after one of them was adopted, Sheibani deftly explores tensions around belonging, identity and family with the lightest of touches. Over the course of a number of meetings over the years, the tentative relationship between them breaks down with class, as so often in Britain, playing a big role.
An extended duologue, with no set to speak of other than a rotating disc on the floor, made The Arrival feel like theatre at its most fundamental. There was nothing for the performers, Scott Karim and Irfan Shamji, to hide behind, forcing every line of the script to be delivered just right. When done right, as was the case here, this spartan form of theatre becomes a forcefully direct form of performance.
Bijan Sheibani Bijan Sheibani is a freelance theatre, opera and film director. Most recent theatre credits include The…
SAWAYAMA — Rina Sawayama
Sawayama’s debut album solidified her as one pop’s most thoughtful figures. SAWAYAMA is an album that draws on a range of late 90s and early 00s influences unashamedly and manages to all her references into the present. The album isn’t just an act of postmodernist collage though, and the fact that Sawayama manages to create such stylistically innovative music without sacrificing personal honesty.
Songs like STFU! tackle Sawayama’s experiences growing up in Britain with a Japanese background through an angry glam rock anthem. Others, like Chosen Family address the power of queer friendships. Even XS, despite its sugar-pop sound reminiscent of Gwen Stefani or early Britney, puts forward a tough argument against consumer capitalism.
Something particularly refreshing about Sawayama is how open her music is -references to her peers and influences are dotted throughout the album, from Carly Rae Jepsen to Lady Gaga and The 1975 (she’s covered songs by the latter two artists as well). SAWAYAMA is incredibly generous in the homages it pays to the music that has paved the way for it with affection.
Intimations — Zadie Smith
The idea of a pandemic book being written, especially while we’re still caught in the middle of it, sounded to me like a terrible idea. Apart from the fact that it’s not possible to know how things play out, I felt (and still feel) that even the best writer will need some time to digest all the events of this year before being able to write anything meaningful.
I continue to stand by that view. That I loved Intimations is just a testament to the fact that Zadie Smith did not set out to write the pandemic book — the short collection of essays just set out what she was thinking and seeing in the world around her, a world which just so happens to be dealing with an outbreak of a deadly disease. There’s no attempt to draw wide-reaching conclusions here, just a frank outpouring of one person’s intimate reflections.
Smith’s writing is always a breath of calm, which is needed now more than ever. An astute observer, the portraits of everyday life she creates in her fiction or her essays are always richly real. She doesn’t need to force a point home to the reader and the worlds she captures always speak for themselves without authorial interventions. Just seeing all the aspects of the fabric of our lives that have changed articulated so clearly can be incredibly comforting in helping us come to terms with our reality in our own way
One of Time Magazine's 100 Must-Read Books of 2020 and an FT Best Book of the Year Thought-provoking and deeply…
For Esme-With Love and Squalor — Chantal Joffe
Whilst being stuck at home would hamper many an artist’s work, this exhibition of the London-based painter’s works showed her making most of the, at time forced, intimacy of the home. The majority of the paintings are either portraits of the painter’s daughter, Esme, or of herself. In both cases, Joffe’s deep knowledge of the body is evident.
Joffe tends to paint quickly, covering her canvas in broad, thick daubs of colour and many of the paintings have a sense of domestic rushing to them — as though Joffe or her daughter are restless, trying to get the painting done with as they’re running late for something. Underneath all that, however, it is clear that there is a deep love for her daughter. As with a kiss on the cheek before leaving the house, the paintings may be done quickly, but the affection in each is not lost on the viewer.
The flip side of Joffe’s warmth for her daughter lie in her self-portraits, where she lets the weights of parenthood drag her own image down. With an unflinching honesty that resembles Lucian Freud (though he never turned his eye onto himself in quite the same way Joffe does) she paints the stresses and anxieties of family life onto herself. Everything that her maternal eye had hidden in the portraits of Esme are brought to light in those of Joffe herself.
This contrast between a parent’s loving vision of her child and her considerably harsher self-perception made for a remarkably moving depiction of what our parents go through for our sakes and how they seek to hide it from us.
Chantal Joffe : For Esme - with Love and Squalor - Arnolfini
Esme at the Kitchen Table, Chantal Joffe, 2019, oil on canvas © Chantal Joffe courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro…
Cook, Eat, Repeat — Nigella Lawson
Like Joffe, Nigella has always done her best work in familiar surroundings. She hasn’t branched out into running restaurants or used ultra high-tech gadgets and (for the most part) particularly rare ingredients. Her work avoids gimmicks like being doable in a certain time or only needing one pot. She is a home cook who cooks, more than anything, out of the love of cooking.
All this has made her latest series Cook, Eat, Repeat, the perfect tonic to sit back with after a long day. Mercifully, she doesn’t address the coronavirus directly but it’s clear that thought has gone into adapting the cooking show format to suit our reality more appropriately: there are no showstopper meals or scenes of big family gatherings (we only ever see Nigella herself) and a lot of the recipes only make enough for one. It prevents the viewing experience from being jarring without directly introducing the pandemic into our domestic escapism.
The recipes themselves range from multiple-hour undertakings to something as simple as a steak and sauce. I’m a vegeterian so with the latter, it’s not a case of cooking (and eating) along. The real pleasure of the show lies less in the cooking and, as always with Nigella, in the story she constructs around each meal. Small things like taking us into the pantry to pick out some ingredients or sitting on the stairs with a box of liquorice give the whole show the intimacy of a dinner party with two best friends.
In a year when it hasn’t been possible to go over to an old friend’s for a relaxed catch up over dinner, this is the best approximation to that feeling possible. Inject it into my veins.