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Best TV Of 2020: Great Shows Brought Us Together In A Difficult, Distanced Year

TV critic David Bianculli gives us his list of the 2020's 10 best TV series.

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Other segments from the episode on December 24, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 24, 2020: Interview with David Bianculli; Interview with Nick Quah; Interview with Justin Chang.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're going to talk about the year in TV and movies with our TV critic, David Bianculli, and our film critic, Justin Chang, who have each brought their 10 best lists. We do this year-end review just about every year, but no year has been like this one. COVID upended the movie and TV industries and forced them to change or cancel their production plans. And COVID changed how we watched, what we watch and how much time we spend watching. With most movie theaters closed by the pandemic and some movies being released instead on TV and streaming platforms, it's even hard to tell what to call a movie and what to call a TV show. So I'm not even sure which questions to ask David and which to ask Justin. And I might end up asking a few of the same questions to both of them. Let's start with David and hear his thoughts about television in this crazy year.

David, usually when we do this, we're in the studio together, and now we're each talking to each other by phone. I miss seeing you.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Yeah, I miss you, too, more than just for this conversation. But here we are.

GROSS: Yes, absolutely. Here we are. So we're going to talk about TV. I don't even know what TV means anymore since there's...

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Well, that's two of us.

GROSS: ...Streaming and TV and movies. Yeah. Does that matter? Does it matter that the line is blurred so much between what's movies and television?

BIANCULLI: It will matter when this dust finally shakes in a couple of years. I think this is an absolute major change in the medium of television and how we define it. But we don't know yet. All I know is the old rules don't apply. When I was putting together this 10 list, I had to make my own decisions about, what was a movie? What was a TV show? What was - you know, we're all watching it differently. We're all reacting to it differently. Everything is different this year.

GROSS: Well, let's hear what's on your 10 best list and how you define what's television. What order do you want to take it in?

BIANCULLI: You know, I think it's such a different year. We're doing everything differently. I try to build suspense, usually, by going towards the top. I think we ought to start with the top and work down just to give some credence to what's been going on in television because it's so different. And I had a problem this year with the top 10 that I've never had before. I keep changing the very top two entries for reasons that I think have to do with COVID a little bit.

My No. 1 show in the top 10 is the No. 1 show simply because it's such a wonderful program to watch right now, that even though the other one was my favorite show for years and I want to call it No. 1, I can't. So we're talking about two shows. We're talking about the drama of "Better Call Saul" on AMC, and we're talking about the comedy "Schitt's Creek," which is the CBC production out of Canada that showed up on Pop TV and then became noticed once it showed up on Netflix. I love both of these shows, but I think that "Schitt's Creek," because of what a good and nice and warm-hearted program it is, really deserves the top spot in a really bottoming-out year. Does that make any sense?

GROSS: Yes, it does. But spell the title just because we're on public radio, and I don't want people to get the wrong idea of what we're talking about.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Yeah. When I reviewed this when it first came out, I made a big deal of spelling it. It's S-C-H-I-T-T-apostrophe-S. And Schitt's Creek is a small place. And this formerly wealthy family sort of bought the town as a gag gift one year. And then when they lost all their money, turns out that's where they had to go in order to survive. And it becomes a really warm story where every character in it - no matter how funny they may be or how buffoonish they may initially have seemed, they're all warm. They're all sweet. And several episodes, including the ending that they ran in 2020, which I will not spoil anything about, turned out to be just lovely and treated everybody well. And it was such goodness that I think it's almost a tonic for our times. I can't recommend highly enough that anybody who has Netflix to go seek out "Schitt's Creek."

GROSS: God, a tonic for our time sounds so good.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what else is on your 10 best list?

BIANCULLI: Well, No. 1 is "Schitt's Creek." No. 2 is "Better Call Saul" on AMC, which is getting worse each year in terms of what's happening to the characters but better each year in terms of it being a show. It's the prequel to "Breaking Bad." It's brilliant. And if not for "Schitt's Creek," it would be my No. 1 show again.

And then to burn through the rest of the top 10 - and there's a couple here that may be movies and not TV. I'm not sure - but there's the "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" on Amazon. But that's where it premiered - on Amazon. It had an awful lot of heart while still having the same sort of "Borat" humor. No. 4 - "The Good Place" on NBC stuck its landing, a wonderful comedy about the afterlife. And Michael Schur did a great job writing the last episode of that. And then No. 5, "Hamilton," which was filmed a couple of years ago with the original cast - it was intended to be rolled out as a big deal in theaters. But then halfway through the pandemic, Disney+ did it as a Fourth of July special and basically proved how big streaming services are and will be from now on. So "Hamilton" sort of changed things.

Then the last half - "Lovecraft Country" on HBO, a really good, spooky, weird miniseries. "Fargo" - every year that Noah Hawley does a miniseries version of "Fargo," he does it great. And this one had Chris Rock, and it was wonderful. No. 8, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" - you either like Larry David, or you don't - on HBO. I love Larry David, and his coffee shop had hand sanitizers on every table before COVID. So he was ahead of that curve. No. 9 is "The Queen's Gambit" on Netflix, which, even though it was a little bit predictable, it was also wonderful. And then No. 10, a documentary on ESPN, "The Last Dance," about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, was so much better than I expected and gave us sports during COVID when nobody else was. That's my top 10.

GROSS: So let's take a look at this year in streaming. What were the biggest changes you saw in terms of old or - old, (laughter) relatively old or brand-new (laughter)?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, like Disney+ from the end of 2019, the oldie goldies.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: It is amazing. What it's proving is what I think, ultimately, television always proves - is that content is king and is the most important. And it doesn't surprise me that Disney+ is the streaming service that has really come along recently and said, we know how to do this because it's made its classic inventory available. It's got things to show that people already want to see. And then it makes new, good stuff. I mean, "Star Wars" fans are crazy about "The Mandalorian," and that helped it succeed. And when it showed "Hamilton," millions of people got Disney+ that hadn't gotten it before.

GROSS: What's your point of view about how the Warner deal is going to affect what we think of as television? And this is a deal that other movies are going to go straight to streaming, to release movies through streaming with HBO Max. I'm assuming that's going to be a really good thing for HBO Max because I think HBO Max - people were confused, like, what is it? Do I have to pay for it? If I have HBO, can I get it? Everyone seems confused.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, and I'm confused. And I am the TV critic. There are too many things out there, and some things that are on HBO Max are also on HBO or are on HBO Max the very next day, and others are exclusives. This will all sort itself out, but we will not see entertainment quite the way we did before the pandemic. It's just not going to be the same.

GROSS: Well, David, let's take a break, and then we'll talk some more about the year in television. If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEEK MUSIC SONG, "SCHITT'S CREEK - MAIN AND END TITLE MEDLEY - MAIN THEME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with David Bianculli looking back at the year in television.

So much of my TV viewing this year was cable news or late-night comedy about the news because there are stories constantly breaking about the Trump administration, the election, COVID. How have the news networks changed this year because of so many people's obsession with what's happening in the news?

BIANCULLI: You know, I think it's crystallized by the fact that MSNBC, for example, and Steve Kornacki, who is the guy that did the big board stuff leading up to the elections - you know, he became sort of a star through this, and that, in terms of TV humor, I'm with you. I watch as much humor about politics as I do politics, and I watch a lot of politics - is that I couldn't believe that Leslie Jones popped out from "SNL" just by yelling at her TV set and talking about MSNBC and how much she loved Steve Kornacki. And the other thing is, she actually was taking her phone and filming it, so filming television live and screaming at her set. And I thought, this should be my job.

GROSS: She made the videos and put them on social media.

BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah. But, I mean, the idea is, look; all I'm doing is - I'm not filming myself, but that's my job. I'm watching a lot of TV and yelling at the set all the time. But it works. But then, if there's a week when, you know, Trevor Noah isn't on with original episodes, or, you know, you've got John Oliver off or something like that, it's a bad week. I really need somebody to make me laugh about this, to get me through it week by week.

So I think that it's been really great to have those shows, and they worked so hard to work through the pandemic. I think it's been a really good year for "Saturday Night Live." I don't think the writing has been super-crisp, but I just think the presence of "Saturday Night Live" has been important.

And then with news, you know, I've always tried to stay totally objective. But I can say as a TV critic that especially during election night, the Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow triumvirate on MSNBC, I thought, was wonderfully handled in terms of news information, entertainment and honesty.

GROSS: One of the interesting things this year about late-night comedy was the hosts started off during COVID hosting from their homes, and then eventually most went back to their studios, or, in Stephen Colbert's case, his office...

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...His office at the Ed Sullivan Theater. And it was interesting to see how they worked without an audience. And, you know, Colbert still does not have an audience, and I'm actually enjoying that. There's a certain intimacy.

BIANCULLI: Me, too.

GROSS: Yeah. And I like - I think it's his wife who's often, like, laughing in the background. I just...

BIANCULLI: Or not laughing, which sometimes was even funnier.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, that's right. That's right. And so I'm enjoying - there's an intimacy about - a directness about it that I'm really enjoying. I'm not sure if Colbert is enjoying it.

BIANCULLI: It is incredibly intimate. And you realize - Colbert is a perfect example, so we'll stay with him, that - which of these hosts are really quick-witted themselves and not reliant mostly on writers or on format. And you can just tell that he shines here one on one as a person just talking to us as people.

GROSS: So this is the time of the conversation where I typically ask you, what should we be looking forward to next year in television? Is there anything to look forward to? I mean, has anything been produced that we will be able to see next year? Or has everything been on hold and who knows what we'll be able to see?

BIANCULLI: There's something coming up in the first couple of weeks of January. I haven't seen it yet, but it's from, you know, the "30 Rock" people, and it stars Ted Danson. And so that's a network television show that I'm looking forward to seeing if it's any good. But most of it, I don't know. Nobody knows. I'm just - I cannot tell you how pleased I will be to turn the calendar to 2021, except I feel like everybody listening feels exactly the same way.

GROSS: Yes. But the secret is that 2021 could possibly be worse than 2020.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Terry, I love you.

GROSS: I'd hate to be the voice of gloom, but...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, no, no, no.

GROSS: ...We all think, 2021, let's put 2020 behind us because the New Year is going to be so much better. But we don't know that.

BIANCULLI: See, see, I consider myself a worst-case scenario person. And I almost...

GROSS: Not while I'm around (laughter).

BIANCULLI: I am almost never outdone there, but you just lapped me like the Road Runner. I heard beep-beep as you went by.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, you're welcome.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: So what was your favorite TV moment of the year? Do you have one?

BIANCULLI: I do. And this is - came early in the pandemic, and it was sort of an experimental use of maybe how we can do TV through this. And I know we both love Stephen Sondheim, so I'm guessing you saw this. It was the "Take Me To The World: Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration" (ph). And when they couldn't do it in person anymore, they decided to do it as an early fundraiser, streaming with everybody either presenting pre-taped pieces that were put together or doing - you know, it was just a beautiful thing.

And it started off rocky - technical difficulties. But once it got going, it was absolutely everything I wanted and more. It was not only artistic and beautifully done, but it was so uplifting. And this is, like, early on. You know, this is just a month into the pandemic, and I already felt such a relief from it.

So I brought a clip. This is "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company." On Broadway originally, Elaine Stritch did it solo and sort of made it her own. But it's a great song. And here for this 90th birthday fundraiser, you get three divas, all in different locations, in bathrobes and holding drinks, singing separately and then together. And it's Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald. And it was exhilarating.

GROSS: And each of them have sung in Sondheim shows or, in Meryl Streep's case, in the movie of "Into The Woods."

BIANCULLI: That's right.

GROSS: So David, I wish you a good new year. I wish you a healthy new year and a better year than 2020.

BIANCULLI: OK. Thank you very much. It was good visiting with you, even like this.

GROSS: And David Bianculli is our TV critic, and he's the editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. You can find his 10-best list on our website, freshair.npr.org.

After we take a short break, our film critic Justin Chang will talk about the year in film and tell us what's on his 10-best list. And podcast critic Nick Quah, who writes for New York Magazine and Vulture, will tell us what he thinks are the best podcasts of the year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. And here is "Ladies Who Lunch" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: I'd like to propose a toast.

(Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh - lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. Off to the gym, then to a fitting, claiming they're fat, then looking grim 'cause they've been sitting, choosing a hat. Does anyone still wear a hat? I'll drink to that.

MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Here's to the girls who stay smart. Aren't they a gas? Rushing to their classes in optical art, wishing it would pass. Another long, exhausting day, another thousand dollars, a matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler's. I'll drink to that - and one for Mahler.

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Here's to the girls who play wife. Aren't they too much?

STREEP: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCDONALD: (Singing) Keeping house but clutching a copy of life just to keep in touch. Ones who follow the rules and meet themselves at the schools...

STREEP: Fools.

MCDONALD: (Singing) ...Too busy to know that they're fools. Aren't they a gem? I'll drink to them. Let's all drink to them.

STREEP: I'm already drinking, dear.

(LAUGHTER)

BARANSKI: (Singing) And here's to the girls who just watch. Aren't they the best?

STREEP: (Singing) When they get depressed, it's a bottle of scotch plus a little jest.

MCDONALD: (Singing) Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger.

AUDRA MCDONALD, CHRISTINE BARANKSI AND MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Another reason not to move, another vodka stinger. I'll drink to that.

MCDONALD: (Singing) So here's to the girls on the go. Everybody...
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. As cinemas closed and TV productions took a pause because of the pandemic, it seems that a lot of people turned to podcasts in 2020. We asked podcast critic Nick Quah to tell us about the podcasts he thinks were the best of the year.

NICK QUAH: In a year filled with struggle and heartbreak, I place a premium on podcasts that help me maintain a relationship with positive human feelings - to remember joy, community and what it feels like to be in the presence of beauty. One of the best podcasts this year, "Lost Notes: 1980," also happens to be the most consistently gorgeous. "Lost Notes" is an anthology series dedicated to forgotten stories from the music business. As the subtitle indicates, this past season, the show's third, draws all its stories from the year 1980. And it was entirely curated and hosted by Hanif Abdurraqib, an essayist, cultural critic and poet.

Poets do well in podcasting, as they do in radio, their intimacy with the economy of language contributing to their ability to conjure vivid imagery with just a few simple words. Consider the following clip from an episode about the South African musicians and activists Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela's 1980 concert in Lesotho.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOST NOTES: 1980")

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: Lesotho ran out of food, drink and hotel space. People parked cars at the border and sat atop them, hoping to catch some sounds echoing out from the stadium. During the weekend, there were people who slept unbothered on the sidewalks, who crammed themselves into the doorways of stores. There were emergency supplies sent in from nearby South African towns. The weekend itself was a celebration.

QUAH: Other stories in the season touch on John Lennon, Darby Crash, Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder. And throughout, Abdurraqib consistently returns to grand, old questions about art, artists and the human experience. How are we remembered? And what does it mean to be remembered?

"Reply All" has long been a staple in my pocket's rotation. And mere weeks before the lockdowns, the show released an episode that became a genuine phenomenon. "The Case Of The Missing Hit" centers on a relatively inconsequential mystery. A man has a pop song stuck in his head that he swears is real but can't seem to find any trace of its existence. "Reply All" excels in capturing the fun and quiet horror of modern technological life, usually at the same time. "The Case Of The Missing Hit" is no different. Things start out as a wild romp, but as is often the case with "Reply All," nothing is ever what it seems. Eventually, the quest leads co-host PJ Vogt down a rabbit hole to strange, uncanny places.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "REPLY ALL")

PJ VOGT: (Singing, unintelligible).

I have an obsessive brain. I'm used to obsessing over things. This was uniquely bad. It was just a melody - a melody and this question, which was starting to feel, frankly, infuriating. How on God's green Earth can you have a hit radio song that actually just gets vaporized from history?

QUAH: Fun, frivolous and full of life, "The Case Of The Missing Hit" evokes the fizzy innocence of early 2000s pop music, nowadays thought to be among the more disposable eras of pop music history. But listening back to the episode in the last days of 2020 also carries further weight. It feels like an innocent postcard from a whole other universe.

Similarly fun, though laced with significantly more acid, is "My Year In Mensa" from the writer-comedian Jamie Loftus. In this tightly constructed gonzo series, Loftus walks listeners through her experience getting into Mensa, the so-called high-IQ society. She applies for membership mostly as a joke. But when she unexpectedly gains entry, Loftus proceeds to move through the community with a skeptical eye. What she finds is unsettling - a community that's toxic, built on a premise that should be questioned.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MY YEAR IN MENSA")

JAMIE LOFTUS: It definitely did start as a dumb joke on my part, but people unfortunately contain multitudes - awful. And so what I'm going to do is take you through the story via my experiences and then go back in time to trace the history of these organizations and ultimately figure out what the [expletive] point of any of it was in the first place.

QUAH: There's a lot to admire about "The Year In Mensa" (ph). It's basically a long monologue punctuated by barebone sound effects, and it showcases Loftus's gift as a writer-comedian and also as a shrewd observer of human behavior. But what's ultimately lasting about the series is how it critiques the human thirst for hierarchies, the notion of high-IQ societies and the damage that comes when certain groups endeavor to hold themselves superior to others.

Finally, let's talk about the best podcast of the year. Under the apocalyptic conditions of 2020, I found it hard to stick with shows that dealt in heavy subjects and themes. The one standout exception, though, was "Floodlines," which was, by far, the best thing I heard all year and the podcast I returned to the most. Produced by The Atlantic and hosted by Vann Newkirk II, the series revisits the legacy of Hurricane Katrina 15 years later. And much of what Newkirk finds are realities, ideas and dynamics that are equally applicable to our current circumstances.

The immense failure of the federal response to Katrina feels uncannily like a road map for the response to the pandemic, which has now claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Part of what makes "Floodlines" so effective and so eminently re-listenable is the fact that it's so well made. It's fantastically written, tightly composed and it sounds like a million bucks. The sound design by David Herman and music by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah does a whole lot to elevate what could be a straightforward documentary into a vivid, evocative experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "FLOODLINES")

VANN NEWKIRK II: The rain picked up late Sunday and never stopped. And in those high-rise buildings in downtown New Orleans, the winds started getting dangerous.

GARLAND ROBINETTE: The wind started hitting, and it started howling a little bit.

NEWKIRK: That giant window behind Garland started rattling.

ROBINETTE: It sounded like whoop, whoop, whoop, pop - just exploded.

QUAH: In many ways, Katrina is a disaster that never ended. And it's very likely that the pandemic we now live in will be endless in much the same way. In his reporting, Newkirk gives us the space to process the next logical series of questions - what does healing, repair and accountability look like in the wake of all this? Even based on that inquiry alone, "Floodlines" is the best podcast of the year.

GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. He's the host of the podcast "Servant Of Pod" from LAist Studios, and he writes the "Hot Pod" newsletter. After we take a short break, we'll talk about how COVID changed the movie world this year with our film critic Justin Chang, who will also have his 10-best list. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been months since I've been in a movie theater. And I miss theaters so much. COVID has changed where and how we see movies and has left us with fewer new movies to see. Our film critic, Justin Chang, who is also film critic for the LA Times, is with us to talk about the year in film and to share his 10 best list.

Justin, it's good to talk with you again. What a year it's been. Must have been quite a year for you. Like, your whole job has probably changed (laughter).

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: (Laughter).

GROSS: But we'll get to that a little bit later. So you've been well, I hope?

CHANG: I have, Terry. And I hope you have, too And it's a pleasure to be back with you at the end of this - yes - very crazy year for all of us, I know.

GROSS: My standard answer to how are you is, good - dot, dot, dot - under the circumstances (laughter). So...

CHANG: (Laughter) Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's start with your 10 best list. Do you want to run through it?

CHANG: Yeah. I'm going to read my list, which is, as usual, a series of themed pairings. So No. 10 and No. 9 go together, for example. And I'm going to start from 10 and work my way back to one.

So at No. 10 on my list is "Beanpole," Kantemir Balagov's stark harrowing drama about two women in post-World War II Leningrad. I've paired that with my No. 9, "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," Eliza Hittman's film about two teenage girls traveling to New York so that one of them can procure an abortion. Both those films can be found on a variety of streaming platforms.

At No. 8 is "Collective," Alexander Nanau's explosive documentary about the political corruption of Romania's health care system. It's a portrait of institutions in crisis that was clearly inspired by another great documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, who directed my No. 7 movie, "City Hall," a sweeping panorama of Boston's municipal government. That stands among his best recent work. "Collective" is playing on various streaming platforms, and "City Hall" is in virtual cinemas nationwide.

Up next on my list are the two boldest and most inventive literary adaptations I saw all year. And both of them happen to be about the self-destructive tendencies and intellectual vanities of men. And for all that, they could hardly be more different films. No. 6 is "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things," Charlie Kaufman's darkly funny psychological thriller based on Iain Reid's novel. That movie is available on Netflix. No. 5 is "Martin Eden," Pietro Marcello's inspired Italian-language adaptation of a Jack London classic. It can be streamed via the Kino Marquee virtual cinema.

The next pairing on my list is devoted to two perfectly crafted dramas set in the American wilderness, but also play like requiems for the American dream. No. 4 is "First Cow," Kelly Reichardt's gripping crime story about two entrepreneurs and their bovine companion in 1820s Oregon. That can be found on streaming platforms. No. 3 is "Nomadland," Chloe Zhao's achingly beautiful drama starring a never-better Frances McDormand as a woman driven by grief, poverty and wanderlust to hit the road and never look back. You can actually see that film in early 2021, when it will be more widely released.

And finally, my two very favorite movies of 2020. No. 2 is "Time," Garrett Bradley's wrenching documentary about a woman who fought for two decades to release her husband from an excessive prison sentence. And No. 1 is "Vitalina Varela," a work of both fiction and nonfiction from the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, which follows a Cape Verdean widow on her solitary journey to bury her husband in a Lisbon shantytown. Both of these movies are portraits of Black women living worlds apart, yet both possessed of extraordinary determination and courage as they confront personal loss while refusing to let it have the last word. "Time" can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, and "Vitalina Varela" can be found on the website of its distributor, Grasshopper Film.

GROSS: Justin, I'm wondering if living during the pandemic affected the kinds of movies you wanted to see and how you responded to movies that were shot before the pandemic?

CHANG: It definitely affected the movies I was able to see and, of course, just the movies that were available. I mean, this was not a big year for studio movies, as we know. For all that, though, in terms of independent films, in terms of documentaries, films made in other countries released here, films that I saw at festivals last year and also at, say, the Sundance Film Festival this year - which was one of the last festivals to happen before the pandemic shut everything down - there was an abundance - the usual abundance - of films.

And so in that respect, there's actually been something liberating, I would say. I mean, that seems like such an odd thing to say in a time when none of us feel (laughter) liberated, but - and the implications for, you know, the movie industry and for Hollywood are dire and grim, but I've been heartened by the renewed focus on some of those movies that would not have maybe gotten the same attention and that are always in danger of being sort of crowded out and pushed to the margins. You just have to look a little harder. And it was just as hard for me to make a top 10 list this year as it was in any year because I saw and loved so many movies.

That being said, just the way I do my job - as the way everyone has done their job - has changed, of course. It's hard not being in theaters. I miss them terribly, just as much as you do. And I'm grateful for streaming. I'm grateful for the safety of my living room, but it's harder to focus. It's harder to give the movie the undivided attention that it deserves. And just, you know, all the usual things of working from home. I have a small child at home, too. It hasn't been - that part of it has definitely been a challenge.

GROSS: So there's holiday movies opening and - not in theaters necessarily, but, you know, available on streaming services. Of the holiday movies that are coming up now, are there ones that you'd particularly recommend?

CHANG: Yes. I would recommend that audiences see "Wonder Woman 1984," which is going to be released in theaters on Christmas Day, but is also opening simultaneously on the HBO Max streaming. So I would recommend people subscribe to HBO Max. They can watch it that way. The movie is just a really enjoyable throwback to '80s superhero movies, or even late '70s superhero movies, like Richard Donner's "Superman," for example. It has some of that playful, very innocent spirit in a way that I think is very refreshing for some of us who are maybe tired of the more brooding, oppressive, self-serious kinds of superhero movies we've been seeing lately.

And it's funny. One of the weird effects of this year is that I don't have the usual blockbuster fatigue. I don't have the usual superhero fatigue that I normally do. And so something like "Wonder Woman 1984" is actually kind of refreshing in this context.

GROSS: So you're the film critic for the LA Times. Have there been fights between you and the TV critic over who gets to review what since the line has blurred so much between what's a movie and what's TV since so many movies are opening in TV platforms?

CHANG: The truth is, Terry - you know, it's funny. Even before this year, my wonderful LA Times colleagues, Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd, the TV critics at the Times - we never fight about stuff like that because we all have so much on our plate that it's like - actually, it's more the other way around. Can you do this, or can you do this, please? But, absolutely, this year there have been - the blurring of the lines have become even more pronounced.

This year, nothing has encapsulated that so much, I think, as "Small Axe," the anthology of films - five films directed by Steve McQueen. They are five different stories about life in London's West Indian community set between the 1960s and 1980s. Steve McQueen is primarily known as a film director, of course, with films like the Oscar-winning "12 Years A Slave," "Hunger" and "Shame." This is him working in television, working in - you know, doing a multipart TV work. He made them specifically for British television, and they're being shown on Amazon. But, you know, those are movies, and three of them played at the New York Film Festival. Two of them were selected for Cannes.

So the whole is this a movie, is this a TV series question has inspired furious debate. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, a group that I'm a member of - we voted "Small Axe," the whole anthology, as our best film of the year. And that delighted some and infuriated a lot more. I don't get too tied up with these distinctions myself. To me, I think cinema can absolutely be television and vice versa. I'm not so obsessed with the classifications as some people are. But it's been really interesting to see the debate that has erupted out of that decision in particular.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, we're talking to our film critic, Justin Chang, who's also a film critic for the LA Times. We'll talk more about the year in film after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our look at the year in film with our film critic, Justin Chang.

So do you think COVID has affected the kind of movie that you are most receptive to, how it's affected the kind of mood you want from a movie and what your - what makes you impatient and what makes you really engaged? I mean, most people have been so on edge, and I think that's being reflected in the choices that they make for listening and viewing.

CHANG: I'm kind of weird in that my mood is maybe less determined than most by just the overall general mood in terms of what I'm in the mood for. Like, I was just having a conversation with a friend the other day. They said, oh, I can't watch anything depressing right now. And it's like, I'm sort of the mind, really, I actually like leaning into depressing stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: It actually provides a bit of perspective in a way. Don't get me wrong. I mean, I also, in the early days of the pandemic, I was watching "The Shop Around The Corner." I was watching "Singin' In The Rain." Yes, I love my escapist Hollywood entertainment as much as anyone. But there's something to be said for leaning into stories about people who are even worse off than you are just for a bit of perspective.

It's actually really funny. The movie that I was talking with with a friend was "Beanpole," which is the No. 10 movie on my list, which I do recommend people. And I would warn them, if you can't handle anything depressing right now, I would say, yeah, maybe skip that. But at the end of the day, I'm reminded of something Roger Ebert said. To paraphrase him, it's that great art is never depressing.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. I know. It's so true. Like, depressing - I always think of "Cold War" - the movie "Cold War."

CHANG: Yes. Yeah. Beautiful film.

GROSS: You know, it's a very depressing film in a lot of ways, but it's so exhilarating 'cause it's just so good. Well, but along those themes, you're saying you like to lean into the depression and despair (laughter), but what movies this year have given you, like, the most comfort and joy?

CHANG: (Laughter) Comfort and joy - what a concept.

GROSS: Two seasonal words, yeah.

CHANG: I know. Well, you know, I will say that as far as movies that were really comforting, I would single out "Lovers Rock," which is one of those five "Small Axe" films directed by Steve McQueen. This is a movie set at a 1980s house party in London - in Notting Hill, actually. And it is just sheer bliss. It's a great party movie, and it's a great anti-social distancing movie because you are - there are just heart-stoppingly beautiful moments in this film where the camera is grooving along with the dancers. And it's sensual. It's sexy. It's romantic. It is completely transporting, really hypnotic filmmaking by McQueen. And it's unlike anything he's done, I think, because most of his movies tend to be colder and more severe. So I think that there was something really liberating about that one in particular. And it just - it absolutely will lift your spirits and, I think, give you hope for, you know, for the future.

Another one kind of along those lines is David Byrne's "American Utopia," directed by Spike Lee, a - just a great concert film, just a burst of joy. I mean, "American Utopia" expresses so much hope despite the darkness. And I think those two movies - "Lovers Rock," "American Utopia" - you know, we miss house parties. We miss concerts. We miss being together. And those movies will allow you to experience some of that safely.

GROSS: What are you going to be doing over the holidays?

CHANG: (Laughter) Watching movies, as usual, but also - and hopefully taking a break and not writing about them, but also just staying at home, hunkering in the bunker with my wife and daughter and, you know...

GROSS: What are you going to watch on the holidays if you're watching movies?

CHANG: I don't know yet. And I'm so bad at answering that because I just have this huge stack of things I need to watch. I want - I always want to watch older films as well. One of the pleasures of this year has been actually getting to watch more older movies than I typically get to in a busier year, so - but also my holidays never feel complete if I do not watch "Meet Me In St. Louis," which is one of my all-time favorite movies, that wonderful 1944 Judy Garland musical, which is a great Christmas movie, but it's also just a great seasonal year-round movie because it's - takes place over a whole year. And that is something that I think will soothe my soul and I hope many others as well.

GROSS: I love that movie very much.

CHANG: It's so great.

GROSS: And it's the movie that the song "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" was written for.

CHANG: Yes.

GROSS: And that's such a wonderful song that's so perfect for this year because it's all about not being able to be with the people who you love.

CHANG: It is.

GROSS: And they're looking ahead to when they have to move and they won't be with the people who they love next Christmas, and the song says that soon, faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more. And then it later says, until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow. And I think that so describes how people are feeling, so we should probably end with that song. And I'm sure we both love the Judy Garland version from the film, but I think maybe we'll end with the Hugh Martin version. He wrote the song, and toward the end of his life, he recorded it. And it's a - I think, just a beautiful version of it. Sound good?

CHANG: Sounds great, yeah. And I love the song, too, for all those reasons. And sometimes the most melancholy Christmases and holidays in general are the most meaningful ones.

GROSS: Well, Justin, it's been a pleasure to talk with you again, and I wish you a 2021 that's better than 2020 has been and with plenty of not only good movies, but hopefully a chance to gather with people who you love and go back to film festivals and be able to argue in person with - about movies with people.

CHANG: I miss that so much. And thank you so much, Terry, and I wish the same for you. Happy holidays and happy new year to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

HUGH MARTIN: (Singing) Here we are, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we go into our archive for a concert of Christmas and winter songs, some classics and some obscure ones, performed by singer Rebecca Kilgore. And we'll stay in our archive for an excerpt of our onstage interview with and performance by Rosemary Clooney, who starred in the film "White Christmas." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

No matter how you're spending your Christmas, even if you're away from the friends and family you hoped to be with, we wish you a good holiday, and we wish you and those who are dear to you good health.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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