Stuck at home in 2020, all of us may have watched more — more TV, more movies, more we-weren't-sure-TV-or-movies — than ever before. So did critics Neal Justin and Chris Hewitt, who chatted about making sense of the year's viewing ("Selena + Chef," "The Mandalorian," "The Queen's Gambit") and what it could mean for 2021.
Justin: There are times I've felt that covering movies and TV isn't that important, but during the pandemic, I've felt more essential than ever. Am I crazy?
Hewitt: I'll tactfully avoid that question, but I can't remember when I've received so many kind notes from readers, thanking me for recommendations. Just yesterday, I heard from a group that meets online for dinner-and-a-movie, using my weekly Film School columns. I think you're right that, with so much good stuff, folks are looking for guidance.
Justin: It's been rewarding discovering — or rediscovering — programs that help shake the blues. As critics, I think we tend to be drawn to the dark and downbeat. But that's not what I need right now and I suspect readers feel the same.
"The Queen's Gambit" is far from great, but there's a reason it's a major hit. Watching the underdog lead, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, outthink her opponents was so uplifting, viewers were tricked into thinking chess is a thrilling spectator sport.
"Tiger King," another Netflix phenomenon, dealt with cruelty to animals and murder, but I think people were attracted to outrageous characters who could be Homer Simpson's neighbors. Both would have done well, but I'm not sure they would have become cultural touchstones without the pandemic.
During the first month of quarantine, the first three seasons of "Cheers" kept me from moving into a liquor store. I wouldn't normally be drawn to anything as sappy as "The Waltons," but watching the family endure hardships 20 times harder than me not being able to go out for sushi was more soothing than I'd have imagined.
Hewitt: I see your "Cheers" and raise you the 2008 series "Worst Week." I plowed through all 16 episodes — tears actually rolled down my cheeks during the silly/smart pilot. Film School also has been a great chance to re-watch classic comedies like "The Palm Beach Story" — never has my DVD library come in handier!
I wish there were a way for Hollywood to predict what was coming, because I bet we'll have to wait a year for more soothing movies. They're not escapist, but I was so inspired by Michaela Coel in HBO's "I May Destroy You" and Frances McDormand in the upcoming movie "Nomadland" because they're telling us things nobody else is. These titles are the opposite of "comfort food," but great art can comfort, too.
Justin: Wait. You still have a DVD player? One thing the pandemic taught us is that great art doesn't need $100 million budgets. One of my favorites of the year was the Stephen Sondheim tribute in which Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski teamed up from their homes.
It's also been fascinating to watch comics and musicians without a live audience to feed off. Last month's Tom Petty tribute was quite touching, probably more than if it had been at Madison Square Garden. You don't have to be a Garth Brooks worshiper to appreciate his fan-request concert with wife Trisha Yearwood. We never would have gotten these intimate shows without a lockdown.
Hewitt: Neal, I still have a VCR. I am basically a Cro-Magnon, technology-wise. Streep is a lockdown MVP, adding two new streaming movies this month and charming promotional appearances. In a promo for "The Prom," Keegan-Michael Key called her "the greatest actor alive" and she responded by banging her head against her keyboard.
My other MVP might be Carla Hall. I've loved her since she competed on "Top Chef" in 2008 but she's all over the Food Network. It really hit me when she was sampling a contestant's sweet potato cheesecake on "Holiday Baking Championship" and said, "It tastes like — " and then her voice broke as she struggled to get out the word "home." I may be projecting, but that emotion seemed to come from not just thinking about the home she's stuck in but also the family she can't spend the holidays with. We are all Carla Hall!
Justin: I've never been a fan of "foodie TV" but watching "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Phil Rosenthal take cartoonish delight over every morsel in Netflix's "Somebody Feed Phil" was as amusing as a Marx Brothers comedy. One of this year's surprises was "Selena + Chef" on HBO Max, where pop star Selena Gomez learned to make omelets by taking Zoom lessons from her kitchen. She's a delight.
When it comes to an MVP, I'd nominate Conan O'Brien. His goofy approach to late night had already been a reprieve from the political humor of his peers, but I also went back and watched his old "Conan Without Borders" specials. His spit-takes and pratfalls from all over the world saved me more than once from a deep funk. I wonder if we'll see more silliness in 2021. What has Hollywood learned? Not that they ever learn anything.
Hewitt: The answer will have a lot to do with the viability of big-budget movies. Other than "Tenet," which did OK overseas but not here, big titles either moved to next year or to streaming services. Given that there may be other pandemics, will studios still throw $300 million at blockbusters they can't put in theaters? I'd be OK with never seeing another "Avengers," especially if it means human-driven scripts that are cheaper and could work either in theaters or streams, if that is Hollywood's takeaway.
Justin: I'm hesitant to proclaim "Life will never be the same." TV viewers were never supposed to be able to stomach dark material after 9/11 — and along came "Breaking Bad" and "Fargo." I suspect "The Avengers" will rise again but be more aware of human elements. Or alien ones. Disney Plus' "The Mandalorian" has whiz-bang special effects, but all anyone talked about is cutey-pie Baby Yoda. There's nothing like action on the big screen, but "Mulan" was still pretty nifty on my phone, and not having sound blasting in my ears — or bemoaning the price of popcorn — let me focus more on the plucky hero.
The cinematography in "Mank" on Netflix was quite dazzling on my living-room screen. And I dare you to name a theatrical film that looked as rich as HBO's "Perry Mason." Going to the theater will be worthwhile again, but I'm even more inclined to stay home.
Hewitt: I'm a fraidy-cat so I'll wait for a vaccine, but I miss theaters. One life-will-never-be-the-same change I fear is that Hollywood will decide movies with explosions go on big screens while movies about people go on small. I am curious about the impact of "Small Axe," which ended up opening on a streamer instead of in theaters, and its ilk. That's Amazon's Steve McQueen-produced series of five movies. One, "Lovers Rock," gave me one of the year's purest joys, when people at a '70s house party dance like mad to "Kung Fu Fighting."
It would have been even better 30 feet wide, with primo sound, but it was so beautiful on my TV that it made me hopeful that, whatever the future of movies/TV looks like, artists will do work that makes us feel glad to spend time with each other in the dark.
Neal Justin's favorite TV of 2020
You don't have to be a science-fiction fan to get swept up in this series in which Hilary Swank leads a team of international astronauts battling personal crises on their way to Mars. It's "This Is Us" in space. Netflix
Turning baseball's bad boy into a sober, doting father could have been a botched play. But this final inning, in which the bombastic title character inexplicably becomes the MLB commissioner, is an out-of-the-park home run. IFC, Hulu
'The Comedy Store'
If CNN's "The History of Comedy" was a primer, than Mike Binder's docuseries is graduate school. It's a kick to see former regulars David Letterman, Michael Keaton and Whitney Cummings take a trip down memory lane in the hallowed halls that made them famous. Showtime
'The Comey Rule'
Brendan Gleeson doesn't deliver his blistering impersonation of Donald Trump until the second half, but there's plenty to keep you riveted before it's time to hail to the chief. One acclaimed actor after another interprets highlights from James Comey's memoir about his final years as FBI director. Showtime
"Friends" veteran David Schwimmer has a ball playing Jerry, a pompous NSA expert reassigned to a cybercrime unit in England. He's about as far away from Ross as you can get — and that's what makes the show such smart fun. Peacock
'The Last Dance'
This 10-hour retrospective on the Chicago Bulls' 1990s championship runs isn't in the same league as "OJ: Made in America," ESPN's last epic sports documentary. But for sports enthusiasts trying to survive the pandemic without live games, it was a godsend. ESPN
Key players behind "The Big Sick" and "Master of None" have found a way to champion immigrant stories without making viewers feel like they're attending a naturalization ceremony. You'll end up cheering for each and every one of them, no matter your ethnic background. Apple TV
Don't mistake "Lovecraft" for just a dissertation on civil rights. If one episode seems to mimic a haunted-house movie, the next is an adventure straight out of the Indiana Jones playbook. HBO
The soon-to-be courtroom wiz is a luckless private investigator who'd be a barfly if he could stand socializing with other drunks. Director Tim Van Patten creates a moody atmosphere of beauty and corruption that will remind you of "Chinatown." HBO
'World on Fire'
There have been a number of gripping war movies in recent years, but this is the best TV series on combat in some time. Plenty of screen time is dedicated to the women, all of whom prove to be just as steely as the soldiers on the front lines of World War II. TPT Passport
Chris Hewitt's favorite movies of 2020
Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book seemed unfilmable, but director Chloé Zhao and star Frances McDormand reconceived it as a magical, compassionate drama about people living without homes. In theaters Feb. 19.
A documentary? From Romania? Yes, it sounds deadly. But your jaw will drop within minutes as the film starts with a fire at a heavy metal concert, and it'll keep dropping as the corruption and betrayals pile up. Amazon, YouTube
A band teacher who dreams of being a jazz musician learns his purpose during a sweetly funny "It's a Wonderful Life"-like journey. Disney Plus
The year's finest ensemble cast will wow you in a tender drama that follows a Korean-American family on a quixotic quest to establish a small farm. In theaters after they reopen
'Let Him Go'
Diane Lane and Kevin Costner nail the details of a long-married couple who suspect their desperate plan to find their missing grandson is doomed. A smartly observed, quietly suspenseful drama. Amazon, YouTube
'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm'
Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova expand on the raucous laughs of the first "Borat." This time, it's political and surprisingly moving. Amazon
'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
August Wilson's play is reconfigured for the screen, spotlighting a spectacular performance by Chadwick Boseman as a troubled blues musician. Netflix
'The Invisible Man'
Elisabeth Moss gave one of two ferocious movie performances this year (the other is in "Shirley," also worth seeing) in a smart remake that finds her trying to escape a husband whose invisibility makes him even more dangerous. Amazon, HBO Max, Hulu, YouTube
'News of the World'
Tom Hanks veers into "Paper Moon"/"True Grit" territory in an understated, touching adventure about a Wild West town crier's complicated relationship with an orphan girl he's charged with delivering to her relatives. In theaters when they reopen
'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'
Charlie Kaufman's tricky drama about missed opportunities spotlights Jessie Buckley in the flashiest movie performance of the year. Netflix