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  • Adam Tye

A Twilight World - My Top Ten 'Things' of 2020

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

This post was originally published at adamphilreviews on Jan 26, 2021.


The only thing more insufferable than another top ten post, is a top ten post that apologises for itself upfront. I should know - I've written enough of them - and as tempting as it is to flap about how top ten lists belittle art by reducing it to numbers, it's hard to believe that anyone reading actually signed up for the sermon. Doubly so on the back of 2020: a year that flogged its misery without premium, whilst offering precious little media relief in return, as cinemas staggered to a halt and studios clutched their blockbuster releases close to their chest. As such, 2020 became this peculiar experience in which everyone mostly dragged their way through it on the back of what had come before - whether it was a film or tv show that we'd missed out on in the years prior (God knows there's enough of them) or retreating back to old favourites. For as sceptic as 2020 was, there's something oddly comforting in the thought of everyone huddling around the stories that they hold close, or finding new ones to breathe fresh meaning into.


So, no apologies for a Top Ten this time. In fact, if you have a list of your own then I'd love to hear it - anything to celebrate all the flashes of enjoyment that made 2020 in any way bearable. Because this isn't a ranking, but a love letter - one written for a year we can't forget soon enough, and the fits of art that pulled it mercifully to a close.


 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Nintendo Switch (2020)


Has a piece of media every had such perfect release-timing as Animal Crossing: New Horizons? As the true scope of March (and indeed, the entire year) lurched ominously into view and everyone across the world shuttered their doors, out exploded the latest entry in Nintendo's long-beloved paradise simulator. Or perhaps "exploded" is the wrong word to describe a game as soft and warming as Animal Crossing - a game that has only distantly heard of "conflict" and "tension" (outside of trying to get the '100 successful fishing attempts in a row' challenge, which borders on psychopathy). The series has always operated on a kind of wish-fulfilment level, but that appeal became perversely heightened once 'social distancing' strolled into view. A paradise island that could be customised to your whim? A society that operated on niceness and positivity? A life without pressure or drama to the extent that even the landlord couldn't care less about the rent? Irresistible. I'll never complete the museum, and there's a sizeable chance my island remains forever half-finished, but at this stage its a comfort just to know that its waiting there. For all the media that released in 2020, Animal Crossing might bethe only one to be genuinely therapeutic...at least until you try to terraform a spot of water without accidentally hitting the spot beside it, at which point you can kiss the vein in your forehead goodbye.


 

Fleabag

TV (2019)



Believe the hype.


Fleabag is where the sitcom format goes to die. Super funny, furiously sharp and with a freewheeling approach to writing that made every episode feel totally unpredictable. And yet the mood is so...apocalyptic. If I fancied putting people off the show forever, I'd almost call it stressful, as you flick through each episode and watch the character's psyches balancing on a razors-edge, ready to teeter off into the abyss. Sometimes, they do. Yet the show mostly finds ways to pull them all back, as Season One's dour wit bursts into life with Season Two - likely the best love story of the 2020s, and one of the best seasons of television I've ever seen in my life. Not just a slice of joy, but genuinely exciting too, with more on offer in singular episodes than most shows muster in a season (seeing that punch in the restaurant gave me more catharsis than I have felt in years). I'm late to the party, but glad to finally be here. Comedies, TV, all of us: we're living in the shadow of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.


 

Hades

Nintendo Switch (2020)



As close to a cheat entry as it is possible to be; for out of all 365 days of the year, I only knew Hades for 6 of them. That it managed to be my Game of the Year regardless should speak volumes in and of itself. A rogue-like game for people who don't like rogue-likes (as well as for those who do), Hades makes its mark upon gaming history for being the only game ever created in which dying is not a frustration, but maybe even something to look forward to. Where other games treat death as a punishment - a reset in which to start over and begin rebuilding muscle memory, Hades accomplishes the incredible feat of making death an act of progress, and it does so via the House of Hades: the waiting room before your next escape attempt out of Tartarus, and the area in which you will catchup with the game's jumble of colourful characters. For an experience that is intrinsically built upon replayability and randomisation - in which the dice-roll of upgrades and procedurally-generated dungeons means that no two play sessions will be the same - the most jaw-dropping part of Hades might just be its writing, which is sparky, warm and endless. You will die over and over again and never hear the same text box twice, as characters respond in their own way to whatever fate has befallen you, as well as give hints as to the game's shockingly expansive backstory. For writing to be enjoyable is one feat - to be so ad infinitum is another. I have sunk over 30 hours into Hades since its release and even after the credits have rolled, it feels as though it will never end.


Returning the House of Hades' characters and upgrade trees creates a never-ceasing sense of progress, with even relatively premature deaths seeming to push the world onwards. Perhaps this sounds like a strange element to focus on - especially without paying much lip-service to the game's incredible combat, which manages to be rewarding even when the random upgrades initially seem against your favour (I can't tell you the amount of times I have hated a weapon/upgrade combo on first sight, only to have some of my best runs with them). It's impossible to recommend anything without the snag of hesitation - without the obvious caveat that it might not be for everyone. But if ever a game were to break this pattern, it might just be Hades.


 

The Book of Dust: Volume 1 (La Belle Sauvage)

Book - Philip Pullman (2017)



The last few years have seen me steadily return to books - something I once loved to devour on a daily basis, before my attention was stolen by TV, Games, and an OCD ritual that can turn the act of reading even a single page into an exhausting experience. 2020 saw me read perhaps more books in a single year than I've read since my childhood, and whilst it wasn't always easy, the results were worth it. Most of that reading came in a burst over late-Spring/early-Summer, and my initial choice to represent them all on this list was IT -Stephen King's endurance test of a novel which I started in 2019 and picked back up again a year later. The main problem? I still haven't finished it! Look, it's over 1300 pages long and a not insignificant amount of those pages are pretty miserable.


In that context La Belle Sauvage might sound like a sort of back-up option, but I think to frame it as such would underplay how much fun I had finishing it. I've written about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials before, but only in regards to the BBC adaptation - not the novels themselves. La Belle Sauvage marks the authors novel return to the universe over fifteen years after The Amber Spyglass and it is...weird. Where that original trilogy was fixated on the beauty and power of Original Sin right from the off, The Book of Dust (as the new trilogy is called) is more obtuse. Pullman himself has described it as being about consciousness, though right now that only captures a fragment of what the series seems to have on its mind. La Belle Sauvage starts as a book about dictatorial indoctrination, with the Magisterium weaponising schoolchildren against their friends by recruiting them as spies, before the story veers into Noah's Arc territory - flooding the entirety of Oxford and stuffing its protagonist into a canoe. But where the Biblical Flood acted as a force of purifying destruction, Pullman's flood instead acts as a vehicle for resurrection, as powers and creatures both ancient and inexplicable rise from the water to test the main characters.


For a series designed to follow-up one of the most successful children's stories of modern times, perhaps the most shocking thing about The Book of Dust is in how brazenly it flies in the face of what readers expect. Not only does Pullman expand his universe in ways that are both unsettling and unexplained, but he puts his characters through the ringer in the process, with Volume Two in particular taking the cake for sustained hardship and misery (possibly a little too much misery in one case, but that's a discussion for another time). I've made it sound overwhelmingly un-fun, but the reality is a an honest-to-God page-turner, and an exciting instance of a hugely popular book series being developed on in genuine unpredictable ways. The work of a long-practised master moving to his own rhythm.


 

Little Women

Film - Greta Gerwig (2019)



Jo: "Who would like to read about domestic joys and struggles?"

Amy: "Perhaps, writing about them will make them important."

Jo: "Writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it."

Amy: "No, that's not true."


This quote rattles around my head every so often, and I should really make a point of holding onto it whenever I'm worried that the thing I'm working on doesn't matter.


2020 began with Little Women: starting with knowing next-to-nothing of the story, to a quick one-two punch of the 90s Winona Ryder version and Greta Gerwig's latest adaptation. The Winona Ryder film is plenty charming in its own right and a warm welcome to Alcott's story that any newcomer would be happy to fall into. Watching it in such close proximity to Gerwig's restructured take is akin to whiplash - taking a story I was only recently familiar with and mixing up the pieces. If the Ryder version is content to be a faithful translation of the original, then Gerwig really seizes the opportunity to make it her own, eyeing up the novel's coming of age story and turning it into a duelling narrative in which the past and the present collide and comment on each other in devastating ways. From a filmmaking standpoint it's incredibly assured. From an audience standpoint, it's one of the best films of the year.


In a sense, Little Women was to 2020 what Paddington 2 was to 2018 - an enduring, timeless spot of delight that was there whenever you needed it. An effortless display of love from everyone involved and as bright a sign as any that Gerwig is one of our great working storytellers. Even if you think it couldn't possibly be for you, there's a damn good chance that it is.


 

Overwatch

PS4 (2016)



Overwatch has already held its worth in gold these last few years to me - it being the main way I've connected with people outside of York, and especially with my friends who moved to Hong Kong almost two years ago. Do I really need to explain how 2020 turbocharged its necessity? For whatever you think of the game itself, it was as effortless a way to keep in touch with people as I had last year.


 

Taylor Swift - folklore/evermore

(2020)



One of the great PSA announcements that people endlessly shared across social media last year was the advice that doing nothing during a pandemic is not just acceptable, but maybe even encouraged. As March rolled around, people were dishing out stories of past geniuses creating masterworks during their own isolated periods, only for people to rightly tell them all to fuck off. We're not Shakespeare; we're not going to create King Lear, and sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to sit back, be safe, and be calm. A cynic might say that it was a good excuse to put life on the back burner for a year, to which I say: why not? We're not machines, and in the year where time stood still, just making it safely through the day became a measurable task in its own right.


So how dare Taylor Swift invite my own productivity-anxiety back into the fold by releasing two albums in a single year; both of which make a strong beeline for the all-timer spots in her discography.


Noted by many critics to be the start of a more third-person storytelling experience for the singer-songwriter, it paradoxically had never felt more like she was talking directly to you. Despite the first album releasing in the Summer, both had the quality of the Winter cold - a boarded up cabin amidst the snow and the forest trees. The sense of freedom from the Top Ten Charts is palpable.


In some respects, pitching these two albums to people with little experience of Taylor Swift feels frustrating - inextricably tied as they are to the growth of her songwriting across the years. Much of the joy comes from the meta-level of watching an artist I like wander into this area of storytelling she's always felt on the cusp of, and then own it so completely. You can hear it in the end result: the confident playfulness of The Last Great American Dynasty, the frankness of This Is Me Trying, the infectiousness murder mystery of No Body, No Crime, or the wistful anger of Tis The Damn Season. And as if that wasn't enough, it all topped off with an honestly great acoustic session uploaded to Disney+ in the waning days of the year. In a career marked by a near-constant creative drive, 2020 is likely to go down as Swift's most profoundly generous offering.


 

Tenet

Film - Christoper Nolan (2020)



I've been thinking a lot about Tenet these last few days. Given the clattering noise surrounding its infamous dialogue mix, I thought I'd do what so many have joked about doing and watch it with the subtitles on. In doing so, I learned something absolutely fascinating:


It doesn't matter.


Being let in on every line of dialogue feels like experiencing half a conversation. For all its reams of explanation, the lines delivered mid-action feel chopped and minimal to the point of uselessness. If you can follow the film's storyline just from reading the script, then there's a very good chance that you are actually Christopher Nolan.


What's funny about this realisation is that, far from making me dislike the film, it actually made things click closer into place. To be clear: it is utterly to Tenet's discredit that it does a poor job of letting you sink into that mindset. Nolan wants to do all the thinking for his audience, but in letting those details crawl across the character's conversations, you can't help but expect to understand what is happening, and be frustrated at the results.


"Don't try to understand it; feel it" is the quote everyone throws around, and one that I criticised on my last viewing for being something the film doesn't adequately prep the audience for. And yet, there's a kernel of truth in it. As daft as it sounds, seeing Patrick Willems' tweets about just enjoying the mad energy felt like it gave me an opening to throw myself into the film, regardless of how rabidly so many of us have spent the last year breaking it apart. And it worked! All the stuff I enjoyed on that first viewing, but held back on because of the film's rough sense of clarity, came rushing to the surface. I think this is the first film that Nolan has made where the 'power of cinema' isn't just the means, but the point. It is pure cinematic nonsense - all the stuff that Nolan loves, from James Bond, to mad time travel, gets cooked up in a blender and dialled to eleven. I think that's why Kat and Sator, despite being the film's emotional core, receive the most tortured and awkward scenes - because they are there out necessity, rather than because it was fun to do. And you can always tell when Nolan is having fun vs. when he is not.


For all it can be infuriating as a blockbuster experience, there's an enthusiasm to its conception that I think rings true throughout the finished film. There's something inspiring in that - in making something for yourself, and trying to communicate that enthusiasm to others. That doesn't make a film intrinsically good, but as someone very much on Nolan's wavelength, it's oddly stirring. And I think time will be kind to Tenet - sanding away the frustrations so that we can better appreciate the merits. Even now, I could easily dip back in for another go - to pick apart all the pieces, and bask in how truly unhinged it aspires to be.


 

The Last of Us Part Two

PS4 (2020)



Seemingly the antithesis of Animal Crossing and it's perfectly-timed release, The Last Of Us Part Two made its mark on 2020's pop-culture schedule by being the only blockbuster event that was sold on the hype of its overwhelming misery. Deliberately depressing, tailored to provoke anger, and stretched to a truly excessive 30-hour runtime, it's hard to think of a less appealing fictional experience to subject yourself to in 2020.


So obviously I had to sit through it twice.

This isn't the place to talk about the controversy surrounding the game - much of it garbage, some of it misdiagnosed, and slivers of it completely understandable. I can only speak to the experience I had - which, to be clear, was not especially fun. The Last Of Us 1's effectiveness as a horror experience was surprisingly under-discussed across the board despite its heavy reliance on tension and survival; but even by that comparison, Part Two makes its predecessor look like a gentle stroll in the park, with a mounting and unrelenting sense of stress that makes every corner, every door and even every workbench a potential source of horror and surprise. Ellie's solo excursion across Seattle on Day Two is the stuff of pure panic attacks, whilst the basement fight at the hospital's 'Ground Zero' is likely to go down as one of gaming's great pieces of nightmare spectacle.


But it's the dizzying ambition in its cinematic storytelling that cements it as essential. Compared to the satisfying completeness of Part One, the experience is undeniably messy - a consequence of the lofty goals Naughty Dog sets for itself. - but even when it stumbles, it's breathtaking just to watch it try. And despite the crushing sense of sadness, I found catharsis in safely moving through and exploring its crumbling society. A pretty unforgettable experience.


 

Wolf Hall

Book - Hilary Mantel (2009)



“He thinks, 'I remembered you, Thomas More, but you didn’t remember me. You never even saw me coming.'”


This list does not go in order of value, but if it did, then you might find Wolf Hall prowling near the summit. What's funny about this is that, in spite of the book's towering reputation, the main response my friends have given me when I talk about how much I love it is often: "Why?"


And I can understand how finely the book treads the line between brilliance and frustration. I mentioned it briefly earlier, but for the last few years I've been having a kind of struggle with OCD. Rarely in an overwhelming sense (although you best believe the pandemic has undone a couple of years' resistance to any germ-phobia), but it has made previously innocuous activities measurably more exhausting, and one of those activities is the process of reading. Mostly this manifests as a need to re-read lines over and over until they sink in - a task that proves self-defeating, as you're often so busy focusing on the need to re-read that you fail to pay attention to the text in front of you. In that sense, making my way through Wolf Hall occasionally had the air of masochism about it, as Hilary Mantel's infamous use of the "He" pronoun to always refer back to Thomas Cromwell (regardless of context) is enough to trip up the speediest of readers, let alone myself.


And yet, despite that, Wolf Hall became the first book in years that I kept gravitating back to each time I put it down. I wanted to see what each person would do next - more specifically, I wanted to see how Mantel was going to describe it. If Stephen King is right about how a reader gravitates more to a writer's voice than the story itself, then I've fallen head over heels in love for Hilary Mantel's. Each page is its own treasure trove of historical detail, sharp characterisation, and incredible prose; lines and paragraphs that would be another author's best, but for Mantel continuously crest one after the other. It's grand, haunting, and immediate, with the present tense conjuring the unshakeable feeling that, for all its basis in historical record, Wolf Hall is happening now. Even just reading the first line of the second entry is enough to get me excited all over again. What a special book.

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