For the last 11 (!) years, we’ve been sounding out our editors and writers for their Best-Of picks for the year. The rule has always been that it doesn’t have to be something published or released in the actual year, but just whatever was important or illuminating for us in the preceding 12 months. Of course, it’s great when it is something new and fresh that might deserve some greater attention, like a new musical artist or filmmaker coming onto the scene, but we have a nice mix of recommendations below, for Best Movies, Best Singles, Best Albums, Best Books, Best Podcasts, Worst People and more. Let’s bury this motherfucker of a year in the ground.
Alex Cummings: I don’t know if this is the best film of the year, since this has been such a strange year for movie-watching in general, but Remi Weekes’s His House stood out to me – a great horror (?) film about trauma, guilt, and healing that might be overlooked. Also a marvel of storytelling economy. I also adored Vampires vs. the Bronx, and of older films, Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) and Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman (1961) were glorious escapes from the current moment. And of course long-time ToM favorite Hillbilly Elegy.
Casey Baskin: I’m Thinking of Ending Things — perfect movie for 2020. Let’s go down with the ship.
Romeo Guzmán: Moana (so much Moana) and Song of the Sea.
Leena Habiballa: Talking About Trees by Suhaib Gasmelbari. A group of 4 retired Sudanese filmmakers attempt to open a public movie theatre and revive people’s love of cinema in their neighbourhood. The documentary film follows this group of friends as they navigate the state’s bureaucracy and hostility to their pursuit, highlighting the conditions that led to the death of cinema in Sudan as well as the contingency of cinema to the state’s self-justification. The star of the film is the heartfelt and tender friendship they share which is the site of renewal of their hope after every setback and the refusal to surrender to a sense of impossibility.
Nick Juravich: I spent most of 2020 rewatching kids’ movies (shoutout to ToM family fave Moana), and the only real new films I remember seeing were Hulu’s buzzy romcoms, Palm Springs and Happiest Season, both of which are profoundly depressing movies in which things go from bad to worse in situations that feel never ending (or technically ARE never ending). Seems about right for this year. Also, in my addled brain, these films exist in the same cinematic universe, so perhaps we can look forward to the best film of 2021 involving these two couples teaming up to save the world, or something.
Courtney Rawlings: I refuse to acknowledge this question, but Bill and Ted Face the Music was released in the year 2020.
Stan Thangaraj: Song of the Sea, an amazing cartoon movie that bridges and engages the human/non-human divide and the storyline is beautiful. I love seals.
Alex: Sidney Gish’s utterly infectious “Not But For You, Bunny” was the Summer Jam we needed but didn’t get. Also, U.S. Girls’ “4 American Dollars.”
Romeo: Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams,” with big ups to Nate dog; lots of Helado Negro
Nick: My spouse is a longtime (formerly Dixie) Chicks fan, and while the whole song is a little on-the-nose, hearing “Gaslighter” blaring through our apartment in March as the entire ruling party lied us into disaster was something I will not forget.
Joel Suarez: Apparently I’m the last person on earth to know that Bob Dylan made a Christmas album. “Must Be Santa” is funny and good.
Jason Tebbe: Sui Zhen’s “Matsudo City Life” and People Years’ “Commonly Known.” Last winter I discovered Australian artist Sui Zhen and “Matsudo City Life” was the song I would put on in the pre-dawn darkness as I drove my car to the commuter rail station. It wrapped me in a warm moment of beauty before confronting the rigors of my day. Once quarantine hit I still kept playing it. It comes from a concept album from the point of view of an android, and when I listen to it I keep hoping I will wake up some day and this will all have been a simulation.
People Years is a band from Alabama that I know next to nothing about and has little online presence. I heard “Commonly Known” on a music podcast and it immediately drew me in. There were so many times this spring I sat at my desk on the upstairs alcove of my house, waiting for the Zoom bell to ring, listening to this song to get the needed jolt of energy.
Stan: Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go to Work.” He was one of the rappers I really got into as a kid moving from India to Atlanta, GA. With all the craziness in our world, this song had me pumped up everytime I cooked a meal. Yes, I played it a lot this year with all the at-home cooking.
Casey: It has to be Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. And Songhoy Blues’ Optimisme.
Nick: The Mountain Goats put out two this year, and while I’m usually more of a fan of their full-band stuff (and yes, I can hear the original fans howling), Songs for Pierre Chuvin hit me harder in 2020. Sitting at home thinking about a history book you just read, you say?
Courtney: U.S. Girls, Heavy Light.
Stan: Michael Jackson’s Thriller brings back a sense of being alive in the world and the beats move me and force me to be present. It is also an album that tells my own immigrant story.
Murray Browne: My shout-out goes to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book of essays, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016). This is my third Nguyen book, having read his collection of short stories The Refugees (2017) and his Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Sympathizer (2015). In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen deliberates on who controls the narrative of the War in Southeast Asia. The defeated U.S. superpower remembers the war through its Vietnam Veterans Memorial and films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which Nguyen satirized in The Sympathizer. Whereas the Vietnamese victors and the vanquished (those Vietnamese who fled South Vietnam and are characters in The Refugees) remember the war in an entirely different way. One theme does emerge from this well-written journey, “In the ethics of remembering one’s own,” writes Nguyen, “remembering those of one’s side, even when they do terrible things, is better than ignoring them all together. Nothing is worse than being ignored, erased,
or effaced as the losers of any war or conflict can confirm.”
Alex: Right before the pandemic hit, I was reading Sallie Tisdale’s Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying – ironically enough? But it was the similarly themed Being Mortal by Atul Gawande that stuck in my mind the most as many of us reckoned with illness, aging, and death.
Leena: Social Poetics by Mark Nowak. Drawing on parallel workers’ histories – from Kenya to Nicaragua to South Africa – and two decades of poetry workshops, Nowak makes the case for a poetics with a social life and political responsibility, a poetics of the working people. Nowak affirms the existence of poetry not simply as commodity, aesthetic or the accumulation of linguistic exchange values, but as a mode of being and a mode of analysis that animates a workers’ culture of dignity, imaginative militancy, and resistance.
Romeo: Mary Oppen, Meaning a Life; Michael Torres, An Incomplete List of Names; Ben Ehrenreich, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time; Octavia Butler, Parable books + Lynell George’s book on Butler too; Chiwan Choi, Yellow House; Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking; Pablo Neruda’s collection of odes; DJ Waldie’s new book on LA; Roberto Lovato’s memoir A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (these are all books we read outside of class/teachings).
Nick: There’s this great little collection out from Rutgers Press you might have heard of…
Eric Morales-Franceschini: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future is the best book I’ve read in quite some time, easily the best of the year, and the single most important book published (for me, anyway) since Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Ha Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. These latter two I recommend to anyone and everyone I can. So that gives you a sense of my sensibilities, I suppose. It takes a rare talent to reckon with the scale and scope of problems we face — those imminently existential (i.e. ecological and civilizational collapse) and others quintessential (i.e. the question of power and revolutionary change) — but Robinson, renowned as a sci-fi novelist, has amassed a knowledge of concrete alternatives and proposals for how we get there that is dramatically satisfying (enough) and, above all else, analytically rigorous and intellectually stimulating and necessary. In a time when the only (leftist) alternative that gets any serious play is some variant or another of affirmative action neoliberalism, this book inadvertently exposes just how naive and uninspiring such “alternatives” are and, to the contrary, just where the true innovations (in science, economics, jurisprudence, and even myths/religions/storytelling) lay. Could not recommend it more highly!
Wendy C. Ortiz: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (nonfiction) and a tie for fiction: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett. There is no other book like The Undocumented Americans, full stop. Karla can mic drop anywhere, anytime. Girl, Woman, Other is sprawling, unruly, and generous in story, form, character, political consciousness. And I never wanted to put down The Vanishing Half as I read, nor did I want it to end.
Courtney: I do not read.
Joel: Zach Carter’s The Price of Peace was among the better books I read this year. Ana Minian’s Undocumented Lives was awesome too.
Stan: Front Desk by Kelly Yang. I got this book for my daughter to read and it tells a really careful and wonderful story of an Asian American girl and their families struggles. It also creates multi-racial intimacies in interesting ways.
Casey: The Korean series Sweet Home was terrifying.
Murray: In the evening, I always need something to take my mind off current events. One of best series at accomplishing that tall order was the eighteen episodes of the Norwegian comedy (don’t worry it’s in English) Norsemen on Netflix. It is best described by one critic as “Game of Thrones meets Monty Python.” Another qualifying series is Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man where an actor or British comedian accompanies the fast-talking Ayoade on 48 hour trips to all parts of the globe (Jon Hamm in Hong Kong, Paul Rudd in Helsinki, Mel Giedroyc in Paris). It is the perfect travel show for people not all that enamored with going out of the country, travelers like Ayoade who ask the question “Should we have come?”
Alex: Not a big surprise here, but Unorthodox and Queen’s Gambit were the stories that most transfixed me during this long period of deep Netflixing. Also, the underrated NBC sitcom Superstore actually reckoned with issues such as deportation, union-busting, and COVID in a way that was so brilliant you could miss it, because — how do you make some of these issues funny?
Romeo: Queen’s Gambit and My Brilliant Friend.
Nick: We finally started watching Superstore in the spring, and in addition to being the show that’s best handled the pandemic as actual content, it’s pretty amazing what the cast and writers have done to create thoughtful commentary on working retail within the confines of the classic sitcom format.
Saira Mazhar: I May Destroy You was the best show of 2020. That’s all I have.
Sharon Murchie: The Umbrella Academy.
Courtney: What We Do in the Shadows, duh.
Joel: The Michael Jordan documentary during the lockdowns set off serious 90s nostalgia for me.
Stan: Pose. The acting, cast, and the storylines were breathtaking. The episode when —— died had me in tears. It reminded me of how little we know the complex lives and stories of trans women of color who have been murdered.
Callum Angus: I never thought I’d respond with a Best Podcast answer, as it’s been a long time since I enjoyed any podcasts, but: Faced Out was started post-pandemic by Brad & Liz of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California. In the course of their conversations and in their interviews with a deep roster of multi-talented indie booksellers (Hannah Oliver Depp, Emma Ramadan, etc.), they deliver often darkly funny inside-baseball takes on how book distribution networks work (or don’t work). Brad & Liz know that virtually no one understands these networks, and that bookstores, publishing, and literature would be better if they did. Plus, as a former bookseller, it’s like getting to relive the drama without any of the painful emotions.
Casey: Qanon Anonymous.
Alex: Longform offered deep interviews with nonfiction writers about their creative process and working lives, while Helena DeGroot’s Poetry Off the Shelf did much the same for poetry. But the podcast that affected me the most is John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, which uses the gimmicky premise of giving a Yelp-style rating to various aspects of modern life (e.g. chemotherapy, The Great Gatsby, the art of Agnes Martin and Hiroyuki Doi, hot dog eating contests, Taco Bell’s breakfast menu). It’s a gimmick, yes, but it gives Green the chance to write lovely mini-essays full of empathy and insight about a wide range of topics. The sycamore tree episode provided me a lot of solace in a very dark time.
Sharon: Nice White Parents.
Wendy: Mind Your Practice with Beth Pickens. I love this podcast because Beth creates a space for artists to find their way back to their practices and/or really get situated in their practice. There are exercises, suggestions, and ongoing acknowledgment of the realities of being an artist in 2020. AND the episodes are 10 MINUTES OR LESS which to me is BEAUTIFUL in a podcast.
Courtney: Low Culture Boil.
Joel: The Dig has always been good but Dan keeps getting better and better and his guests are always great.
Stan: Critical Take and This Anthro Life. Hey! Damn right! I was on both of these podcasts so I am going to hype it up. Much support for producers at both podcasts.
Nick: Combining Best Meme and Best Political moment because after all the madness and nail-biting and flashbacks to 2016, it was surprisingly cathartic (for me, at least) to see Philadelphians dancing in the streets as their ballots were counted, daring the various violent fools to come and try to disrupt things, while Gritty memes rained down on social media.
Joel: I don’t know why at all, but the astronaut with the gun saying “Always has been” consistently cracks me up.
Stan: Michael Jordan crying meme for Trump election loss.
Best Political Moment
Alex: Unquestionably, Mellissa Carone’s epic, drunk, Joycean testimony about Trump’s voter fraud claims in Michigan. She might be the next Republican, or possibly Democratic, president. And also when Ed Markey gave Joey Kennedy the 154th a red-ass beatdown.
Sharon: Four Seasons.
Courtney: The almost-Bernie, pre-pandemic, we-can-do-this Jan-Feb.ish.
Joel: By far when Rona got Trump. Those were the best few days of this horrible year.
Stan: Don’t have one yet, our political system is a sham and sucks eggs.
Alex: Betsy DeVos.
Nick: Started to overthink it, then came back to the fact that the obvious worst person just threw a fit that achieved nothing besides ensuring that unemployment benefits would lapse over fucking Christmas. It’s him.
Courtney: I do not discriminate.
Joel: Mitch and Trump are too easy. So I say…. Lana Del Ray.
Stan: Too many to list in this political climate in all sectors of social, economic, and political life.
For past years’ Best-Of’s, click here.