2020 On Screen: Blue Jai’s Top 5

Happy New Year from Blue Jai!

Folks, I’m still in lockdown as I write this, but am hoping against hope that restrictions will ease tomorrow and we will finally be able to escape the Northern Beaches for the first time since 19 December 2020.

Not surprisingly, escape seems to have been the theme of much of what I consumed on screen in 2020. In my view, desperate times call for comedy, for fantasy, and for distraction – and that’s just what I went for last year. So yes: I watched things like Space Force and allowed my children to binge way too many episodes of Brooklyn 99. But I also needed things to be real, so I devoured (along with most of the TV watching population of the planet) The Last Dance, and also took in Cheer and My Octopus Teacher and other documentaries – even Operation Odessa, from which I am still recovering.

Most of all, now that I reflect on it more deeply, I think much of what I really enjoyed on screen in 2020 revolved loosely around notion of “family” – which, as we all know, is much more about what you make it rather than what you’re born into. I’m very fortunate 2020 brought me closer to my own family than ever before.

So here, in no particular order, is Blue Jai’s Top 5 on Screen for 2020:

The Mandalorian, Season 2 (Disney+)

Can we all just take a minute to acknowledge the genius and greatness of Jon Favreau? The Mandalorian has clearly been such a labour of love for him – and in my view he has triumphed, successfully tying together so many disparate threads from the Star Wars universe, as well creating a thoroughly entertaining series populated with fantastic characters. Our family has loved hanging out together taking in the eight episodes of Season Two, delighting in the developing bond between the Mando and Baby Yoda, watching awesome warrior women like Cara Dune and Fennec Shand kick butt alongside Boba Fett, and screaming with excitement when we finally saw Ahsoka Tano appear on the screen for the first time (as a live action figure, obviously – she was probably the best thing about Star Wars: Clone Wars). And the blockbuster final episode? I want to talk about it so much! But also don’t want to spoil it for anyone…it’s that good.

The Mandalorian has brought us joy in a year tainted by so much…other stuff, and I’m so grateful that the Space Western genre is not only alive and well (complete with masterful musical contributions from Ludwig Göransson), but is thriving in the eminently capable hands of Jon Favreau and his team.

Hamilton (Disney+)

Other than The Mandalorian, I don’t think anything on screen in 2020 has been obsessed over as much by me and my family – especially Marvel Girl – as Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers a virtuoso performance as creator, producer and star of this incredibly successful musical. I have lost count of the number of times we’ve watched it or listened to the soundtrack, and lines from the show seem to sneak into our everyday parlance with astounding regularity. The libretto is astonishing – as is Daveed Diggs, but that is a whole other story. Watching this masterwork prompted me to post a note on my kitchen wall reminding me (and the other people who live here): You have as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Challenge accepted?!

The Bureau, Seasons 1-5 (SBS On Demand)

Let’s change it up a bit, shall we? Once the world (well, my world) became a bit less tense in 2020, I was able to take in content that was more suspenseful. By this I mean that I binged five entire seasons of the brilliant French production The Bureau and loved every minute of it. This spy drama has it all – a superb cast, great characters, gripping plotlines, realistic engagement with current events, the works.  You will probably recognise Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays main protagonist, Guillaume Debailly alias Paul Lefebvre alias Malotru, from the cult classic movie Amelie. Here, however, Kassovitz portrays a deep cover agent for the DGSE who is unable to let go of a former love when he is unexpectedly recalled to Paris, setting off a chain of events which have repercussions for him, his lover (played by the luminous Zineb Triki), his daughter, his colleagues, and many others. I sincerely hope Season 6 is in the works – I’d watch it in a heartbeat.

A Suitable Boy (Netflix Series)

I watched a number of shows with a subcontinental theme this year, including Never Have I Ever (which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since it is narrated by John McEnroe and also features one episode narrated by Andy Samberg) and Indian Matchmaker (which I found hilarious and heartbreaking all the same time). But in the latter part of the year I was delighted to discover something Indian with which I was far more familiar: A Suitable Boy.

I have a rather large soft spot for A Suitable Boy, not least because I had the privilege of meeting Vikram Seth, who wrote the book upon which this show is based, when I was seventeen. It was the first time I’d met a famous published author, and my copy of A Suitable Boy, which he generously inscribed for me, remains a treasured possession – even though The Bloke jokes that it could double as a door stop, such is its size.

The Netflix television adaptation of A Suitable Boy necessarily leaves out some of the incredible detail which characterises Seth’s book, but it remains full of colour and life and tackles the personal and the political in greater depth that I had imagined it would. At its core it’s a love story, but it is so much more besides.  Tanya Maniktala does a great job as Lata Mehra, the main character, but for my money Tabu nearly steals the show as Saeeda Bai. This six part series is well worth watching.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix Series)

I was tossing up a number of options for my fifth choice, but The Queen’s Gambit managed to pip several other contenders at the post because of its polish. The production values of this Netflix show (another screen adaptation of a novel, this time by Walter Tevis) are consistently high, and the attention to detail is second to none. I have next to no interest in chess, but this series kept me hooked – probably in part because of the attention to detail paid to the fashion, décor and music of the time in which the series is set. Add to this Anya Taylor-Joy’s mesmerising turn as Beth Harmon, and throw in the ‘chess family’ she ends up with, and I was left well satisfied.

Under the category of Highly Commended for 2020 I would have to include:

  • Umbrella Academy Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix) – more escapism and quirky takes on “family”, not to mention the zany brilliance of Robert Sheehan as Klaus;
  • Douglas (Netflix) – Hannah Gadby’s masterful follow up to Nanette, in which she tells you exactly what she’s going to do to you and you still laugh as she does precisely what she told you she would;
  • The Highwaymen (2019 Netflix Film) – in which Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner take on Bonnie and Clyde (I particularly love the way this movie was shot, without showing the faces of Bonnie and Clyde until they are finally ambushed);
  • Freeman (ABC iView) – introducing Cathy Freeman’s historic gold medal win at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games to my children was a more emotional experience than I ever expected.

That’s a wrap of Blue Jai’s Top 5 On Screen for 2020 – stay tuned for the next episode, in which my trusty alter ego, the Thrifty Fictionista, tackles Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books.

2018: The Year on Screen

So I can’t say I’ve done a huge amount of movie-going this year, and I still haven’t watched Season 4 of Peaky Blinders, which I know would have made my list had I got around to it…some things have to be savoured. Because Cillian Murphy.

Enough said.

But I did manage to see a few things that caught both my eye and my attention, so without further ado, here is Blue Jai’s Top 5 on Screen for 2018.

1. Nanette (Netflix Special)

nanetteThis incredible piece of writing and genuine human bravery by Hannah Gadsby was intended as her farewell to comedy, but became a significant part of a much larger global conversation about equality.

I have no idea how Gadsby pulled off doing her live show of Nanette night after night, but I do know it sparked a rare argument between me and The Bloke and moved me to write about my reaction to that event and to watching this tour de force, which I called We Need More Words. Because we do. This, in my view, and with no pun intended, is compulsory viewing.

2. The Bridge (Season 4)

bridgeAnother piece of viewing that resulted in its own blog post was the final instalment in the brilliant Swedish/Danish production The Bridge (Bron|Broen). There is so much I love about this show — despite it being Nordic Noir at its finest, with all that entails, I was so attached to the main characters and invested in the eventual outcome of their respective journeys (particularly after the brilliant final episode of Season 3) that I did not want Series 4 to end.

But since it as, I’m looking forward to watching this again. No, wait…let’s be clear: I’m looking forward to sitting down with all four seasons through again. If you’ve not seen it, please start at the beginning and stick to the original Scandi production instead of wasting your time with remakes. For me, The Bridge sets the benchmark for quality TV viewing.

3. Ant-man & The Wasp (Movie)

antmanGenerally speaking I include one sentimental favourite in my Top 5 each year, and this is 2018’s offering. I freely admit to being a sucker for any Marvel movie, and felt it my duty as a fan to include one this year as a tribute to the late, great Stan Lee.

The main reason Ant-man & The Wasp makes this year’s list, however, is that we have finally got to the point where we can see Marvel Movies (well, some of them) as a family — and this was our first shared experience of the Marvel Universe together. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop enjoyed the film so much that they went to see it a second time with The Bloke’s parents, who were as baffled by the storyline as they were by the girls’ massive enjoyment of it, but I’m chalking that up as a parenting win. Antman & The Wasp was a rollicking good time, complete with “that gigantic underpants scene” my kids found so funny. What’s not to love?

4. Arrival (Movie)

arrivalYeah, yeah…I know — this came out ages ago, but finally popped up on Netflix so I actually got to watch it, so it’s on my list for 2018.

That said, I found the concepts in this film so intriguing — particularly the treatment of time and language. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner both delivered solid, convincing performances, and I was genuinely moved by the decisions Adams’ character faces and ultimately makes. This is so much more than a “human meets alien” flick, and it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time.

5. The Last Kingdom (Season 3)

last kingdomAn unusual choice? Perhaps, but I’m as big a sucker for TV based on historical events (regardless of its accuracy) as I am for historical fiction.  The Bloke and I do struggle with — and snigger at — the voiceover that precedes each episode of this Netflix Original starring Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon raised from early childhood as a Dane during the time of Alfred the Great.

This, to my mind, is the strongest of the three seasons made so far, particularly in its depiction of Uhtred’s changing relationship with his childhood friend Brida and of King Alfred’s struggles as he faces his impending death.  The presentation of the idea of England — an as yet unrealised dream, intangible but still powerful — also drew me in. If you like a bit of drama with a few big battle scenes and plenty of long haired blokes running around with swords, The Last Kingdom is plenty of fun.

Honourable Mentions this year go to Black Panther, a movie that has generated a bunch of press for all the right reasons as well as being a fantastic addition to the Marvel Universe, to Salt, Fat, Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat’s fantastic Netflix series that is part travelogue as well as being a top notch cooking show, and to every single brilliantly written season of Brooklyn 99, my go-to pick-me-up comedy.

And now, since it’s the summer holidays, hit me with your best viewing of 2018!