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.

2019 on Screen

Here comes the second instalment of my Top Five’s for 2019 — movies and television. I should probably preface this by saying that for me, any time I’m sitting in front of a screen without a keyboard is a form of escapism, so I’m not too likely to be using much grey matter when I’m watching. It’s all about being entertained!

So, without further ado, here (in no particular order) are my Top Five great escapes on screen for the 2019.

1. Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

SWix

Now, this one was always going to be on here. It seems like only yesterday that I was wondering whether my kids might be ready to watch the Star Wars movies, and since then they have devoured everything in the universe currently available (though they might not be quite up to date with the most recent episodes of The Mandalorian).

We saw this movie as a family (which always makes it more special) and we all, unequivocally, loved it. After all, outer space could possibly be the greatest escape of all. On a side note, Miss Malaprop was also properly impressed I accurately picked Rey’s parentage within the first ten minutes…

2. Captain Marvel

CapAs a mother of two girls, strong female role models are always high on my lookout list when it comes to movies — Rey in The Rise of Skywalker being a case in point. And while it might seem like completely hyperbolic overload to include two massive blockbusters in this year’s Top Five, I simply could not relegate Captain Marvel to the Highly Commended section.

Ironically, part of what made this movie special for me was that I saw it in Hobart with The Bloke when we’d absconded from Sydney without our two (mostly) cherubic offspring for a long weekend in Tasmania. I will always love the Marvel Universe, and I thoroughly enjoyed Captain Marvel from start to finish — and I was, of course, totally entertained by Goose the Cat/Flerken. Winning.

3. Patrick Melrose

Thought you might need a change of pace…

PMThis TV series was one I would describe as an emotional onslaught of epic proportions. How Benedict Cumberbatch pulled off playing the titualr role so brilliantly — being, as he is, in virtually every scene of the entire production — I will never know. Hugo Weaving’s performance as Patrick’s father is also devastatingly good.

It was difficult to watch Patrick’s life unravel, particularly as the audience is given increasing insight into the unmitigating awfulness of his childhood. What makes it even harder to watch is knowing that the series is based on the semi-autobiograpical novels of Edward St Aubyn. That Patrick persists (for the most part) and attempts to overcome the trauma of his past and the addictions of his present transforms Patrick Melrose into compelling viewing.

The final episode also delivered one of my favourite exchanges of dialogue for the year:

Patrick Melrose:  I’ve decided I’m bored of ghosts. I want to see people instead.

Mary Melrose: Oh, I see. OK.

Patrick Melrose: Or is it too late to change my mind?

Mary Melrose: Not at all. After all, that’s what it’s for. 

It’s not always comfortable viewing, but well worth the effort.

4. The Crown, Series 3

tc3I, like many others, was loathe to see Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby relinquish their roles in the newest series of The Crown, but my fears were unfounded. Olivia Colman is brilliant as Her Maj, and Tobias Menzies (once I had got past seeing him as Black Jack Randall) was equally good as Prince Philip. I was less sure about Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, but she does cut a suitably tragic figure.

The inclusion of Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten was a stroke of genius (though it could reasonably be said that the inclusion of Charles Dance in just about anything amounts to a stroke of genius), and I was delighted by the performance of Erin Doherty as Princess Anne — particularly the scene where she sings along to David Bowie’s Starman without losing a modicum of her stiff upper lip.

We all know what’s going to happen in The Crown — let’s face it, it’s recent modern history, so you’d have to have been living under a rock not to — but I was drawn to the way certain key events were portrayed, humanising both the happenings and the Royal Family themselves. I can’t wait for the next series. Not to mention the costumes…

5. Killing Eve, Series 1 and 2

OK, OK…so I was late to the party on this one — but how good is Killing Eve?!

Sandra Oh excels as Eve Polastri, and Jodie Comer turns being the villanous Villanelle into a fine art. Never has being a psychopathic assassin looked so good — or so fashionable — not to mention sounded so incredible (thanks to Comer’s brilliant range of accents).

That this show also features Danish actor Kim Bodnia (who I first encountered in The Bridge) as Villanelle’s handler was an extra treat for me. Bring on Season Three — waiting is so boring!

Bored Killing Eve GIF by BBC America

I watched a bunch of other stuff during the year, including a French show called Chefs which kept me entertained, and (thanks to my kids) more episodes of Nailed It than I would care to recall, and fell asleep during almost every instalment I tried to watch of The Witcher — which probably had more to do with the time of year than with Henry Cavill, and I am resolving to do better in the future.

witcherBut I can’t think of anything else that really stood out for me in 2019. No doubt I will as soon as I hit the publish button…but no matter.

Don’t change the channel — next up I’m talking best books of the year.