The Most Underappreciated Pop Culture Gems of 2020, from a Pop Princess to Nicolas Cage Rage
It’s been a hell of a year. Here are some fun things in the world of entertainment that you may have missed.
There’s no sugarcoating it: 2020 has been a waking nightmare. An endless series of groin-punches. This interview on repeat. A dumpster filled with VHS copies of 2 Girls 1 Cup set ablaze, as a cotton candy-haired clown roasts the Constitution over it. There has, however, been the occasional bright spot—a film, TV show, or album that’s let us escape this deluge of doom and gloom for an hour or two.
Here are some of the ones you may have overlooked.
With all due respect to Dua Lipa, whose Future Nostalgia helped drown out the sound of sirens as COVID numbers spiked across New York City in March and April, the dance-inducing album that’s stayed with me the most came from Rina Sawayama, a Japanese-British model turned musical artist whose genre-hopping, era-spanning debut Sawayama effortlessly blends nu metal, EDM, and R&B into an ear-melting mélange. With anthems tackling masculinity, toxic friendships, and sexual freedom (Sawayama identifies as pansexual), Sawayama announces the arrival of the next great pop star.
Get Sawayama here.
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson weaves leftover footage from her 25 years of work as a cinematographer on films like Darfur Now, The Oath, and Citizenfour into a stunning tapestry celebrating the intimacy and excitement of the documentary-filmmaking process. For her follow-up, Dick Johnson Is Dead, she turned her camera on her father, an 86-year-old battling the onset of dementia. Johnson decides—with her father’s enthusiastic permission, of course—to stage a number of darkly-funny scenarios wherein Dick dies by accident, e.g., an air conditioner falling on his head. In the process, she exhibits their abiding love for one another while crafting a monument to a gentle, one-of-a-kind guy.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.
Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho and veteran actress Sonia Braga brought audiences to their feet with 2016’s Aquarius, a portrait of an elderly working-class woman who stands up to the shady developers trying to force her out of her apartment by any means necessary They’ve reunited for this gonzo Western that sees the tiny (fictional) town of Bacurau in rural Brazil plagued by a series of out-there happenings, from a corrupt mayor diverting their water supply to a murderous couple on motorbikes to a group of foreigners hunting locals for sport to a UFO stalking the townsfolk. The result is a zany anti-colonialist satire that has to be seen to be believed.
Bacurau is available to rent on Prime Video.
AKA JANE ROE
Now that the GOP’s managed to shamelessly push through their ultra-conservative Supreme Court nominee—the least qualified justice in history, as votes were being cast for the next president, amid a pandemic—Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision protecting a woman’s right to choose, is under threat. Thus the documentary AKA Jane Roe, featuring the final interviews Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe) gave before her death, may be the most important film of the year. In Nick Sweeney’s 79-minute film, McCorvey, a lesbian, confesses that her late-in-life transformation into an anti-abortion conservative “was all an act” bought and paid for by the Christian right (Sweeney backs this up with documents disclosing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to Roe from anti-abortion groups, as well as a pair of anti-abortion reverends who cop to the ruse). “If a young woman wants to have an abortion—fine,” McCorvey says in the film. “That’s no skin off my ass. You know, that’s why they call it ‘choice.’ It’s your choice.” Amen.
AKA Jane Roe is streaming on Hulu.
THE MIDNIGHT GOSPEL
Many have compared The Midnight Gospel, a Netflix series from Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell, to Rick and Morty. It’s a lazy comparison to make, given its explosively vibrant animation, interstellar travel, and philosophical musings, because Ward and Trussell’s creation is—in this writer’s opinion—a far more hopeful and profound rumination on humanity. Combining actual audio from Trussell’s podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, which typically wades into deeply personal terrain, with the animated tale of a spacecaster navigating a trippy matrix of out-there worlds on the brink of collapse, it’s a fine stand-in for the dearly departed BoJack Horseman.
The Midnight Gospel is streaming on Netflix.
COLOR OUT OF SPACE
These days, it’s hard to tell when a Nicolas Cage project is worth your investment. There are just so many, and for every diamond in the rough like Mandy, there are a half dozen or so that sound wild and entertaining on paper but in reality are anything but. Fortunately, Color Out of Space falls into the first category. Directed by Richard Stanley, and adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, it involves a meteor crash-landing on a farm—but instead of signaling the arrival of an otherworldly protector, it wreaks havoc on the family, who start to become untethered from reality. And few can so amusingly convey a descent into madness like Cage, whose farmer-dad is overtaken by an uncontrollable rage with a dash of paranoia. While HBO’s uneven Lovecraft Country got all the ink this year, this is the Lovecraft adaptation that you absolutely should not miss.
Color Out of Space is now streaming on Shudder