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Two critics on the shows and movies that got us through 2020


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The pandemic shut down theaters across the country, but some independent theaters could get help from the new COVID relief bill, which includes $15 billion grants for certain cultural institutions.

Even though most theaters remain closed, a consistent lockdown conversation starter has been, so, what are you watching?

While we're apart and as we cope in this year that's unlike any other, shows and movies have offered us some kind of shared experience.

Two critics help Jeffrey Brown look at some of the shows and movies helping us to get through it all.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The cineplex was closed, but, more and more, the world of entertainment streamed into our homes.

Lorraine Ali is a television critic at The Los Angeles Times.

Lorraine Ali: Overall, what stands out the most is television.

Thankfully, we had it, because we didn't have phones, we didn't have theater, we didn't have music concerts.

Jeffrey Brown: What we did have, attention-getting shows like "The Queen's Gambit."

Anya Taylor-Joy: Chess can also be beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: "The Crown," Hulu's adaptation of "Little Fires Everywhere."

Actor: Someone burned down your house with you inside.

Jeffrey Brown: And there were also new platforms presenting shows.

Lorraine Ali: I think streaming is the model now.

And I think the question this year was, we have so many more streamers coming in. Will Netflix be knocked off its throne? No, that didn't happen. But we did see Apple TV+ come in. We did see Disney+ come in with "The Mandalorian" and big things like that.

Now you have HBO in on the game and Peacock. So, it -- streaming is it.

Jeffrey Brown: What about your personal list of favorites?

Lorraine Ali: Best picks, "Never Have I Ever," which was also unexpected, but I loved it.

Actor: You're a weird girl.

Actress: Yes. Yes, I am.

Lorraine Ali: I think the whole immigrant aspect to it, you don't see enough of that on television.

Actress: Buckle up for some steamy teen romance.

Lorraine Ali: "I May Destroy You," which is a British series that was on HBO, it is a drama, millennial drama. You could almost say it was a little hipstery.

But then it just dealt with sexual assault and the aftermath of that, and also with gender identity and race. And it's just brilliant. It was really well done.

Switching gears totally was a series called "Upload" on Amazon. And it was essentially an afterlife comedy about, when you die, you can have your soul uploaded or essentially your consciousness uploaded into a cloud, where the living can talk to you.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, big budget movie releases like "Top Gun: Maverick" and "James Bond"'s No Time to Die" were delayed throughout the year.

"Tenet" eventually was released in theaters. But other films came out on streaming platforms, further blurring the lines between the big and small screens. And earlier this month, Warner Brothers took the next step, announcing that all its 2021 films will be released on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously, including the highly anticipated "Wonder Woman 1984" and "Dune."

The movement plenty of resistance.

Ann Hornaday: In some quarters, that is seen as a fatal blow to theaters.

Jeffrey Brown: Ann Hornaday is a film critic at "The Washington Post."

Ann Hornaday: That tells me that visual storytelling is alive and as crucial as ever. And I really do think that we will have pent-up demand to get out of the house and go back to theaters as soon as it's safe.

Jeffrey Brown: So, give me so give me a few of your top picks, Ann.

Ann Hornaday: Well, my top pick is actually kind of representative of this year, because it's not just one movie. It's five that are being shown on Amazon.

It's called "Small Axe." It's an anthology of these films by Steve McQueen, each of which deals with the West Indian community in London in the '60s, '70s and '80s, often dealing with real-life situations of police brutality and inequality, but also portraits of great joy and resilience.

Actor: I have met hundreds of people out here. And they don't ever say a final goodbye.

Ann Hornaday: My number two is a terrific movie called "Nomadland" starring Frances McDormand in an indomitable role. She just is flinty and funny. And she's a real survivor in this movie about a woman who goes on the road, some kind of an itinerant 21st century worker, beautifully directed by Chloe Zhao.

And then my number three is called "First Cow." This was the last movie I saw in a proper theater. It's a movie by "Kelly Reichardt." It takes place in the 19th century in the Pacific Northwest, dealing with kind of the great Western Expansion, the definition of what it means to be an American.

Jeffrey Brown: Hollywood also faced a renewed reckoning in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the protests for social and racial justice.

This summer, the Oscars announced new rules for eligibility surrounding diversity and inclusion.

Ann Hornaday: Lip service has been paid in the past, but I think, actually, people are more serious, to which these new rules at the academy about best picture attest.

I think people are now -- they got it. They're getting it. But it's even more important to then do something about it.

Jeffrey Brown: Some films this year, Hornaday says, offered hope of what could be.

Ann Hornaday: Uncannily, I feel that the movies provided this really fascinating and, I think, restorative counternarrative to what we were seeing in terms of the assaults on Black bodies with the COVID-19 epidemic and the disproportionate effect of that on people of color.

There's these -- were these multivalence portraits of Black life that got to trauma, yes, pain, suffering, yes, but also joy, sensuality, the full spectrum of experience.

And so I was really heartened by that

Jeffrey Brown: What's next for TV, movies and our viewing habits? Both Ali and Hornaday see continuing evolution, but also some things that won't change.

Lorraine Ali: Now that line is blurring, and that line, I think, is going to blur even more as we move forward.

Everything's been on what you would think of as a television screen or your streaming scheme. Or however you watched television, that's how you're watching films now.

Ann Hornaday: That is the question. Did it change it forever? It certainly changed the economic model for now.

But I do think people have an enduring and continual need to want to get out of the house and do something, including going to a movie. It's just a time-honored ritual. I wouldn't underplay theaters quite yet or write their obituaries yet.

Jeffrey Brown: On one screen or another, we will be watching.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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