Looking for binge-worthy entertainment over winter break? Three CU Independent editors recommend their favorite TV shows, movies and books from 2020 to keep you entertained for the next month.
Anna’s Top Three Picks
TV show: “We Are Who We Are” (2020) — dir. Luca Guadagnino
After his success directing movies like “Call Me by Your Name” (2017) and the 2018 remake of “Suspiria,” Italian director Luca Guadagnino tried his hand at television this year with the HBO original miniseries “We Are Who We Are.”
Fraser Wilson (played by Jack Dylan Grazer of “It” and “Shazam!”) and Caitlin Poythress (played by first-time actress Jordan Kristine Seamón) are two teenagers living on an Italian military base during the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The two form an unlikely friendship, as they explore their own gender expression and sexual identities together.
The miniseries includes eight 60-minute episodes. The overlapping storylines often feel crowded in the show’s short runtime and Guadagnino leaves several loose ends, but, to his credit, these unresolved moments feel purposeful. All of the episodes are entitled “Right Here, Right Now,” accompanied by the episode number. The show feels like a glimpse of just that — a small microcosm of the characters’ rich, intertwined lives. While viewers may feel plagued with an urge to know more, Guadagnino uses uncertainty to heighten the show’s realism.
Guadagnino’s refusal to avoid uncomfortable topics, as well as his choice to use actual teenage actors for teenage roles (looking at you, every other show with teenagers), gives viewers the sense that they are watching real people go through real hardships and come of age in the process. “We Are Who We Are” isn’t always an easy watch, but it’s one worth experiencing.
Watch “We Are Who We Are” on demand on HBO.
Book: “The Guest List” (2020) — Lucy Foley
“The Guest List” by Lucy Foley won the 2020 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Mystery & Thriller, and its win is well-deserved.
“The Guest List” takes place during a wedding on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. The story follows the bride, the best man, the wedding planner, a plus-one and a bridesmaid, as they deal with a mysterious murder at the wedding.
For readers looking for intrigue in what may be a less-than-intriguing break in quarantine, “The Guest List” is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery filled to the brim with plot twists. But, unlike most Christie novels, the identity of the murder victim isn’t revealed until more than halfway through the book, adding another level of mystery.
With the hardcover sitting at just 330 pages and Foley’s mastery of end-of-chapter cliffhangers, readers will have a tough time putting “The Guest List” down.
Read “The Guest List” on Amazon or from the Boulder Public Library.
TV show: “Space Force” (2020)
Don’t let the 38% Rotten Tomatoes score deter you — the first season of “Space Force” is a funny, creative and addictive ride.
“Space Force” follows four-star general Mark R. Naird (Steve Carell) as he is put in charge of the newfound Space Force, a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces based on the founding of an actual U.S. Space Force in December of 2019 under President Donald Trump. What follows is plenty of galactic shenanigans in the company of a stellar cast, including Carell, Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”) and John Malkovich (“Being John Malkovich” and “Dangerous Liaisons”).
The first season of the show has 10 episodes, each about 30 minutes, making it the perfect contestant for a five-hour binge session. But short doesn’t translate to shallow — “Space Force” is filled with witty commentary on the real Space Force and on the U.S. military as a whole. The combination of deadpan dark humor mixed with genuinely sentimental moments and impromptu musical numbers makes “Space Force” a must-watch for the holiday season.
Oh, and the show is based in Colorado. Bonus!
Watch “Space Force” on Netflix.
— Anna Haynes, CU Independent editor-in-chief
Izzy’s Top Three Picks
Movie: “Weathering With You” (English dub. 2020) — dir. Makoto Shinkai
Magical sunlight fights against the overcast, grungy Tokyo, as two runaway teens fall in love. In “Weathering with You,” director Makoto Shinkai (known for “Your Name” in 2016) creates a hybrid anime masterpiece, combining the elegant, natural beauty of Studio Ghibli with gloomy, bustling cityscapes and harsh realities.
Shinkai proves himself to be a master of contrast. The main character, runaway Hodaka, finds himself jobless, living in poverty and filth in the glamorous, vibrance of Tokyo until he is taken in by Keisuke Saga, the head of a small publishing company. Hodaka soon meets Hina, who turns out to be a “sunshine girl,” a real-life urban legend who can control the sunlight. Their happy existence together is soon threatened by an imbalance of nature and human.
Throughout the film, disparate elements clash and struggle to co-exist — sunlight and rain, magic and real life, nature and human, despair and hope, fear and love — capturing the bittersweet duality of human existence.
Watch “Weathering With You” here on Amazon video.
TV show: “Next in Fashion” (2020)
“Next in Fashion” is Netflix’s fabulous reimagining of “Project Runway.” With celebrity hosts Tan France and Alexa Chung, 18 fashion designers from around the world compete for the grand prize of $250,000 and the opportunity to create a collection for luxury fashion site Net-a-Porter.
Each episode features a two-day challenge, themed around broad categories (red carpet, suits, streetwear, underwear, denim, activewear, etc.), inviting designers to think boldly and innovatively but not too ambitiously for the short timeframe and two-person team. Though we see many lackluster, derivative looks and a few epic failures, we also see glimmers of creative (yet at times impractical) genius emerge early on, especially with the haute-couture team, Angel Chen and Minju Kim, and the grunge, Hollywood team, Marco Morante and Ashton Hirota. Watching the final winner gain self-confidence and embrace expressive, radical creativity as the season progresses is inspiring — their final collection is breathtaking.
Unfortunately, Netflix canceled “Next in Fashion” after one season, so be sure to savor the creativity and reality show drama for all 10 episodes.
Watch “Next in Fashion” on Netflix.
Book: “Felix Ever After” (2020) — Kacen Callender
“Felix Ever After” is an empowering LGBTQ+ coming-of-age story, putting a much-needed spotlight on the exploration of gender identity, love and acceptance for diverse, queer youth.
Felix is a Black, transgender, queer teen, attending an elite arts high school in Brooklyn on scholarship. He has been out as trans for several years, though he is still questioning his gender identity and struggling with his father’s lack of acceptance. At school, Felix is competing for one spot at Brown University, his dream program, but he hasn’t started his portfolio, held back by self-doubt and apathy. Then, he is confronted by a distressing transphobic act, committed by an anonymous fellow student against him. He spirals, becoming obsessed with a plot for revenge that threatens his relationships and makes him question his own morality and identity.
As the mystery unfolds, Callender provides authentic, intimate glimpses into Felix’s thoughts. We see him struggling in the face of bigotry, exploring his layered, complex gender identity and sexuality, and questioning what love is and whether he is worthy of it. “Felix Ever After” will leave many readers with a new understanding and empathy for the transgender community and a refreshing perspective on the journey toward first love and self-love.
Read “Felix Ever After” on Amazon or from the Boulder Public Library.
— Izzy Fincher, CU Independent arts editor
Ben’s Top Three Picks
TV Show: “Infinity Train” (2019-2020)
Fans of animation will find delight in “Infinity Train,” a whimsical, mind-bending cartoon that feels like a slice of the “Matrix” franchise infused with “Alice in Wonderland.”
The anthology series, conceived by “Regular Show” storyboard artist Owen Dennis, focuses on a young girl named Tulip (Ashley Johnson), who runs away from home upon learning about her parents’ impending divorce. What follows is a surreal road-trip fever dream: Tulip finds herself trapped aboard a train with seemingly no destination, each car presenting something less explainable than the last.
Each episode of the first season focuses on Tulip’s frantic journey through one of the many carriages, some more frightening than others. Tulip befriends talking corgi King Atticus (Ernie Hudson of “Ghostbusters”), but along the way, she’s plagued by a homicidal android (Amelia Hughes of “Game of Thrones”) that seeks to take control of the train. On the way, Tulip’s rag-tag team ventures through train-car sized worlds that offer everything from Tetris-like block towers to sentient crystal monsters, each one allowing for Tulip to grapple with a small part of her trauma.
The mad dash through countless, beautifully animated worlds often leaves viewers with more questions than answers, leaving so much lore to the imagination, but the story is tied together with excellent storytelling that touches on unexpectedly heavy themes for a Cartoon Network program. Commentary on grief, technology and revenge draw satisfying parallels to Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”
The show has since been renewed for forthcoming seasons on HBO Max, where “Infinity Train” will transition into an anthology-style series, ensuring that tiny pockets of Dennis’s bizarre, vast universe will be explored.
Watch the first three seasons of “Infinity Train” on HBO Max.
TV Show: “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” (2018-2020)
In a television era dominated by political satire, Netflix’s “Patriot Act” stands out from the bunch.
Hasan Minhaj, formerly of “Daily Show” senior correspondent fame, hosts this political talk show that focuses on the daily minutiae of life and how it plays into corrupt government or corporate systems, in often horrifyingly unexpected ways. Instead of delivering worn jokes on the Presidential administration or other broad-scope issues, Minhaj works to break down aspects of society we embrace and take for granted, ranging from the crumbling infrastructure of public transportation to the exploitation of video game developers. This will give viewers hearty laughs, along with disturbed double takes, all the dark underbellies of American society that go overlooked on a daily basis.
This allows for fans of political commentary to get fresh takes on more evergreen topics rather than being beaten down yet again by the current news cycle. On top of that, Minhaj’s blistering hosting style feels less like a detached hosting job than it does a hyperactive, in-depth rant on the troubling topic at hand. Minhaj never shirks from throwing in his personal experiences as a second-generation Indian-American, giving the show a brutally honest sense of identity and firsthand proof that the systems he’s working to expose often target America’s most vulnerable.
Despite cancellation after two seasons, there are dozens of episodes of “Patriot Act” worth watching for comedy fans and political pundits alike.
Watch Patriot Act on Netflix.
TV show: “Attack on Titan” (2013-2020)
Since its debut in 2013, “Attack on Titan” has since become one of the most well-received anime series to reach a Western audience, going as far as to crash online servers when the final season began airing this year. The series’s colossal success and cult-like fandom aren’t without good reason.
“Attack on Titan,” a Japanese anime series based on Hajime Isayama’s 2009 manga, focuses on Eren Jaeger, a young man living in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has been ravaged by man-eating humanoid beasts. In the wake of this purge, the remaining thousands are forced to take refuge in a monarchical kingdom surrounded by three massive walls, built to keep the beasts out. When one wall is breached, Eren joins the Scout Regiment, humanity’s elite platoon of fighters, and ventures through the wastelands to enact his revenge on every last Titan.
Though Eren and his comrades are compelling leads, “Attack on Titan” is at its best when it delves into the side characters that inhabit these cramped walls, creating a vast world of their own. Intriguing side characters and major players like Levi Ackermann, an elite soldier raised in the seedy underworld district, and Historia, humanity’s last descendant of a powerful dynasty, are introduced through flashback sequences that flesh out the world, leaving the viewer feeling like there’s much more yet to be discovered.
Though the brilliantly animated action is the staple of “Attack on Titan,” the third season’s narrative is largely a slow drip of new hints about the world the characters inhabit. Each episode explores dark themes of torture, war and death, which are rarely touched on by other shōnen anime like “One Piece” or “Naruto.” Each episode features incomprehensive revelations about the truth behind the Titans and the wall, radically transforming the context of older episodes and tying it all together, similar to ABC’s critically-acclaimed drama series “Lost.” This nail-biting method of storytelling drops viewers off at the precipice of a climactic final season that hardly resembles the world introduced seven years ago.
Watch “Attack on Titan” on Crunchyroll.
— Ben Berman, CU Independent arts editor