What a strange, tragic and pivotal year 2020 has been. It’s somewhat fitting that in a period when truth was stranger than fiction, some of the best TV and film efforts were based on real-life events.
The list below includes a range of works – from biographical films and documentaries to TV shows based on real people – released this year that we recommend.
“Unorthodox”: Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir inspired this acclaimed miniseries – a requisite entry on best of 2020 lists – about a young woman who abruptly leaves an arranged marriage and the strict Hasidic sect in which she grew up. Shira Haas (“Shtisel”) earned an Emmy nomination for her turn as Esther “Esty” Shapiro, whose departure from Brooklyn leads to exhilarating self-discovery in Berlin. (Streams on Netflix)
“Mrs. America”: This FX miniseries takes a unique approach in depicting the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was almost passed in the 1970s: focusing on Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), the late right-wing activist who campaigned against the proposed amendment.
As such, the series is more than a retelling of the women’s rights movement, but it does honor its pioneers, including Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and – in a particularly standout portrayal that earned Uzo Aduba her third Emmy – Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in Congress and run for president. (Streams on Hulu)
“The Crown”: Netflix’s royal-inspired drama excels at taking highly publicized events and imagining how the residents of Buckingham Palace dealt with them away from public glare. The show’s fourth season tackles Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister of the United Kingdom, with Gillian Anderson as the Iron Lady. The most prominent story line, though, is the brief courtship and subsequent marriage of Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin).
The Netflix series has generated a considerable amount of discourse over its approach to their relationship and Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), who would decades later become his second wife.
Earlier this week, Netflix declined to add a disclaimer labeling the series as fictional in response to appeals from the British government. Controversy aside, Corrin is a captivating Diana, and the season is clearly resonating with viewers, having consistently been in Netflix’s (self-reported) top 10 list since its Nov. 15 premiere. (Streams on Netflix)
“Shirley”: Elisabeth Moss plays writer Shirley Jackson, best known as the author of “The Haunting of Hill House,” in Josephine Decker’s largely fictional drama. Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name, the film imagines Jackson during a period of severe depression and social anxiety while trying to complete her 1951 gothic novel “Hangsaman.”
When a young newlywed couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), come to live with Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), the two women develop an intense connection that subtly weaves its way into Jackson’s work. (Streams on Hulu)
“The Last Dance”: This Emmy-winning documentary, produced by ESPN and Netflix, goes deep on Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. Despite its accolades and record viewership, some – including filmmaker Ken Burns – criticized the 10-part series because it was produced in partnership with Jump 23, a production company owned by the basketball legend himself. (Streams on Netflix and ESPN Plus)
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”: Veteran documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, along with a team of producers, directed this six-episode series recalling true-crime writer Michelle McNamara’s quest to solve a decades-old cold case. The author’s search for the violent criminal she dubbed the “Golden State Killer” was chronicled in a book by the same name, released two years after her death from an accidental overdose in 2016.
As Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever noted in his review of the docuseries, the project is as much about McNamara as it is about the Golden State Killer’s crimes. Garbus and co. feature interviews with the writer’s siblings, friends and husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, who shed light on how McNamara’s pursuit of justice consumed the last few years of her life. (Streams on HBO)
“The Vow”: Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s well-received docuseries goes inside NXIVM, a multilevel marketing company federal prosecutors later said was a cultlike organization that enabled founder Keith Raniere to prey on young women. Stuever lauded the nine-episode project for its haunting insight into what drew NXIVM’s members – actresses and socialites among them – into a criminal enterprise.
For a more straightforward account of NXIVM and Raniere’s chilling hold on his followers, there is Starz’s also well-received four-part series, “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.” (Streams on HBO)
“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”: Stuever had high praise for Frank Marshall’s HBO documentary about the famed pop/soul/disco trio (brothers Maurice, Robin and Barry Gibb) and their enduring influence on popular music.
“It’s less of the usual tract (we had them all wrong!) and more of a reckoning with the profound degree of artistry and accomplishment that should be the last word on any Bee Gees story,” Stuever wrote in his review. “The movie is also a unique consideration of the phenomenon of rise and fall and how one learns to live with it.” (Streams on HBO)
“Tiger King”: Easily the most controversial documentary of 2020, “Tiger King” unpacks the decades-long feud between zoo owner Joe Exotic and animal rights activist Carole Baskin. The eight-episode series is full of characters (Baskin was a contestant on the most recent season of “Dancing With the Stars”) and offers an eye-opening look into the world of big cat ownership. (Streams on Netflix)
“Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker”: This Shondaland-produced documentary follows multihyphenate Debbie Allen as she stages her nonprofit dance academy’s annual “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” Directed by Oliver Bokelberg, the 80-minute doc doesn’t just showcase the production and Allen’s demanding rehearsals, but also zeros in on the representation that makes it groundbreaking.
Allen’s company largely consists of people of color, with many of the dancers on scholarship, and the film traces Allen’s own history in dance dating from her childhood in segregated Houston, where she was not allowed in theaters putting on productions of the Christmas classic. (Streams on Netflix)
“Veneno”: Journalism student Valeria Vegas (Lola Rodríguez) meets her idol – former trans sex worker turned TV star Cristina Ortiz Rodriguez, aka La Veneno (Daniela Santiago) – and begins to find her own identity while reporting on La Veneno’s life. The series, based on Vegas’s 2016 biography of the trans icon, became a hit in Spain upon its release in March. Stateside reviews are scarce, but the few that exist are effusively positive. (Streams on HBO Max)
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