Alice Cottrell, Publisher
It’s been an amazing year for Australian debuts, and my stand-our favourites were: Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne, a beautiful and compulsively readable novel about friendship and desire, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, an intense novel about self-destruction and coming-of-age in a world sliding towards climate catastrophe, Blueberries by Ellena Savage, an intellectually rigorous and energising essay collection that’s both memoir and an interrogation of memoir, and Show Me Where It Hurts by Kylie Maslen, a powerful essay collection that blends criticism and memoir to explore living with invisible illness.
Cinema trips this year have been pretty few and far between, but my first trip back to Cinema Nova last month was to see the excellent Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, the film is an intimate portrayal of the experience of Autumn, a teenager faced with an unintended pregnancy. Discovering she can’t get an abortion in her home town in rural Pennsylvania without parental consent, Autumn travels to New York City with her cousin Skylar for three difficult days. It’s an understated, subtle and raw film with incredible performances by the two lead actors.
Alan Vaarwerk, Editor
In a year of feverishly refreshing the news, the books that had the most impact on me this year were the ones that grabbed and kept my attention. I couldn’t tear myself away from Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach and Ellena Savage’s Blueberries for the same reasons Alice mentions above. Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People was the perfect balm for my lockdown-scattered brain—each story is its own weird and wonderful little universe; Ronnie Scott’s The Adversary felt like the summer (and year) Melbourne never got to have. This year’s dark horse was Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes—a simple, Black Mirror-esque conceit thought through from every possible angle.
While I watched a lot of movies and TV this year, my favourite experiences were communal ones: In the first lockdown, my household binged Money Heist and Dark, two engrossing, intricately plotted series that prompted many debriefs and debates; by the second wave we had turned to more comforting fare like Schitt’s Creek and The Queen’s Gambit. The all-digital Melbourne International Film Festival provided a sense of community and appointment viewing; Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a lush and quiet masterpiece, and David France’s Welcome to Chechnya documentary was harrowing but essential viewing. Honourable mentions go to Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun and the ABC podcast Finding Desperado (and its predecessor Finding Drago) for the injection of madcap energy I needed emerging back into the world.
Ellen Cregan, First Book Club host
In 2020, I have used pop culture to distract myself from the world much more than usual. I know I am not alone in this. So it hasn’t been a year of serious television or films for me—it’s been one of dumb, comfortable and consumable media.
My partner and I spent a lot of lockdown watching our way through all of the Studio Ghibli movies on Netflix. I hadn’t seen Porco Rosso since I was a small child, and it was much more surreal than I remembered. Some other standouts were: Howl’s Moving Castle (my favourite), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (not officially a Studio Ghibli but still a classic), and My Neighbour Totoro, which I watched in an aesthetically perfect rainstorm.
I also spent more time than ever before watching YouTube videos in 2020. I rewatched every single episode of UNHhhh, the web series from RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova. This show is stupid, iconic, very funny, and a great distraction. I’ve also been watching videos from American YouTuber Brandi Hernandez, who records herself doing outlandish makeup challenges after consuming weed edibles. It’s hilarious.
My book choices this year have been more serious than my visual media choices, which is pretty standard for me. While 2020 has been a less-than-ideal year in so many ways, there have been some great books to come out of it. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half was one such book—a tale of identity, race and ‘passing’, it’s a novel that will stay with me for years. There have also been so many wonderful local releases this year. One of my favourites was Kokomo by Victoria Hannan, which I joyfully consumed in just a couple of sittings, and have been aggressively recommending to others ever since.
Hayley May Bracken, Podcast producer
I’m currently listening to Dramageddon, a genre-bending choose-your-own-adventure podcast set in the climate crisis / apocalypse in 2050. Created by the infinitely dynamic duo Jean Tong (playwright) and Lou Wall (comedian) and produced by the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, I discovered the podcast via Broadwave, a curated network of Australian podcasts telling community-driven stories.
I’m also listening to Anne Edmonds’ What’s Wrong With You? as part of the Audible Presents: Australia’s Funniest Stand-Up podcast, which features six of our most awarded and best-loved Australian comedians, originally recorded live at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. I’m a big fan of Anne ‘Eddo’ Edmonds who on face value is just one of those innately funny people, but on closer listen has hidden depths of darkness and pathos that make her material memorable. Only Anne could talk about ‘losing her marbies’ and make me laugh while also considering the philosophical questions that underpin all her casually delivered jokes.
Thirdly I’m listening to Literary Friction, a monthly conversation about books and ideas on NTS Radio hosted by friends Carrie Plitt, a literary agent, and Octavia Bright, a writer and academic. Each show is uses a theme to tie together author interviews, book recommendations, lively discussion and musical interludes.
Lauren Carroll Harris, ‘The Arts Crisis and the Colonial Cringe’
2020 was terrible year for cinema, and a sparkling one for middle-aged, American women at their top of their cinematic game. Sofia Coppola made filmmaking look easy with On The Rocks, in which she focused on love in the doldrums—the thorny yet boring midpoint of a relationship, not its dramatic beginning or end. It made me wonder why Hollywood, with its obsession with romance, has been so disinterested in portrayals of ordinary, everyday love.
And who else but Miranda July can dart from artform to artform—screenwriting, filmmaking, conceptual art, short stories, novels—with such consistent brilliance? Her film Kajillionaire was, to my mind, the purest manifestation yet of the qualities we associate with all of July’s different works—a story of queerness, self-acceptance and the family we make, with outsiders who experience painful self-awakening and blissful, bittersweet transcendence. The struggle to connect remains July’s essential theme, and to see it play out so lucidly, so profoundly, in the realm of experimental, yet popular cinema, made me feel grateful to be part of the audience.
Hayley Scrivenor, 2020 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award Winner
This year, I read precious few ‘new-release’ books , as I gave in to my desire simply to re-read things I knew I already loved (lockdown does that to a person, in my experience). One that strong-armed its way through was Luke Horton’s The Fogging. It struck a chord with its depictions of precarious work and travel anxiety (remember that?) and its meditation on the thousands of small moments that make up a relationship. I inhaled it.
It may be a bit niche, but if you’re writing your first book, or releasing your seventh, boy-oh-boy is The First Time podcast for you. It’s a warm, frank and fascinating look at putting your writing out into the world. Start at the beginning, or with the Nardi Simpson episode. Which leads me handily to my book of the year: Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile. I got the audiobook first, and promptly bought a paper copy too. I’m not usually one for ‘family sagas’, but this story blew me open with its characters and the way it captured a small town. The line by line often had me in tears (sometimes simply tears of jealousy). The author reads the audiobook and you should get it for the beauty of the Yuwaalaraay language alone.
While it’s definitely not a new release, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), starring Jane Fonda, is the film that will stay with me after this year is over. (I get away with it here because I saw it as part of the Choreomania film series, now showing at NSW Art Gallery—more people should know about these screenings because they’re free and great!). The film is about a 1930s dance marathon (which were apparently real things). What it’s actually about, though, is the way people are left to fend for themselves against forces they can’t hope to control. Ending on a note of things we can fear, but not fend off—no matter how fast we dance or run—feels apt for the year that was, and as we hot-step our way onward into the new normal.
Ivana Brehas, ‘The Queer Art of Sitting’
In music: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. A clear turning point for me—there’s who I was before I heard it, and who I was after. Totally brilliant and liberating.
In books: Daniel M. Lavery’s excellent, invigorating Something That May Shock and Discredit You, with its endless queer and trans readings of ostensibly heteronormative texts.
In comedy: Whitmer Thomas’ heartfelt, brutally confessional stand-up special The Golden One, which combines (tragi)comedy, documentary and music to glorious effect as he reckons with his mother’s death.
And in TV: Season two of Ramy—I watched the whole show twice this year. Also: I’d never seen anything by Luca Guadagnino (even actively avoiding his work), so was pleasantly surprised when I adored We Are Who We Are. Beautiful and present, it felt unlike anything I’d seen on TV before, and made me feel exactly how I did when I was 16. Emmy time for Jack Dylan Grazer!
Farrin Foster, ‘Why MasterChef is a Masterclass in Australian Propaganda’
At the end of every year, my thoughts compress into a narrow tunnel. My brain gets stuck in the heavy mud of the present and it becomes impossible to answer staple social event questions. ‘What have you been working on this year?’. I’ve no idea.
Luckily, there are objects around my house that offer clues about the best things I’ve read, watched, and heard. Gregor’s sophomore album—Destiny—has been so well played it’s hardly seen the inside of the record cupboard. Filled with thematic naivety and sonic complexity, the album feels expansive. There’s extra space in each composition that stands in lovely contrast to the moments of detailed, offbeat production.
Among the old receipts in my wallet I found the ticket stub for Beginning—a harrowing movie that uses beautiful and highly restrained cinematography to depict the many kinds of violence levelled against women. It’s the feature-length debut from Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, whose unflinching and deadpan treatment is deeply affecting.
Finally, my podcast app shows I tore through the ABC’s second season of Trace, which treads sensitively as it unpacks how the intersection of human and systemic frailties resulted in Nicola Gobbo (aka Lawyer X) becoming a police informant.