Best of a bad year: movies, music and other highlights of 2020

In the few years I’ve been posting best-of blogs in the face of worsening political circumstances, I’ve often expressed a rather forlorn hope that things might improve the following year. Well, it turns out, obviously, that the hope I expressed last year could not have been more forlorn. How terrible 2020 has been… not only but primarily because of COVID-19. You all know what that has entailed so I won’t dwell on it. I feel fortunate to have survived the year, and know that for many people it’s been far, far harder than for me. Nevertheless, it’s been tough. For helping me get through 2020, I thank my wife, friends (you know who you are), colleagues (ditto) and some especially supportive folk on social media (ditto again). I’d also like to express my gratitude to all those musicians who improved the quality of life for many this year with their performances, often online with little or no audience present and often unpaid; they deserve our thanks and support (financial if possible). But whoever you are, I wish you well. These are hard times, but I hope we’ll get through them, and the sooner the better.

Anxieties were many, pleasures comparatively few. Here below are some of the things I enjoyed most during this strange year. Some of the online musical concerts inevitably felt a little muted in comparison to the ‘live’ version; still, all of the music, film, TV and literature listed was valuable to me in one way or another. They helped me get through 2020, and if you can access some of them, they might help you in 2021.


The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)

Small Axe (Steve McQueen, 5 films, including Education, picture at top)

La Verité/The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)

Never Gonna Snow Again (Malgorzata Szumowska)

Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood)

Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer)

Lynn + Lucy (Fyzal Boulfa)

Rocks (Sarah Gavron)

Strasbourg 1518 (Jonathan Glazer, short)

State of the Union (Stephen Frears, 5 short films)

Birds of America (Jacques Loeuille, doc)

Being a Human Person: Roy Andersson (Fred Scott, doc)

Bernard Haitink, The Enigmatic Maestro (John Bridcut, doc)

Count Basie Through His Own Eyes (Jeremy Marre, doc)


La Maison des bois (Maurice Pialat)

The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)

My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong)

Voyage à travers le cinéma français (Bertrand Tavernier, doc)

The Barchester Chronicles (David Giles)

Stella Street – Series 1 (Peter Richardson)


Buster Keaton: Our Hospitality/College/Go West (Eureka)

Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (Criterion)

Takeshi Kitano Collection: Violent Cop/Boiling Point/Sonatine (BFI)


20 x ‘Classical’ (chamber, orchestral, opera)

Thomas Adès: Janácek – Solo Piano (Signum)

Marc-André Hamelin: Samuel Feinberg Sonatas 1-6 (Hyperion)

Nicolas Hodges: A Bag of Bagatelles (Wergo)

Stephen Hough: Johannes Brahms – The Final Piano Pieces (Hyperion)

Igor Levit: Encounter (Sony)

Frode Haltli: Selected Solo Works, Vol 1, 2 & 3 (Bandcamp)

James Gilchrist, Anna Tilbrook: Solitude (Chandos)

Ailish Tynan, Hebrides Ensemble: Judith Weir – Airs from Another Planet (Delphian)

András Schiff, Jörg Widmann: Johannes Brahms – Clarinet Sonatas (ECM)

Nash Ensemble: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn – Trios & Quartet (Hyperion)

Kim Kashkashian, Moyses Pogossian et al: Tigran Mansurian – Con Anima (ECM)

Signum Quartett, Harry Traksmann, Tanja Tetzlaff et al: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Lost Prayers (ECM)

Various: Rebecca Saunders – Still, Aether, Alba (BR Klassic Musica Viva)

Thomas Adès, Kirill Gerstein, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra: Adès – In Seven Days (Myrios)

Kirill Gerstein, Christianna Stotijn, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Adès: Thomas Adès Conducts Adès (Deutsche Grammophon)

Alina Ibragimova, State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Jurowski: Shostakovich Violin Concertos (Hyperion)

Leif Ove Andsnes, Martin Fröst, Tine Thing Helseth, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Skalstad, Søndergard: Bent Sørensen – Concertos (Da Capo)

Lawrence Power, BBC Philharmonic, Brabbins: James MacMillan – Symphony No 4, Viola Concerto (Hyperion)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Harnoncourt: Schubert – The Symphonies (ICA)

Stuart Skelton, Erin Wall, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Gardner: Peter Grimes (Chandos)

5 x ‘Jazz’ (chamber, orchestral)

Oded Tzur: Here Be Dragons (ECM)

Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM)

Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra: Live 1993 (Equinox)

Mike Westbrook: Love and Understanding & Citadel/Room 315 – Sweden ’74 (My Only Desire)

Maria Schneider: Data Lords (Artistshare)

1 x opera DVD

Thomas Larcher: The Hunting Gun (Das Jagdgewehr) (Unitel)


15 x ‘Classical’ (in order attended)

Stephen Hough, Michael Collins, Castalian Quartet: Brahms, Beethoven, Wigmore Hall, 6/1

Stephen Hough, Renaud Capuçon: Brahms, Wigmore Hall, 11/1

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber: Mahler, Wigmore Hall, 15/1

Igor Levit: Shostakovich, Barbican, 26/1 9

Allan Clayton, Lawrence Power, Elias Quartet, Christian Ihle Hadland: Vaughan Williams, Britten, Strauss, Mendelssohn, Wigmore Hall, 1/2

Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne: Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Dvorak, Wigmore Hall, 11/2 

Igor Levit, Markus Hinterhäuser, Ning Feng, Julia Hagen et al: Messiaen, Shostakovich, Milton Court, 13/2

Artemis Quartet: Haydn, Widmann, Beethoven, Wigmore Hall, 22/2

Isabelle Faust, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin: Bach, CPE Bach, Wigmore Hall, 29/2

Belcea Quartet: Beethoven, Wigmore Hall, 3/3

Allan Clayton, James Bailleu, Stephanie Wake-Edwards: Britten, Brahms, Mahler, Bridge, etc, Wigmore Hall, 21/10

Francesco Piemontesi: Lachenmann, Schubert, Liszt, Wigmore Hall, 28/10

Stephen Isserlis, Simon Callow, Lucy Crowe, Alina Ibragimova, Rachel Roberts, Connie Shih, Alasdair Beatson et al: Proust-themed concert and talk, Wigmore Hall, 31/10

James Gilchrist, Anna Tilbrook: Purcell, Schubert, Dove, Barber, Wigmore Hall, 1/11

1 x ‘Jazz’

Craig Taborn with musicians of the Royal Academy of Music, Royal Academy of Music, 30/1

ONLINE CONCERTS (in order seen):

5 x Wigmore Hall live-streamed lunchtime concerts, June:

Stephen Hough: Bach-Busoni, Schumann, Bach-Gounod

Roderick Williams, Joseph Middleton: Schubert, Brahms, C Schumann, R Schumann, Brahms

Allan Clayton, James Bailleu: Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Quilter, Britten, Liszt

Angela Hewitt: Bach

Mark Padmore, Mitsuko Uchida: Winterreise

Distance/Intimacy – Pierre Boulez Saal Festival of New Music (curated/performed by Daniel Barenboim and Emmanuel Pahud), July:

Emmanuel Pahud, Daniel and Michael Barenboim et al: Boulez, Jarrell, Pintscher, Francesconi  

Emmanuel Pahud, Daniel and Michael Barenboim, Jörg Widmann et al: Boulez, Rivet, Widmann

Ryedale Festival online, July:

Rachel Podger: Vilsmayr, Biber, Bach

10 x Wigmore Hall autumn series, online:

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber: Schubert, Berg

Alban Gerhardt, Markus Becker: Shostakovich, Schumann, Beethoven, Britten

Igor Levit: Beethoven

Angela Hewitt: Bach Jean-Guihen Queyras: Saygun, Britten, Kodaly

Kirill Gerstein: Debussy, Liszt, Komitas András Schiff: Janacek, Schumann

Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Huw Watkins: Beethoven, Knussen, Janacek, Watkins

Nicky Spence, Jess Dandy, Julius Drake et al: Janácek

Heath Quartet: Macmillan, Adès, Britten

Other streamed highlights:

Martha Argerich, Renaud Capuçon: Beethoven, Chopin, Franck, Hamburg, 25/6

Christina Rice, Allan Clayton, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha: Britten’s Phaedra, Gruber’s Frankenstein, Barber’s Knoxville Tennessee 1915, Royal Opera House (in 3 of ‘4/4’)

12 x BOOKS (in the order I read them)

Elizabeth Strout: Anything is Possible 

Quay Brothers (ed. Edwin Carrels): The Black Drawings Philadelphia Pennsylvania 1974-1977

Charles Portis: The Dog of the South

JB Priestley: English Journey

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park

EM Forster: The Machine Stops

P G Wodehouse: Thank You, Jeeves

Laura Tunbridge: Beethoven – A Life in Nine Pieces

Leopoldo Alas (‘Clarin’): La Regenta (The Judge’s Wife)

Jonathan Coe: Mr Wilder and Me

Laura Cumming: On Chapel Sands

Sam Wasson: The Big Goodbye – Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood


Quay Brothers: Dream Pools and Collection Holes, TENT, Rotterdam

Hedda Sterne, Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Other stuff

Hosting an on-stage interview and hanging out with the Quay Brothers at the Rotterdam Film Festival, January

Hosting an interview and several Q&As with Jessica Hausner for a weekend celebration of her work (including the release of Little Joe) at BFI Southbank, February

Writing for and editing an anthology of archive reviews and features on Jean-Luc Godard, the first in Sight & Sound’s projected series of publications devoted to important and influential auteurs.

Contributing to a Classical Top 5 podcast on films dealing with classical music, hosted by Tommy Pearson and featuring eminent music critics Fiona Maddocks and Richard Bratby.

Enjoying various classical performances from home streamed by Igor Levit, Lars Vogt, Tom Poster and Elena Urioste, Boris Giltburg, and Angela Hewitt, not to mention several editions of Hope@Home (Daniel Hope on Arte), particularly one with Tamara Stefanovich and Matthias Goerne. And on YouTube, Lawrence Power’s ongoing Lockdown Commissions, with six solo viola pieces so far by Huw Watkins, Garth Knox, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Cassandra Miller, Martyn Brabbins and William Marsey, imaginatively filmed in various venues.

Walks on Hampstead Heath and in Richmond Park.

Visiting Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve, North Norfolk, the afternoon and early evening of 28 September (below).

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