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The best video essays of 2020

Creators continue to push the envelope of criticism on YouTube

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Image: Ninja Theory

For the last few years, video essays have gained more and more prominence on YouTube. With more and more creators choosing a video essay — or video essay-inspired — format, there are video essays about almost any topic you want to learn more about.

To discuss what makes a video essay one of the best of the year, let’s first break down what a video essay was in the year 2020. There’s more gray area between formats than it initially may seem, especially given how many videos that lack an essay structure take on an essay aesthetic. We used the following criteria for this list:

  1. The video must be scripted. Momentary improvised asides are fine, especially if they come in the form of voice over added in editing, but the video must otherwise follow a written script.
  2. The video must have a thesis, and that thesis must be more than “this is good” or “this is bad.” The thesis should concern the impact of the subject matter, not just its content. This means no straight reviews (like La’Ron Readus’s review of Candyman), no commentary/discussion videos (like Sherliza Moé’s series on cultural appropriation in the Star Wars prequels and Avatar: The Last Airbender), no lore recaps (like My Name Is Byf’s meticulous archival works of the Destiny 2 lore), and no straight-up histories (like Sarah Z’s retelling of the infamous DashCon).
  3. The video also shouldn’t be a documentary (like NoClip’s documentary about the making of Pyre). The focus should be a subject from an analytical standpoint, not an interview standpoint.
  4. But this doesn’t mean the video should necessarily aim for pure objectivity; personal video essays are, in fact, a thing.

This isn’t to say the excluded videos aren’t great. On the contrary: the ones mentioned above absolutely rule. Defining the parameters of a video essay, though, puts the videos discussed here on an equal playing field. When you watch, you know you’ll come away understanding the subject matter, and likely how art and society impact each other, a little better. Almost all of these videos contain spoilers, so watch at your own risk — but most can be enjoyed regardless of your familiarity with the subject matter, too.

1. “In Search of Flat Earth,” Dan Olson (Folding Ideas)

Dan Olson of Folding Ideas has been a video essayist for years, helping solidify the medium on YouTube. “In Search of Flat Earth,” though, is his masterpiece to date. The video is shot beautifully, with loving and reverent shots of nature that not only contribute to the video’s content and concepts, but also capture a sense of still beauty. If the video seeks to claim that flat earthers feel powerlessness in the face of the government and science, the way this video is shot makes the claim that maybe our powerlessness can be good, actually. But “In Search of Flat Earth” isn’t just a response to flat earthers; it’s also a response to Olson’s contemporaries who have made videos trying to convince flat earthers that their ideas are wrong. “In Search of Flat Earth” argues that flat earthers, and people with similar mindsets, can’t be logicked out of their mindsets — which turns into a surprise, mind-blowing third-act twist.

2. “The Satirical Resurgence of Reefer Madness,” Yhara Zayd

Yhara Zayd is somewhat of a newcomer to video essays, posting her first, “The Remake That Couldn’t: Skins U.S. in June 2019. Her catalogue of work has boomed in 2020, making selecting a video to feature difficult; her work is consistently standout, mixing analysis with dry comedy and heavy aesthetics. In a landmark year for marijuana legalization, “The Satirical Resurgence of Reefer Madness” feels especially timely and important, but it’s also just a delight to watch. The video is not just a look into a criminally underrated musical starring Kristen Bell, Alan Cummings, and Ana Gasteyer. It’s a look into the real 1936 propaganda film of the same name, how the laws around marijuana criminalization were formed, and the deeply racist roots of anti-marijuana campaigns. Zayd’s soft but direct voice and distinctly internet-culture-informed humor make the video consistently engaging and fun while never shying away from what makes Reefer Madness so worthy of a campy parody musical.

3. “The Strange Reality of Roller Coaster Tycoon,” Jacob Geller

Roller Coaster Tycoon is a nostalgic classic — but what can it teach us about death? A weird amount, as Geller explains in “The Strange Reality of Roller Coaster Tycoon.” This video opens with the sentence, “There is at least one roller coaster designed specifically to kill you.” The “Euthanasia Coaster,” Geller explains, was never made, but would effectively kill a rider in just about a minute. As he breaks down the rituals around death, he winds his way around curves and loops, masterfully bringing the audience back to the game at the core of the video: Roller Coaster Tycoon. In just over 18 minutes, Geller’s analysis breaks down how the game allows for meaningful struggle in its mechanics — which the video essayist notes are similar in their coding to a roller coaster — while allowing for monstrosities, lethal roller coasters that bring your virtual park-goers to their grave. A roller coaster is meant to scare us, meant to spike adrenaline, meant to put the fear of death right in us, but fun! Geller’s discussion of Roller Coaster Tycoon shows just how much coasters, real or virtual, say about how we deal with death.

Disclosure: Jacob Geller has written for Polygon.

4. “CATS! And the Weird Mind of TS Eliot,” Maggie Mae Fish

Cats may have come out in 2019, but Maggie Mae Fish’s video essay on it came out in March 2020, so early into what the rest of the year would become. It was a small, but wonderfully unhinged blessing for video essay lovers who needed something bonkers to keep us afloat during quarantine. Fish’s performance background is in comedy and improv, notably working with Cracked before starting on her own video essays. Her writing and performance have a level of effervescent delight and bewilderment at most of the trash media she discusses, coming through most in her discussion of Cats.

But while a video on why Cats was bad could have been engaging and funny, Fish takes a step deeper, looking into the musical’s source material: the poetry of T.S. Eliot, a homophobic, antisemitic weirdo. Fish doesn’t just express Eliot’s politics, but explains why Cats pulls from fascist ideologies in its depiction of a tradition-heavy death cult. (Just, you know, with cats.) From there, Fish’s analysis goes even deeper. This video isn’t about not liking problematic media, or even “bad” media. It’s a video about deeply loving something that winds up parodying and subverting its roots.

5. “The Anatomy of Stan Culture,” Elexus Jionde (Intelexual Media)

Historian Elexius Jionde of Intelexual Media often takes a cultural anthropology lens in her videos, discussing topics like life in the American 1970s and the history of Black homelessness. In “The Anatomy of Stan Culture,” Jionde breaks down a current social phenomenon through a historical lens, asking why we stan and how we got here. Jionde dissects “celebrity worship disorder” and how fans obsess over their favorite celebrities, while not letting people who think they’re too good for the goss off the hook either. Using examples ranging from Bhad Babie to Selena Quintanilla to Victorian actors, Jionde shows how current celebrity culture is rooted in everything from politics to evolutionary biology. This 18-minute video is a crash course in how the celebrity industry runs, and it’s also an analysis of how we interact with celebrity right now. How do stans go from liking Ariana Grande’s music to replicating Ariana Grande’s voice to sending death threats to people who besmirch Ariana Grande’s name? Jionde doesn’t necessarily judge stans; instead, she shows how celebrity culture affects the rest of culture.

6. “On Writing: Mental Illness in Video Games,” Tim Hickson (Hello Future Me)

Before talking about what makes this video essay great, a warning: this video discusses struggles with mental health, including several aspects of suicide. It’s the heaviest video essay on this list, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before you watch.

Tim Hickson of the channel Hello Future Me opens the video by disclosing his experience working for a youth mental health and suicide intervention hotline. From there, he first discusses the ways in which video games, immersive narratives where players have control and make choices, can be cathartic for people with mental illnesses and informative for people who don’t. Citing games from World of Warcraft to Celeste to Prey to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Hickson shows the different ways games dive into depression, social anxiety, and schizophrenia. A segment focused on Life is Strange’s Kate Marsh dissects how a story can be cathartic for one person, but harmful for another. It’s a deeply empathetic video essay with rich research. It’s sobering, emotional, and moving.

7. “Why Anime is for Black People - Hip Hop x Anime,” Yedoye Travis (Beyond the Bot)

Beyond the Bot is a new New York-based collective making video essays about how anime impacts culture, and like with Yhara Zaid’s work, it was difficult to choose a favorite. “Why Anime is for Black People” is a standout for just how deep the analysis goes into the crossover between Black and East Asian culture. Going back to ’70s Blaxploitation and kung fu films, host and writer Yedoye Travis chronicles how East Asian media permeated Black culture, eventually leading to the Wu-Tang Clan sourcing their samples from films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Shaolin and Wu Tang. Legendary producer J Dilla would later go on to sample East Asian music as well. And, of course, Travis spends a good deal talking about the important of the Toonami block of Adult Swim, and the importance of the network playing music from bands like Gorillaz and their lo-fi hip-hop bed music for bumps. Travis explains how the shows themselves — namely Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and, of course, The Boondocks — made an impact on Black youth who grew up alongside the programming. The historical lens of the cross-culture influences allows this analysis to go deeper than similar video essays, but the tone stays casual, giving plenty of asides and jokes for people familiar with the content.

8. “What Is *Good* Queer Representation in 2020?,” Princess Weekes (MelinaPendulum)

2020 has been a landmark year for queer representation in the media, and Princess Weekes’ “What Is *Good* Queer Representation in 2020?” seeks to pick apart what has been “good,” what has been “bad,” and most often, what has just been complicated. Like any discussion of representation, Weekes talks about how important it is for queer people to see different versions of queer people in a variety of media, and the tendency for queer people to overlook works by queer creators, or judge them more harshly than works by creators who aren’t queer. She breaks down queer assimilation and respectability politics, taking a stance that’s emotional and personal, while still being relatable and pervasive. This video essay is a great start for how we can start discussing ways to complicate representation, to move away from the sanitization of queer narratives, and understand that what makes one person feel seen might do the opposite for someone else.

9. “Fallout: New Vegas Is Genius, And Here’s Why,” Harry Brewis (hbomberguy)

Harry Brewis’ trend of surprisingly long videos with sarcastically simplistic titles continues with his hour-and-a-half testament to what makes a good narrative-heavy RPG, using Fallout: New Vegas as an example of the best of the best. Don’t let the title trick you into thinking the video is a review. It’s much closer to a masterclass on writing for games, and implementing your story and worldbuilding into every single aspect of that game. From the world to the companions to the main plot to the side quests to the combat to the continuity of consequences, Brewis lays out how Fallout: New Vegas gives its players genuine choices, and then makes those choices genuinely significant in the game. He argues the game actually deals in “gray morality” instead of just saying it does while pushing players to be Good or Evil. The choices in the game often leave the player ambivalent, while placing them in a wild world that players can choose to make even wilder. Brewis uses the video to talk about what makes Fallout: New Vegas work, and why so many games pale in comparison. It isn’t just that Fallout: New Vegas is good —it’s that it’s a meticulous game made by people who cared about every single detail they developed.

10. “Whisper of the Heart: How Does It Feel to Be an Artist,” Accented Cinema

Whisper of the Heart is one of the quieter Studio Ghibli films, and likewise, this video essay by Accented Cinema is quiet, lovely, and tender. Accented Cinema is a video essay channel that focuses on foreign (at least, foreign to the United States) media and its impact. “Whisper of the Heart: How Does It Feel to Be an Artist” is the most personal essay on this list, a necessity for an analysis of the very personal feeling of creating art. In the video, the host discusses how most artists don’t have the frenzied drive media often depicts. Instead, they have the slow, sometimes frustrating, sometimes euphoric drive of anyone who does something because it’s who they are. This video also comes with a warning that it discusses a tragic death in the studio — but the way it brings the discussion of that death back to the essay’s thesis is spectacular.

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