John Powers

The history of film is inseparable from immigration. Newcomers to America didn't merely pack the nickelodeons and movie palaces, they invented Hollywood.

Pop culture has a genius for transforming painful history into enjoyable entertainment. It can turn Nazi POW camps into the sitcom Hogan's Heroes. It can spin the murder of Israeli athletes into the thriller Munich. It can use the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa to kickstart the superhero saga Watchmen.

Like many people, I've spent the lockdown months looking for distractions. But even as I enjoyed watching Inspector Morse solve murder after murder in Oxford, what I want to highlight about 2020 are some books, films and TV shows that didn't simply distract me but delved into enduring questions of freedom, dignity and survival.

Square Haunting, by Francesca Wade (Penguin Random House)

The poet W.H. Auden once wrote:

Private faces in public places

Are wiser and nicer

Than public faces in private places.

If any TV show bears that out, it's surely The Crown, the endlessly enticing Netflix drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II now entering its fourth season.

Back when the Nazis were running roughshod over his homeland, Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem that asked, "In the dark times, will there still be singing?" And it gave a reply: "Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times."

The U.S. and Iran have had contentious relations ever since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s overthrowing the shah, and the subsequent hostage crisis — in which militants held 52 U.S. citizens for more than a year. Decades of scenes showing mobs burning the U.S. flag on the streets of Tehran have led many Americans to wonder why people in such a faraway country are so angry with the United States.

For an answer, you couldn't do better than to start with Coup 53, an exhilarating new historical documentary that unfolds with the pace and complexity of a thriller.

The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said that prison is a lack of space counterbalanced by a surplus of time. Our current lockdown can't be compared to being locked up, but with so much surplus time on our hands, many of us are eager for stories that will help us escape endless thoughts of COVID-19. Here are three that did that for me:

The other day I went to a party and wound up talking to some millennials who are backing Bernie Sanders. The conversation turned to the movies Parasite and Joker, and one of them wondered if the popularity of their shared theme — the abyss between the haves and have nots — meant we might be returning to the rebellious 1960s.

The first foreign filmmaker I ever heard of was Federico Fellini. Back then, he was an international brand name, and aside from Hitchcock, probably the most famous director in the world.

Few things haunt a critic more than loving something and not being able to share it. Every year, I wind up being plagued by the ghosts of the things I wasn't able to review — dog-eared books, dust-covered DVDs, TV shows and songs that rattle the windows of my playlists. Each December, I try to placate them with this ghost list before time runs out.

The films of Hayao Miyazaki (GKIDS)

Spy stories vary hugely in their respect for the real world. James Bond movies are timelessly cartoonish, with villains who make their headquarters inside disused volcanoes.

In the 1960s, there was a terrific comedy in which a teenage Maoist scrawls a bit of graffiti that would become famous: "CHINA IS NEAR." Half a century on, China is here. It's here on our screens, where Hong Kong protests domination by the Communist mainland.

I'm not sure that any creature is more marvelous than the honeybee, with its highly evolved social organization, its ability to create honey, and, of course, the stinger that causes us to take heed whenever we hear buzzing. The pain it threatens makes it easy to think you need an almost-monastic devotion to become a beekeeper.

Things are looking bright for pessimists these days — the world has caught up with their sense of gloom. Well over half of those living in the developed world think their countries are heading in the wrong direction, away from the prosperity and stability that people over age 40 once took for granted.

Sequels have come to seem inescapable in movies and TV, where the commercial logic is to keep a franchise going — even if it has nowhere to go. That's why I was leery of Season 2 of Big Little Lies. I'd been a fan of the original HBO series, a sneaky deep blend of satire and mystery that built to a satisfying finale in which its sexually violent villain is killed and the show's five heroines testify that his death was an accident. The story was over. But the show was too successful to end.

When Lena Dunham's Girls appeared seven years ago, it cleared the path for a parade of smart, provocative television shows about smart, provocative young heroines.

It's a commonplace that we never really know other people, not even those we love. This idea gets pushed to the limit in Mrs. Wilson, a new three-part drama from PBS' Masterpiece starring the electric English actress Ruth Wilson, whom you may know from Luther and The Affair. Based on the bizarre true story of Wilson's grandparents, Mrs.

Ever since I was young, I've loved stories set in the far-flung reaches of the West's many empires — from the British Raj of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India to the surreal Vietnam of Apocalypse Now. And I still love them, though I now realize that they usually look at other cultures from the vantage point of outsiders, even intruders.

Everyone is familiar with the official film genres, like the Western or the romantic comedy. But most of us divide movies into less intellectual categories.

There are movies that everybody has to see, like A Star is Born. There are movies you couldn't pay me to see; in my case, that's anything with the word "Saw" in its title. And then there are movies we know we ought to see but dread having to go.

Near the end of Philip Roth's novel Operation Shylock, a Mossad agent makes light of the modern penchant for conspiracy theories. "It's a paranoid universe," the spy says, "but don't overdo it."

Hollywood never overdid it more than in the 1970s. In the years after Richard Nixon's tarnished presidency, movie screens were flooded with conspiracy thrillers — from Chinatown and The Parallax View to All the President's Men.

If you're a fan of thrillers, you know that they're defined by two extremes. At one end are the plot-driven worlds that work like clockwork machines (for instance, Murder on the Orient Express); at the other are the stories that sprawl outward to offer a portrait of the larger society (like James Ellroy's Los Angeles or Stieg Larsson's Sweden). As it turns out, I've recently come across an enjoyable example of each extreme.

I don't believe in ghosts, but sometimes when I walk through my house I think I hear the forlorn cries of all the books, movies and TV shows that I've loved over the past few months but never got around to talking about. And so, every December, I try to silence those cries with my annual "Ghost List" of favorites I've ignored — a group that in 2017 ranges in spirit from cosmic surrealism to ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.

National Treasure, Hulu

There's a classic moment in the romantic thriller Charade, when Audrey Hepburn says to Cary Grant in exasperation, "Do you know what's the matter with you? ... Nothing."

For decades, the whole world felt the same. Grant's unrivaled blend of charm, good looks and silliness — he hadn't a shred of pomposity or elitism — made him a movie star everyone loved. Everyone, that is, except Archie Leach, the actor's real-life self who wrote that he'd spent years cautiously peering from behind the face of a man known as Cary Grant.

After decades of dogs ruling popular culture — there are three canine stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame — there's been a revolution. Thanks to a tsunami of cute viral videos, our feline comrades are now in the catbird seat, from those ubiquitous Hello Kitty stores to surprise bestsellers like Takashi Hiraide's exquisite, sneakily profound novel The Guest Cat.