The year 2020 in film has been greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. No doubt. ‘Theatrical Release’ has become an increasingly less-used term as the year has gone on. Many of the big ‘uns are still holding out for a 2021 release in the hope that a vaccine will arrive. Bond 25 has taken so long that even Sean Connery couldn’t wait anymore (No Time to Die seems like an inappropriate title now). The megabucks spent on their productions relies on the cinema queues, and be damned if they are going to compromise by selling out to Netflix…well, let’s just wait and see about that, shall we?
Many commentators have decried the death of cinema this year. This is heightened by the declaration that ‘the last great hope’ Tenet turned out to be a ‘Box Office Bomb’ (which is strange given that its profits have so far almost doubled the cost – riddle me that?). If you ask me, this nonsense is only disguising the fact that Tenet just isn’t that good. And not all of the film-watching public are idiots, despite the U.S. trying very hard to make an argument to the contrary.
The cinema will always be an outlet of choice for the public, and film studios around the world will always use it to showcase their very expensive wares. 2020 may have been an affecting year for the cinematic blockbusters, but lots of money was still made. It is of major interest to note that in the list of highest grossing films of 2020, there are quite a number of Chinese productions. The Eight Hundred and My People, My Homeland are number 1 and 2 respectively, while Bad Boys for Life, Tenet and Sonic the Hedgehog make up the rest of the top five. One really wonders how a country where the pandemic started and a country where the pandemic has taken the most lives, can afford to throw the most money into the movie industry and also get a lot of it back. We are talking about hundreds of millions per film by the way.
If you didn’t notice, a number of big film festivals did occur this year (with the exception of Cannes). Sundance and Berlin occurred pre-pandemic, and Venice went ahead in a ‘restrained format’ in September. As always, many new international films were hosted and we will likely hear or see about these in the coming months. We also presume the Oscars will go ahead in some capacity in February, and the ‘woke jury’ at the Academy will have to get to work on what films are viable enough to win the awards. In short, there are plenty of cinematic delights to look forward to.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of cinema’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Building stream with a grain of salt
Earlier this year it was anticipated that Netflix would start to impose itself on the Awards Season with its many high profile productions. Alas, it was not to be. Nevertheless, with the likes of Martin Scorsese choosing it as a viable place to release new material (The Irishman) its impact on the future of cinema cannot be ignored. Streaming is very much upon us, and if anything, the pandemic has allowed it to thrive in a year of ultimate lounge room living. The jury is still out on whether it can replace the cinema experience though. Sure, maybe those rich enough to pay for that 150 inch TV can re-create a home-comfort theatre, but for the rest of us the local movie house is still the place to go for the big blockbusters. That is, of course, if it is safe to do so.
Netflix and other video on demand (VOD) services was where it was at for me this year. And I say that with a sense of dismay. Some of the films I seen were great, but inevitably I think they would have been better experienced on the big screen (for the record, my screen is average size). Here in Australia, we don’t get new stuff too quickly at the best of times, so even when some of the big hits were released on Netflix in other parts of the world, it still took a bit of time for them to appear Down Under. Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer), The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles) and Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach), for example, were all released in late 2019, and in the case of Marriage Story, it had a bit of a theatrical release before later succumbing to the streaming platform.
Streaming highlights and lowlights
Netflix have set a direction for listing as many classic action/adventure films in their catalogue as they can, and it is no surprise that they are securing new releases in that genre as well. Project Power (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) was thoroughly enjoyable action fare with a stand-out performance from Dominique Fishback alongside Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The Chris Hemsworth action vehicle Extraction (Sam Hargrave) and the Charlize Theron action vehicle The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Bythewood) was received with more mixed reviews, but notably bypassed the cinemas for a direct-to-Netflix release.
The platform also invested in a young adult fiction series called Enola Holmes (which is of course connected to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes universe). Very much a British film, Jack Thorne’s adaptation was originally planned for a big release but director Harry Bradbeer took the parachute option when Covid hit. Whilst it would have been good to see it in the cinema, it is still just as enjoyable on the small screen. It is a perfect antidote to the glumness of 2020. Full of fast-paced action and a truly charismatic performance by Millie Bobby Brown, Enola Holmes successfully re-shapes the contours of stuffy British mystery dramas and adds a feminine vibrancy that appears in line with many other diversity-embracing British productions this year (Misbehaviour, Emma and The Personal History of David Copperfield).
Some Netflix entertainment worked this year, while others did not. The Will Ferrell comedy vehicle, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin) ensured that, despite the actual event being mercifully postponed this year, we still had to deal with a film about it. In fairness, it is completely harmless fun, and actually makes a good effort in going to the heart of what the modern contest is all about – over-the-top frivolity.
Unsurprising in the circumstances, a range of other streaming platforms took off this year too. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner) was released on Amazon Prime Video. It did not quite make itself as funny or as potent as the original, but there were some decently set-up scenes of grim humour – as much as we laughed at the vampire clown, Rudolph Giuliani, groping himself in front a woman claiming to be 15 years old, the reality of how powerful and defiant that man is and continues to be makes for much soul-searching. The always juvenile but fairly funny Andy Samberg appeared on Hulu in a silly Groundhog Day-styled caper called Palm Springs – Cristin Miloti and J. K. Simmons effectively carried the show. An unnecessary sequel, Bill and Ted Face the Music (Dean Parisot) was also released on various platforms. The one prevailing thing in my thoughts after watching this was that Keanu Reeves needs to stick at being John Wick. And I hear Alex Winter is directing a doco about Frank Zappa. Well, good. Focus on that!
The unsurpassable Jon Stewart, who left his post as the cutting satirical host of The Daily Show not long before Trump was elected, has continued a line in directing film, and he made a decent and honest effort at examining the absurdity of the US electoral system in his comedy Irresistible. I assume he would have wanted a higher profile release in this a U.S. election year, but it was squirreled away on some streaming platforms instead. The film lacked a bit of heft, but it hits some high notes and Steve Carrell delivers quality humour as he only can. For more serious political chewing gum, Scott Z. Burns offered us the deeply compelling The Report late last year, which had Adam Driver playing the lead investigator into the CIA cover-up of how the U.S. Military used interrogation techniques during their wars in the Middle East. The film appeared on Amazon Prime Video in 2020 after a short cinema release.
Disney+ also soared as a streaming platform in 2020 with a lot of its extensive back catalogue being added (with the exception of the hugely questionable Song of the South) as well as some new stuff such as The Call of the Wild – another attempt to bring the Jack London classic to the masses, this time with Harrison Ford at the helm. It’s watchable, but the animal CGI is just vomit-inducing stuff. Luckily for the makers, Cats (and those CGI buttholes), which was released in late 2019, sucked all the piss-take and ridicule away from this film. For the record, Tom Hooper’s Cats is available on some streaming outlets I am led to believe, but do you really care? Other Disney mishaps in 2020 include Artemis Fowl (Kenneth Branagh) and Onward (Dan Scanlon), both suffering financially due to the necessary digital release. The most-streamed ‘movie’ of the year was apparently Disney’s live stage recording of the Broadway musical Hamilton. I have not seen it, and I have no intention of doing so.
Three other films were released on streaming this year that are most definitely worth mentioning, but because I intend to follow this with a more detailed post on my favourite films of the year, I will refrain from saying too much until then. Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (released on Netflix) was a perplexing masterpiece (this is a controversial opinion I know) and the Safdie Brother’s Uncut Gems (also distributed worldwide on Netflix) was a joyride like no other. Finally, the Irish-produced Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan), also released in some jurisdictions on Netflix, was weird, creepy and impressively-made.
Has streaming sealed a fate of ‘fin du cinéma’?
People just need to be patient. Many of us crave the cinema. We will be back there. Theatrical releases will be back. They may well be Chinese language films with English subtitles, but they will be back!