For the last few years, whilst superhero franchise blockbusters have been the undisputed dominant force in mainstream cinema, I have been saying that a change will eventually happen because nothing lasts forever. What I meant is that something else will come along to challenge the dominance of superheroes. I didn’t expect the big change in the cinema for 2020 to be that cinemas were closed for a lot of the year.
2020 was certainly different. The pandemic, lockdowns and other restrictions meant that cinemas had to be closed for long periods of time and even when they could legally open, many people were put off by the thought of spending hours in a windowless room, filled with recycled air.
The last time I went to the cinema was on the 29th of February to see Céline Sciamma’s superb queer romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Since then, fears of catching Covid-19 have kept me away from my favourite pastime. This could be the least I have been to the cinema in a year since I became a teenager and was no longer reliant on my parents’ availability to take me to the cinema.
The year started with a brief, but very promising rush of critically well received films, released in the run up to the Oscars. This showed signs (ill-fated signs) that 2020 was going to be a very very good year in the cinema.
Little Women was a tour de force of excellent performances, cementing Saoirse Ronan’s reputation as one of the most talented actors of this age and further showing off the scene stealing power of Florence Pugh, who is certainly one to watch. Greta Gerwig continues to make interesting films and I’m excited to see what her next directorial outing will bring.
It was a good Oscar season for films with historic settings. 1917 was a rare thing, a First World War drama that focused on the tension and not the futility of war; with epic long shots and huge battle scenes. As well as 1917, we had Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a quietly devastating film about the love between two women in 18th Century France that has one of the most intense and moving final shots of any film I have ever seen.
Parasite was one of those films that could have been made just for me. I loved this shocking, funny and moving film about a struggling South Korean family which manipulates a rich family into giving them jobs. The film is one of this year’s gems, filled with surprising twists and turns, moving from dark comedy to horror-like intensity with the deftness you would expect from seasoned genre bending director Bong Joon-ho.
The film is rooted in a radical political statement about wealth and inequality that is relevant worldwide and most of it takes place in a beautiful modernist house. I loved every second of this film. Joon-ho is one of the great directors working today and this film justly deserves its surprise Oscar win for Best Picture.
Covid-19 closes cinemas
Then, after such a promising first few months in the cinema, the virus came. The program of superhero and franchise blockbusters slated for release in the spring and summer was quickly cancelled. Films that would have been the big events of the year, such as Black Widow and No Time To Die, have yet to be released. Their fate remains uncertain, at least until the vaccine is rolled out to enough people that cinema audiences return to what they once were.
This absence of high-profile films left a vacuum that nothing has yet emerged to fill. Some films that would have been released in the cinema went straight to streaming services, resulting in most of the year’s big titles being first seen on Netflix.
Of the raft of films that would have once been in the cinema, but instead formed this year’s direct to Netflix event films, many were bland and forgettable. Project Power was a generic superhero conspiracy film, not based on a comic. Old Guard was a generic superhero soldier film, based on a comic. Enola Holmes was fun and then forgettable, true to its nature of a sugary treat aimed at children.
There were a few streaming films that were more than forgettable. Extraction brought back the muscle man action film and showed that Chris Hemsworth has a range beyond Thor. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was as bizarre, camp, silly and funny as a Will Ferrell film about an Icelandic duet attempting to win Eurovision demanded to be.
As good as these films were, they were not enough to fill the void left by a summer without blockbusters. However, they were at least different from the usual superhero-heavy range of popcorn entertainment that we get every year.
I had hoped that a year where streaming was the prominent means of distributing film would lead to the rise of a new form of cinematic entertainment to challenge superhero franchise films for their mantle. This did not happen. Streaming didn’t become the rival to mainstream cinema, offering something different, but instead offered a home to what would have been the B pictures of a normal year.
The void left by a summer without superheroes did mean that some films received more attention than they would have in a normal year. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods achieved a higher profile than an independent film normally receives, partly because there was so little else that was fresh this year, and also because it sadly contained one of the last performances from Chadwick Boseman. Boseman’s sudden passing shocked the many people he had impressed over the years with standout performances, such as the warmth and humanity he brought to T’Challa in the MCU. Rarely has a career burned so bright and so briefly.
Other films that stood out from the direct to streaming pack included The Devil All The Time, an unsettling rural drama that featured arresting performances from its young cast including Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Harry Melling and Eliza Scanlen.
Uncut Gems was a furiously gripping dark comedy from the Safdie brothers that was so tense that it actually stopped being fun and became one of the most stressful two hours of my life. The film gave Adam Sander a chance to show his range and he really excelled in this dramatic role, as a perpetually double-dealing, gambling addict gem salesman.
Charlie Kaufman’s third directorial feature, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, gave us unadulterated Kaufman weirdness and reminded me why I loved his great films of the 2000s such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. Mank was a return to form for David Fincher, paying homage to Citizen Kane and faithfully recreating the feel of a 1940s film, whilst also making a relevant statement about fake news in the 21st century.
Another film that mixed history and contemporary political commentary was Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (also a directorial outing from a successful screenwriter). This film boosted excellent performances from Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Sacha Baron Cohen; the latter almost unrecognisable from his former comedic characters in this dramatic role. The film manages to make many astute points about divisions on the left, racism, the right to protest and police brutality that are as relevant to today’s politics as they are to the Vietnam era of the film’s setting.
Speaking of Sacha Baron Cohen, the sudden release of a Borat sequel – Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm – was one of the few film surprises of the year. Partly because it appeared to have been made in secret, partly because the filmmakers were able to punk some people who must have been living under a rock, but mainly because it was one of the few films to directly address the pandemic. Sacha Baron Cohen has excelled in both dramatic and comedic roles this year, and the film also gave its hitherto unknown co-star, Maria Bakalova, a chance to perform a truly spectacular ambush comedy scene on Rudolph Giuliani.
It’s worth remembering that some big blockbusters were released in the cinema this year. Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn managed to sneak its way into cinemas before the first lockdown and was one of the best things DC has done in years. The ensemble cast, including Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosie Perez, all excelled and director Cathy Yan managed to balance action and comedy to a degree not seen in a superhero film since Guardians of the Galaxy.
DC would do well to look to the likes of Yan for future direction, instead of the self-indulgent grim fest of Justice League’s Snyder Cut, which will run to a bladder testing 214 minutes long and could easily be the worst film of 2021. I’m calling it now.
Tenet became this year’s most anticipated film, mainly because of director Christopher Nolan’s insistence on a cinema release for his time bending action adventure, despite the novel coronavirus having other ideas. When Tenet was finally released, it was something of a disappointment. Nolan’s visual flair is excellent as ever, but the plot is either deliberately confusing or complete nonsense. It barely manages to string together the action set pieces.
Back in the cinema next year?
At the dawn of the new year the future of cinema remains uncertain. It’s possible that by the summer, we will be back in the cinema, fully inoculated against Covid-19 and enjoying all the films that were not released this year. Or we may be looking at another year where a Netflix Party is the closest we come to a collective viewing experience.
In the past, I have talked about the demise of the superhero franchise blockbuster and although we have had a year with almost no superhero films, they still seem to be the dominant force in cinema, with Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, The Eternals, Morbius, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and a Venom sequel all slated for release next year. Their absence this year created a vacuum that was not filled and an alternative challenger has yet to emerge.
The dominance of streamed films this year, combined with a brief creative flowering last winter does, at least, offer the possibility of things being different. Although we all want a return to normality right now and maybe the resumption of normal life will be best summed up by huge crowds flocking to see The Eternals. Or perhaps many people will have been permanently lured away to streaming services that have offered something different this year, from Uncut Gems to Da 5 Bloods.
What will be the highlights of next year? Hopefully we will finally get to see Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation or Florence Pugh becoming a household name when she stars opposite Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow. If things return to normal then we can also expect the cinema releases of new Bond film, No Time To Die, finally.
If things don’t return to normal, then I don’t know what will happen. Cinema is in limbo now, but it can’t be in limbo forever. If Covid-19 becomes a permanent part of our lives, then cinema will have to change or die.
I have been predicting (unsuccessfully) a great change in cinema for a while now. What happened this year was not what I meant, but it does show the change can happen quickly. Maybe this new decade will mean change for cinema? All I can say is that I hope that I can make it back to the cinema at least once in 2021.