How It Started…
In the first days of the new decade, theaters opened with the final chapter of the iconic trilogy, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Sam Mendes’ one-shot war drama 1917, and Greta Gerwig’s period drama Little Women. On February 9th, history was made at the 92nd Academy Awards as Parasite won Best Picture. Bong Joon-ho’s exciting and surprising satire not only brought South Korea its first Oscar for Best International Feature, but the film also won Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Most importantly, the Best Picture win made Parasite the first film in a language other than English to accept the honor. The tiny, up-and-coming film distributor Neon and its successful Oscar campaign for Parasite, buoyed by charming acceptance speeches by director Bong’s, proved that it was possible for an international feature to succeed in the U.S. Maybe, things are changing. Later in the month, Berlinale brought together an international crowd of stars, filmmakers, industry professionals, press and cinephiles. At the time, nobody knew these kinds of gatherings would soon become impossible for a significant amount of time.
… and How It’s Going.
Going in to March 2020, the entire world started transforming. The pandemic changed how we lived, how we consumed films and television, and how a huge industry worked. Film festivals were postponed or cancelled, including the Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious of the bunch. Later on, entirely new ways of experiencing film festivals emerged, right from our living rooms and cars. Many summer and fall festivals switched their activities to online platforms, or built drive-in movie theaters. Winter releases bypassed the theater experience to premiere online; using VOD, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, or choosing newcomers like Disney+, Apple TV+ and HBO Max. It was a catastrophic year for the production and distribution of films, but an exciting one for digital platforms. Everyone was home, hungry for new content to watch. Many of key organizations and events postponed the dates on their awards timelines, shifting the awards season forward as far as April 2021. Rules changed, and new rules were written, embracing digital content and pardoning the latecomers. 2020 was the year of no Cannes, no summer blockbusters, no MARVEL films, and the strangest box-office list.
“Entirely new ways of experiencing film festivals emerged, right from our living rooms and cars. Many summer and fall festivals switched their activities to online platforms, or built drive-in movie theaters.”
Box-office is Irrelevant
Who would say that box office king Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated new feature, Tenet, would not be among the ten highest grossing domestic releases in the U.S.? Who would say Bad Boys for Life or Sonic the Hedgehog would be more successful at the box-office than it was? Well, this is the case. In an extraordinary year, box-office data became irrelevant. Globally, theaters were shut down for a significant portion of the year. During the first quarter of 2020, when COVID-19 was just a headline in international newspapers and life in unaffected countries continued normally, a few releases were lucky enough to attract a mediocre amount of audiences to top the box-office lists. Those were the last installment of the Sony Pictures Entertainment’s action-comedy franchise Bad Boys for Life ($204M in the U.S. and $206M globally) and Paramount Pictures’ Sonic the Hedgehog ($146M in the U.S.). Warner Bros.’ Tenet, which was initially planned for a global release on July 17th with IMAX, was postponed multiple times. Instead, it was released on Sept. 3, in a limited number of theaters and grossing much less than expected– just $46M in the U.S. and $56M globally. In theses unusual conditions, this is a predictable, yet unexpectedly dramatic fall from Nolan’s previous film, Dunkirk (2017). The WWII epic grossed more than $50M over its opening weekend and reached $190M in the U.S. and $527M globally.
A Lesson Learned: This Was Not a Year to Release a Blockbuster.
After Tenet’s disappointing box-office numbers, and an inevitable second wave of the pandemic in sight, many blockbusters with a fourth quarter release are postponing opening weekend until 2021. Despite running ads for more than a year, with an initial release date as early as April 2020, Daniel Craig’s last performance as James Bond in the 007 franchise, No Time to Die, was first postponed to November 2020 and is now expected to open in 2021. MARVEL Studios, which planned to launch the Marvel Cinemaetic Universe’s (MCU) new phase with Black Window and Eternals this year, announced there will be no MCU films in 2020, pushing both titles to 2021. The sci-fi drama adapted from the acclaimed Frank Herbert novel, Dune by Denis Villeneuve; and Steven Spielberg’s remake of the famous musical West Side Story were expected to open in theaters for the holiday season, only to be postponed as well. Other titles we will not be seeing this year include A Quiet Place Part II, Candyman, Death on the Nile, F9, Godzilla vs. Kong, and The King’s Man.
2020 Titles to Keep an Eye on…
In the absence of blockbusters, and with more time to dig in to VOD and streaming options, many independent films have found a different and wider audience. Withdrawal of billion-dollar productions from the awards race does not necessarily mean that 2020 was an idle year for film. Many independent films (and a few big-budget ones) made their premieres in the autumn film-festivals that were held online or with a limited audience. Many of those titles will be available online through December 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. Due to a shifted awards season timeline, it is quite early to make a best-of-the-year list, yet these titles (some of which we have already seen online) are worth your attention.
“In the absence of blockbusters, and with more time to dig in to VOD and streaming options, many independent films have found a different and wider audience”
Kelly Reichardt’s latest, First Cow, is a story set in 18th century Oregon, telling the story of two friends and business partners as the first cow arrives in the state. This sweetly becomes a tool to criticize American colonialism. Premiered in Berlinale, First Cow collected the most nominations in the season’s first notable awards list, the IFP’s Gotham Awards.
Spike Lee’s Netflix original film Da 5 Bloods, an unconventional Vietnam war film, brings back four old friends who fought side by side in Vietnam to find the remnants of their friend and a treasure they hid together. Spike Lee’s film was made available for streaming while the Black Lives Matter protests took to the streets of many U.S. cities following the death of George Floyd.
Although criticized for confusing the audience and shaken by negative reviews and unsuccessful box-office numbers, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a breathtaking action film with a different interpretation of time, featured the year’s best technical achievements.
In highly-acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s second-time as a director, the Netflix original The Trial of the Chicago 7 depicts the historically unjust trial of the Chicago Seven. Of the film’s starring ensemble, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron-Cohen, and Mark Rylance are the MVPs.
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is an outstanding performance by Frances McDormand, telling the story of a modern-day nomad on the West Coast. Nomadland became the first film to ever win the biggest prizes of two major festivals: the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and the Toronto Film Festival’s Audience Award. If nominated for the Academy Awards, Chloé Zhao will be the first female director of Asian descent up for the director’s honor.
Recent Oscar-and Emmy-winning actress Regina King’s debut feature One Night in Miami, is the story of a fictional night in 1964’s Miami, bringing together four icons to discuss their impact on the civil rights movement and the country’s cultural upheaval: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. If nominated, Regina King will be the first Black female director up for the honor at the Academy Awards.
Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer winning play, George C. Wolfe’s Netflix original, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, takes the audience to 1927’s Chicago. At a recording session, tensions are high between “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player, and the white management. Featuring the late Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, the film is predicted to bring Boseman many posthumous awards and nominations.
David Fincher’s black and white Hollywood drama Mank the most anticipated Netflix production of the year. The film follows the rivalry between screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and the iconic director Orson Welles during the production of Citizen Kane.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, Minari, is the story of a Korean family that moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s.
Florian Zeller’s The Father, adapted from his stage play of the same name, is about a man refusing all assistance from his daughter as he ages, while he becomes a victim of his own mind. Bringing together Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins, the film is said to have two of the year’s best performances.
“Nomadland became the first film to ever win the biggest prizes of two major festivals: the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and the Toronto Film Festival’s Audience Award.”
Some notable animated feature films of the year include Pixar’s Onward, about the journey of two elf brothers, and an Irish animation by Apple TV+ called WolfWalkers. Pixar’s Soul tells the story ofa musician who loses his soul. Some notable documentary feature films of the year are the political documentary Boys State, Apple TV+’s prize winner at Sundance Film Festival; Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s heart-warming Netflix documentary about her father;, and Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, which focuses on the U.S. government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak.