Well, that’s a year that many people will be glad to see the back of – not least a cinema industry where social distancing has hampered production and more significantly, cinema closures have cut off the most important income stream.
With the business changed beyond recognition – quite possibly forever – it’s perhaps only the streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon, who’ll be in any sense comfortable as we enter another difficult year for the business. They, at least, have somewhere to exhibit their output.
Most major studios have been holding back their theatrical releases, waiting for cinemas to re-open widely; only Warner Bros and Disney have been pushing ahead with their releases – with Tenet one of the few blockbusters making it to the big screen – but many releases have moved directly to their own streaming services – Warners, in particular, earned the wrath of film-makers and exhibitors alike by announcing their their film 2021 slate would be available on HBO Max, in the US, at the same time as they open in cinemas.
Perhaps a more positive consequence of the pandemic is smaller films receiving a higher profile than they otherwise would, in the absence of the bigger titles. It’s also notable that, unable to go to the cinema, many people seem to be consuming more productions destined for the small screen anyway – we used to call it TV, but who knows what to call it these days? Even at the start of the pandemic, Sir Steve McQueen’s feature-length Mangrove was chosen as part of the – abandoned – Cannes line-up, although it was made for BBC television.
The boundaries are blurred, tastes have changed, but – as Tom Cruise’s recent outburst on the set of the next Mission Impossible film has shown – under tighter Covid guidelines, production has resumed, even if it’s slower and more expensive. The question is how and when we’ll get to see the completed productions.
But looking back, there are still films whose releases will be remembered for the right reasons – and others that will probably wish the lockdowns had been just a little tougher, to spare them their shame.
So here’s What’s Worth Seeing – and ignoring – from 2020, according to our reviewers, Jason Korsner and Maria Duarte.
What was Worth Seeing in 2020...
|...according to Jason Korsner
|...according to Maria Duarte
|1917 - George Mackay was a magnetic presence at the heart of the thoroughly engrossing first-person, heroic journey through no-man's land during the Great War in Sam Mendes' modern-day classic 1917, which was unexpectedly beaten to the Best Picture Oscar by South Korea's Cannes Palme d'Or winning Parasite.
|PARASITE - Bong Joon-ho's four Oscar-winning, deliciously pitch black social satire about the stark gap between the rich and poor in South Korea did for foreign language films what La La Land did for Hollywood musicals. It's the first film not in English to win the Best Picture Oscar.
|SAINT MAUD - Rose Glass's remarkably assured debut is a perfect example of a low budget chiller, as a mesmerising Morfydd Clark plays a pious home-care nurse who may - or may not - be possessed.
|ROCKS - Sarah Gavron's refreshing female-driven coming-of-age story, set in East London, paints an honest and frank portrait of teenaged girls' friendships. It is driven by realistic characters, striving to beat a system, weighted against them.
|TENET - As the first blockbuster to hit the big screen during the pandemic, it was billed as the film that could save cinema; Christopher Nolan's time-bending spy thriller was a highly entertaining and thought-provoking, big screen treat - a little mixed-up and not his best, but in 2020, we took what we could get!
|ON THE RECORD - This striking, thought-provoking documentary lifts the lid on sexual assault, discrimination and the abuse of power in the music industry, as it examines the cost of coming forward for women of colour victims. They provide a unique and eye-opening perspective on the Me Too Movement.
|MANGROVE - In a year when Black Lives Matter was at the front of public consciousness, Sir Steve McQueen's portrayal of the scandalous mistreatment of the black community of west London by local police was gripping and poignant.
|THE GIRL - Sebastien Lifshitz's documentary captures, with great sensitivity and poignancy, the heartbreaking struggles of 8-year-old Sasha and her family, as they battle against the French authorities, to accept her for who she is; a little girl who was born a boy. It is both agonising and inspiring.
|UNCUT GEMS - Right back at the start of the year, when Covid was just some disease in China, Adam Sandler wowed audiences as a New York gem dealer, who gets caught up in the criminal underworld to pay off a gambling debt in this riveting drama, from the brothers behind another under-rated, small-time crime gem, Good Time.
|MANK - This is a masterclass in film-making, as it explores 1930s Hollywood and its political machinations, through the making of Citizen Kane and the man who wrote it Herman J Mankiewicz (aka Mank). It features a powerhouse performance by Gary Oldman in the lead role and a captivating turn by Amanda Seyfried, as American actress Marion Davies.
|JUST MISSED THE CUT: Other highlights include Tom Hanks as the life-affirming American children's TV presenter Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which made it to the big screen before the closures. One of the first films to go straight to streaming was Judd Apatow's arrested development comedy drama The King of Staten Island. And one of those gems that would probably have got lost in any other year was the low-budget British coming-of-age film Days of the Bagnold Summer. But with many people resorting to TV formats in the absence of big screen options, the best series included the chess drama The Queen's Gambit and ITV's dramatisation of the case of real-life serial killer Dennis Nilsen, in Des.
|JUST MISSED THE CUT: Taika Waititi's truly audacious yet surreal anti-hate satire, Jojo Rabbit, centres on a young German boy (an impressive Roman Griffin Davis), a member of the Hitler youth army, who discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. Aided by his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi himself), Jojo is forced to confront his Nazi beliefs and blind loyalty to the Third Reich. And Adam Sandler gives the performance of his career in Uncut Gems, as a fast talking New York city jeweller, whose mounting debts force him to risk everything on one last gamble, in a nail-biting, edge of your seat drama from co-writers/directors and brothers Benny and Josh Safdie.
What was not Worth Seeing in 2020...
|...according to Jason Korsner
|...according to Maria Duarte
WONDER WOMAN 1984 - Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal don 1980s outfits for one of the year's few big-screen outings as Wonder Woman tries to stop an infomercial TV host granting everyone's wishes in a brain-dead, incoherent comic-book caper - without enough super-heroics. Film fans need the shared experience of a big budget on the big screen, but this is not the tonic to help a broad audience end a difficult year on an up-note.
THE LIGHTHOUSE - This two-hander, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, from Robert Eggers (The Witch), is a pretentious art-house horror. It's all hallucinatory, black-and-white style over substance. Pattinson and Dafoe (farting and grunting throughout) play 1890s lighthouse keepers, trying not to lose their minds, holed up on a mysterious New England island, which harbours a monstrous secret. It isn't worth the almost 2 hour long wait for the reveal.
|THE DUCHESS - This hateful vehicle from the usually reliable comedian Katherine Ryan delivers a litany of spite, bitterness and profanity with an almost total absence of humour. For film fans considering the small screen, this is not the place to start.
|THE IRON MASK - Rather than another remake of Alexandre Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask (if only), this is a sequel to the 2014 Forbidden Kingdom which went straight to DVD. Despite its impressive visuals and international cast, including Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, this epic fantasy is an incomprehensible mess yet unintentionally hilarious.
|A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK - A disappointing retread of familar Woody Allen territory, without any warmth, humour, coherence, believable romance or likeable characters. It looks like a Woody Allen film and sounds like a Woody Allen film, but it certainly doesn't feel like one.
|DOLITTLE - A rather lacklustre and unfunny re-imagining of the man who could talk to animals, produced by Robert Downey Jr, who stars in the lead role. But neither his charm and charisma nor his A-list supporting cast are able to salvage this wreck of a menagerie, which resorts to predictable toilet humour for cheap laughs.
|THE INVISIBLE MAN - Leigh Wannell at least deserves credit for trying to freshen up the HG Wells classic by turning it into a feminist chiller for the #MeToo era, but his efforts are fatally undermined by a narrative that swings so wildly out of control that even impressive effects will leave you feeling cold.
|LIKE A BOSS - This is a predictable and formulaic comedy which stars Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne as two lifelong friends who end up throwing each other under the bus for wealth and success, offered by Salma Hayek's ruthless cosmetics giant. All three stars work their comic butts off to turn this shambles into comedy gold but even they cannot work miracles with the cliched script peppered with lame gags.
|MANDY - As with Katherine Ryan's The Duchess, Mandy is another frustrating example of a talented comic experimenting beyond her reach, without anyone being brave enough to reign her in; as with The Duchess, Diane Morgan delivers a selfish, jealous and bitter protagonist, who's neither funny nor likeable. At least the episodes are short.
|JUST DON'T THINK I'll SCREAM - This is a 75 minute long, soporific monologue by film-maker Frank Beauvais about his life between April and October 2016. He illustrates it with relevant clips from more than 400 films he watched during that time. It's a feat of editing, but it isn't emotionally engaging and Beauvais' monotone voice-over will send you to sleep; this is definitely one for insomniacs.
|JUST MISSED THE CUT: Ethan Hawke's electricity pioneer is charmless and humourless in a fantasy-tinged biopic of Tesla, that leaves you feeling you know less about him than before you went in. Alison Steadman and Dave Johns fail to convince in 23 Walks, a twee supposed romance in which a couple base the success of their relationship on the number of times they've walked their dogs together. Miranda July's Kajillionaire turns the quirky dial up to 11 in a knowing tale of small-time crooks that loses the audience as it pushes the boundaries of acceptability too far. And one of the most over-rated TV series has to be the BBC's literary adaptation of Normal People, which should more accurately have been titled Stupid, Selfish People.
|JUST MISSED THE CUT: Two troubled college sweethearts have a romantic getaway scuppered by a mystery couple and the onset of an environmental apocalypse in The Beach House, a zombie horror which tries to punch above its weight. Writer/director Jeffrey A Brown's debut feature lacks any spine chilling moments or harrowing jump-scares, concentrating on lingering moody shots of the local flora and a mysterious pea-thick fog over horror substance. While the effects of climate change are horrifying, this is anything but. And despite a sterling cast, the remake of Daphne Du Maurier's classic Rebecca, by Ben Wheatley, does not hold a candle to Alfred Hitchcock's 1940s wonderfully menacing adaptation.