Any honest accounting of 2020’s year in movies has to start with the resurgence of a 2011 artifact, after Covid-19’s spread to the United States had finally become undeniable among rational people, and Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic movie Contagion became one of the most-rented films on iTunes. You know, the star-studded viral thriller in which a supervirus, borne of an infected bat, starts to spread out of China and eventually conquers much of the planet, including poor Kate Winslet? It’s also a movie in which an international community of hypercapable scientists — the Good Guys — get the unfailing support of their respective governments, which are cooperating with one another in trying to defeat the virus. Which is to say, the appeal of Soderbergh’s suddenly fashionable pandemic procedural as a fantasy could not be clearer.
We turned to movies like this centuries ago, a.k.a. back in March, because we had no expectation that the era would produce movies about the pandemic — movies which would, necessarily, need to have been produced during the pandemic. Documentarians like Alex Gibney would prove us wrong about that with a masked, Covid-proofed, edited-from-home dispatch from the coronavirus front lines (Totally Under Control). But as for Hollywood? The modern dream factory flailed. The story of 2020 at the movies would not be told at the movies, because film sets and multiplexes worldwide were largely shut down, and even a surefire box-office bet like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet would — as if in imitation of its own plot — see its release date bucked and rearranged a thousand times over. Otherwise, if you wanted new releases, you had to go VOD or straight to streamers: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu. Or maybe the Disney+ streaming app, which had the good fortune to go live in late 2019 and would come to provide a perfectly viable alternative to theatrical releases (assuming you were willing to pay $30 to watch Mulan) once the company finally relented.
But there was also a fleet of virtual cinemas which, developed and hosted by innovative collaborations between local art houses and independent distributors, became a lifeline for smaller fare. Drive-ins, truly the “vinyl collection” of theatrical exhibition, had a resurgence in popularity. The 2021 Academy Awards were delayed, and major festivals like Cannes were tabled. But other impactful events went virtual — from big guns like the New York Film Festival to the inspiringly robust Indie Memphis festival. Despite what you may have heard, because a good many people have certainly been saying it, 2020 was not a year of “no movies,” in which there was nothing new and good to watch.
In fact, it was a great year for movies — as an art form. The business struggled mightily; the industry’s labor force struggled even more. Yet between the clearing out of loud, moneymaking distractions at the multiplex and the renewed urgency felt on the part of smaller distributors to get their films seen (something not really promised by theatrical distribution), 2020 quietly turned into one of the most idiosyncratic and surprising movie seasons in ages. The temptation to historicize this moment in terms of what didn’t get released, i.e., the movies that bigger studios and media advertisers care the most about, would be a grave error.
Covid-19 spurred a massive move to digital platforms — streamers and virtual cinemas alike — that were almost the only movie experience any of us had this year. But the offerings were varied and often rewarding… if you knew where to look. The list that follows — my 20 (really, 23) favorites out of the year’s many worthwhile releases — is an effort to remind us of the ways movies still surprised, entertained, and challenged us in a year that made it difficult for many of us to see beyond our fear, frustration, uncertainty, and grief.
Plus, a few more “honorable mentions”:
Capone (Josh Trank); Collective (Alexander Nanau); Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee); Gunda (Viktor Kossakovsky); His House (Remi Weekes); La LLorona (Jayro Bustamante); Minari (Lee Isaac Chung); Nomadland (Chloé Zhao); Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg); The Wolf House (Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León).