Rewinding 2020: The Year in Movies (The Top 10)

January 16, 2021
A thought by James Berardinelli

(The following is an edited version of columns that appeared on the ReelViews Patreon page during the final week of December. If you’ve read it there, there is nothing new here.)

Over the years, I have written many of these year-end wrap-ups (this is my 29th) but none has ever been quite like this one. That’s precisely because there’s never been a year in cinema anywhere close to this.

It all started off innocently enough. Looking back 12 months, 2020 didn’t look like it was poised to be a great year at the box office. Pixar wasn’t releasing any franchise films. Disney’s only live-action effort was going to be Mulan. Star Wars had gone into hibernation and would only be offering new content to Disney+ subscribers. Marvel was re-tooling after Avengers: Endgame.

My fearless box office predictions looked like this:

1. Wonder Woman 1984 ($750M)
2. Birds of Prey ($650M)
3. Black Widow ($600M)
4. Minions: The Rise of Gru ($400M)
5. Fast and Furious 9 ($400M)
6. No Time to Die ($300M)
7. Top Gun: Maverick ($300M)
8. Venom 2 ($250M)
9. Ghostbusters: Afterlife ($250M)
10. Mulan ($250M)
11. Eternals ($250M)

Admittedly, I was waaaay off on Birds of Prey but that’s the only film of the eleven titles on that list to receive a traditional release. Wonder Woman 1984 has gone direct-to-HBOMax (with a theatrical component). Mulan went direct-to-Disney+ (with a $30 surcharge). Black Widow, The Rise of Gru, Fast 9, No Time to Die, Top Gun 2, Venom 2, Ghostbusters, and Eternals were all postponed. What did the final domestic box office look like? The unlikely champion was Bad Boys for Life. Had the year progressed normally, its $205M might have missed the Top 10. Four of the Top 10 were holdovers from 2019. Tenet, the only film to receive a wide opening after mid-March, came in at #14 and couldn’t quite crack the $50M mark. (These numbers look an awful lot like 1980 – unadjusted for inflation.)

How many movies did I end up seeing? About 120. That’s almost identical to 2019, when I also saw about 120 new releases. (2019 was a difficult year for me with the death of my father and the birth of my daughter.) The number in 2018, however, was much higher: 180. The biggest difference in 2020 was that only 14 of those 120 new releases were seen theatrically. Over 100 were viewed at home. After Tuesday, March 10, the day on which I saw Bloodshot, I didn’t set foot in a theater again until Wednesday, August 26 for Tenet. I haven’t been back since. You would have to go back to the mid-1980s to find a year when I saw fewer than 14 movies theatrically.

The industry’s shift from theaters-first to VOD/PPV was initially clumsy. There was a lot of trial-and-error in those first few months. Gradually, however, it became clear that the real winners of all this were going to be the streaming services: Netflix, Disney+, HBOMax, and Amazon’s Prime Video. A few “stand-alone” PPV movies like Trolls World Tour had success but it became evident that people preferred getting new movies as part of a package rather than as stand-alones. That left Universal scrambling to get Peacock off the ground, Paramount rebranding CBS All-Access, and Sony trying to figure out who to pick as a partner. (Apple+ currently seems to be the frontrunner but Netflix has also been mentioned as a possibility.)

As for the theaters… It goes without saying they’re in bad shape. 2020 has exacerbated weaknesses in the industry and accelerated the downward spiral. Theaters were in trouble prior to the shut-down. A local art-house, the Ritz at the Bourse, which had operated in an affluent section of Philadelphia for more than 30 years, closed its doors at the end of January. The pandemic brought about the end to one of the nicest local megaplexes, the AMC 24 in Hamilton (just south of Princeton), and may have closed one of only a few chain theater complexes inside Philadelphia, the UA Riverview (which notably did not reopen during the period when Regal was operating in August and September). No one knows how many of these theaters will still be operating in six months but the industry as a whole is drowning in debt and will now face stiff competition from streaming services, which it appears consumers may prefer.

I have heard it said that the surge in drive-in attendance is proof that there’s still a desire to see movies communally. I have a different opinion. Going to a drive-in is a nostalgia experience and, with so many “normal” avenues of entertainment (like sporting events) closed off, people were looking for something to do. Drive-ins were available and they had the added advantage of turning back the clock. The actual movie was irrelevant. I don’t think the success of drive-ins in 2020 can be extrapolated to mean anything insofar as how theaters will perform once the “all-clear” has been sounded. My belief is that indoor theaters will continue to exist but in greatly reduced numbers. Their future is either more as an amusement park-type option for tent-pole blockbusters or as nostalgia palaces that cater to those who want to relive an experience that was once part of the entertainment firmament. The story of where theaters will end up, however, hasn’t yet been written and will be more appropriate for a retrospective of 2021 and 2022 than 2020.

Maybe the biggest question for which I don’t have an answer is how much the concept of a “movie” has morphed in 2020. Were they lifelines during lockdowns? Was the shift to home viewing a welcome change? Was there a yearning to return to multiplexes when they re-opened (in places where they re-opened) even though COVID was still lurking? As a film critic, I was surprised at how little my overall “process” altered. I watched a movie, took a few notes, wrote the review, edited it, and posted it. The only difference were where/when I saw it and a noticeable diminution of quality titles. When it comes to assessing the quality of 2020’s product, it’s necessary to grade on a curve.

2021 will be interesting in a number of ways, not the least of which is seeing how things rebound (although that likely won’t be evident until late in the year). When will I next enter a theater? Will it be for the Bond movie? Black Widow? I know this much – I won’t be attending another in-person movie until I have been vaccinated. After that, if a film is offered with both at-home and in-person options, I’ll choose the former. (That shouldn’t be a surprise since I haven’t hidden my position on this issue.) For now, perhaps the only point of clarity is that 2021 will begin as 2020 ended. The calendar may flip but the realities of the situation will take months to change and the exhibition industry, although it may experience some level of recovery (including the potential of a “bounce” during the summer season), will never again enjoy the high times of 2019.

One thing I have pondered about the 2020 Top 10 is whether it would have been substantially different if the pandemic hadn’t happened. Most of the films pushed back to 2021 have been blockbuster types, few of which would have had much chance at reaching the Top 10. It also seems that about 80-90% of the “prestige,” Oscar-caliber titles were released in one form or another during 2020 (most via streaming/VOD). Of course, there could be some films that never percolated to the top because of limitations to 2020 film festivals. However, it could also be that the limited number of really good films this year is less a reflection of the pandemic interruptus than it is a continuation of the downward trend we have been seeing for years.

Consider the 2019 Top 10. I had eleven films on that list (with a tie at #10) and that represented the total of the year’s ***1/2 ratings. Nothing new was bestowed with the increasingly rare **** citation. Go back a year earlier to 2018: fourteen ***1/2 movies, zero ****. You have to slide back three years to 2017 to find a four-star title (Four Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) and that wasn’t the strongest **** I have ever given. The point is that, at least in my opinion, overall movie quality has been declining in recent years so the weakness of the 2020 roster may be more a result of this than limitations resulting from COVID. As movies have been evolving, the studio mantra of mass consumption has resulted in an increase in *** movies because those are the safest bets. Movies that are too serious or require too much thought/commitment can turn off significant portions of the mainstream audience – those who don’t like to “work” while spending their entertainment dollars.

Last year, I cited a few favorite *** movies as Honorable Mentions. This year, I decided not to do that. (If I had, HM titles might have included the likes of Mank, Palm Springs, and One Night in Miami.) So, ten spots for ten ***1/2 movies. The only real question relates to the order in which the deck has been shuffled.

#10: Get Duked!: This quirky comedy was largely ignored when it was released (possibly because of a last-minute name change – it was originally called Boyz ’n the Wood) despite going directly to Amazon’s Prime Video, which is the one of the three most widely available streaming platforms (accessible to anyone with an Amazon Prime account). Intrigued due to the great buzz coming out of Sundance, I watched and was duly impressed. The Monty Python-esque humor (dry, dark, and sometimes downright vicious) combined with a social message made this more enjoyable than the unfortunate title might indicate.

#9: The Midnight Sky: I was in the minority here in that I was impressed by George Clooney’s direct-to-Netflix offering. I won’t call it a masterpiece – there are plenty of nits to pick (these become magnified if the film doesn’t work for you, but that’s generally the case) – but it was better than all but eight of the movies I saw between January 1 and December 31. Not that many years ago, I’m sure this wouldn’t have made an end-of-the-year Top 10 (getting an “Honorable Mention” tag instead) but this is 2020 and the rules have changed. Influences include Gravity and The Revenant but it is my no means a copy of either. A rare adult-oriented dystopian story (as opposed to the normal YA muddle), The Midnight Sky is generally contemplative but finds an opportunity for some action-oriented survival scenes and offers a scintilla of hope.

#8: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Netflix had four films in my Top 10 and this was the one that relied the most strongly on its acting. While Chadwick Boseman (in his final performance) and Viola Davis deserve some kind of nomination for their work, they are likely to get it in the wrong category. This is a true ensemble effort but, since the Academy (in its shortsightedness) doesn’t recognize such a thing, it’s necessary to accord nominations in either the Lead or Supporting categories. The push seems to be for both to be in the former while, if one was to count up their minutes, the latter might be more appropriate. The film is comprised of a series of great supporting performances. There are no leads. That doesn’t diminish the work of Boseman or Davis but it makes me even more certain that the era of the Oscar as an arbiter of any kind of quality is long past.

#7: Hamilton: I never saw the play so watching the movie gave me an opportunity to appreciate why Hamilton had become the Broadway sensation it was prior to COVID-19. In retrospect, the decision to film the stage show rather than make a traditional movie was the right one. It readjusted the reality of the setup and allowed things to progress in a manner that wasn’t interrupted by the brain’s logic centers. It’s a fabulous play and I’m glad Disney+ gave me an opportunity to experience it, even if it wasn’t live and in person.

#6: Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Never Rarely Sometimes Always was released at the dawn of The Great Theater Shutdown and, at least insofar as box office was concerned, it never recovered. Unlike some movies, which were able to attract attention via inclusion on a streaming service, Never Rarely Sometimes Always was trapped in VOD purgatory and, despite a strong push from its distributor, Focus Features, it suffered from poor exposure and one other thing – it was labeled as an “abortion movie.” Although that descriptor is true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. This is a character story and, although it’s about the lengths to which a girl goes to obtain the procedure, it’s about a lot more than the political side of things. I think this line from my review expresses how I feel: “Although it would be disingenuous to claim Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t have a political position, the film is made with such care and focus on the particulars of the situation (rather than melodramatic tropes) that one doesn’t have to agree with Hittman’s perspective to be moved by the film.” I hope that’s true but doubt many who don’t describe themselves as “pro-choice” will put it to the test. This isn’t about agreeing with a political position; it’s about empathizing with an all-too-human character.

#5. Soul: Until recently, Pixar has been in a sequel-related rut, churning out product with the primary goal of generating revenue. For the most part, the sequels haven’t been bad but there hasn’t been anything out there to get excited about. Soul has changed that. The best Pixar release since 2015’s Inside Out (not coincidentally directed by Soul’s director, Pete Docter) and the second-best Pixar title to be released in the last ten years, Soul represents not only a recent pinnacle for the Disney-owned animation studio but a “return to form.” It’s also the latest reminder that many of the animators working at Pixar have an avowed love of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki – something evident throughout Soul. Originally planned for a theatrical release, Soul was instead released as a Christmas present to Disney+ members. If you don’t have a subscription, it’s worth a one-month $8 fee just to see this film.

#4. The Trial of the Chicago 7: Aaron Sorkin’s direct-to-Netflix account of the 1968 Democratic Convention riot and the subsequent trial of the “ringleaders” makes not only for a fascinating courtroom drama but provides an opportunity for the writer/director to sharpen his quill and create something that’s equal parts historical chronicle and political allegory. With a strong ensemble cast and a top-notch screenplay, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of the best things Netflix released all year.

#3. Ammonite: Ammonite may feature Kate Winslet’s career-best performance; it’s certainly deserving of consideration alongside Jude and The Reader (for which she won her Oscar). An unsentimental-yet-powerful (lesbian) romance between two proverbial “ships passing in the night,” Ammonite defies the saying that love conquers all. It’s also a story of how the role of a woman was marginalized in the patriarchal society of Georgian England. Although not available on any of the subscription streaming services, Ammonite was released on VOD shortly after its theatrical bow.

#2. Pieces of a Woman: A Netflix release, Pieces of a Woman falls into that end-of-the-year “gray area” that makes it eligible for consideration in either 2020 or 2021, depending on the critic’s choice. For no reason other than that I saw it and wrote the review for it in December, I have decided to place it on the 2020 list. Vanessa Kirby, with a breakout performance, would be my choice for Best Actress, edging out Kate Winslet and Frances McDormand. (I do not consider Viola Davis to be a Best Lead Actress candidate – she deserves both consideration and recognition in the Supporting Actress category.) Although the movie ends on a hopeful note, it’s a tough film about the impact of the loss of a newborn on a marriage and on the emotional health of the woman who bore the child. Rewarding but emotionally draining in its intensity, this isn’t recommended for those seeking lightweight entertainment.

#1. Tenet: Tenet was the Great Experiment that illustrated how the power of an unbranded tentpole movie was no match for the pandemic. Making less than $50M in U.S. theaters, Tenet also called into question whether the name “Christopher Nolan” was a big enough draw to overcome jitters about venturing out to those theaters that were open at the time. Putting aside all the questions surrounding Warner Brothers’ release strategy, Tenet delivered what was expected: a mind-bending, high-octane sci-fi thriller with a larger-than-life villain and spectacular action scenes designed for the biggest screens possible. It also came with a drawback: a sound mix guilty of obscuring key dialogue that might have made the time-travel aspects of the film clearer. Tenet is great entertainment and represents the fourth time Nolan has secured the top spot on one of my yearly Top 10 lists (the others: Memento in 2001, The Dark Knight in 2008, and Interstellar in 2014) but Tenet doesn’t really feel like a #1 film. Top 10, to be sure. But that’s 2020 in a nutshell. Now that it’s available for home viewing, it remains to be seen how well it works on the small screen and whether the greater accessibility trumps the riveting experience of sensory overload it provides in a large auditorium on a giant screen.