Film critics, whose careers are now threatened along with cinema’s very existence, have tried to make the case that, in retrospect, 2020 wasn’t such a bad year for the art form after all. The consensus seems to be, despite COVID-19 inflicted business struggles that threaten the future of the industry, we should still be grateful that we got to see so many wonderful films.
Eric Kohn’s year-in-review stands out:
“This has been one of the richest years in recent memory for a wide range of movies to trickle through an uncertainty marketplace that would have been hostile to them even in pre-pandemic times. The blockbusters receded to the background, and as it turns out, film culture didn’t really need them…. As usual, anyone who thinks this was a bad year for movies simply didn’t see enough of them.”
Kohn’s assessment of the year misses the mark. It’s true that blockbusters receded to the background, with many major tentpoles being postponed to 2021, and perhaps it’s true that film culture doesn’t need them, even though the industry does to stay afloat. What film culture does need, however, is a place to convene, and without the movie theater, it’s difficult to see how cinema as we’ve come to know it will survive.
In 2020, Cinema Was Irrelevant
Cinema isn’t dead, but 2020 is the first year it became irrelevant. With the absence of box-office success or substantial awards buzz to point to, Hollywood struggled to maintain its dominance within the entertainment industry.
Industry elites tried. In September, the prestigious Venice Film Festival went on as scheduled, and some of the most revered stars and auteurs attended as if to send a message: Cinema is here to stay.
Jury president Cate Blanchett showed up to screen the films in person, Pedro Almodóvar presented his new short, and Tilda Swinton accepted a Career Achievement award with a rallying cry: “Viva Venezia. Cinema cinema cinema.”
Contrary to these best efforts, cinema did not dominate 2020. Kohn is correct that many films were released on-demand, but what good is that if no one is watching them or talking about them? None of them permeated the culture as films have done in the past. There was no zeitgeist phenomenon like Parasite, no must-see event like The Irishman, no bring-the-whole-family affair like The Lion King, no conversation-sparking controversy like Joker.
The industry has been put in an incredibly difficult position and I’m not certain there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. By postponing films for theatrical distribution, studios lose money and must rely on circumstances working themselves out for theaters in 2021. By releasing films on-demand, studios lose money and must rely on people bothering to find and stream their films, which has proven to be a challenge.
What’s most depressing is not necessarily that studios are deciding to release films on-demand, although that surely sucks, but that these releases are coming and going without anyone caring.
Did you know, for example, that Sofia Coppola reunited with Bill Murray for On the Rocks? The film received positive reviews from critics and, in normal times, would have been a solid box office success. Instead, it was released exclusively on Apple TV+, making it more difficult for people to access. Coppola is one of my favorite filmmakers and I still haven’t seen it, surely a symptom of my apathy toward streaming services.
Did you know that Kate Winslet is co-starring with Saoirse Ronan in a new film? Perhaps you read at one point that Ammonite is a lesbian period piece, but I bet you didn’t know that it’s finally available to rent on-demand. In a normal year, moviegoers would be flocking to see Winslet, a cinema icon who hasn’t had a decent role in years, team up with Ronan, cinema’s latest awards darling. With streaming as my only option, I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll get around to this one.
In 2020, Content Dominated
In 2020, there were no cinematic experiences. What dominated, instead, was content. Whatever we could get our eyeballs on to pass the time and make the outside world more bearable, that’s what we watched.
Some of it, as you’ll see in my list below, was memorable. Plenty of it was forgettable. None of it was experienced in the dark, distraction-free movie theater. None of it was cinema.
Tiger King, a bingeable Netflix documentary series about big cat breeding, was talked about on many Zoom happy hours at work. Hamilton, a filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash, was called out a few times by colleagues. We all watched and talked about the debates, the COVID-19 press conferences, and the never-ending election coverage. And of course, we all watched plenty of movies, but was there anything in particular we felt like we just had to see? Not one.
I can’t think of any 2020 film that made a lasting impact. In fact, any films that were consistently discussed were talked about in terms of their release, or lack thereof, and what that meant for the future of the industry. Many think pieces were written about Tenet and Mulan, for example, but few bothered to go beyond industry implications. For all the hype, who actually watch and talked about these films as films?
The Limitations of Home Viewing
I’m not too worried about the Warner Bros. recent announcement to release all 2021 titles on HBO Max the same day they hit theaters. Blockbusters play well at home. We’ve all rewatched The Dark Knight (2008) many times since it left theaters, as well as countless other box office hits.
What haven’t we rewatched as much? Roma (2018), a film that only plays well in a theater, regardless of what Netflix wants us to believe. Should the studios still have the money to make them, blockbusters are likely to survive home viewing conditions. Challenging films will not.
Why not? When we pay money to see a movie in a theater, we know the rules. No talking. No checking the phone. No ability to press pause for a bathroom break.
But this is okay because when we go to the theater, we typically know what we’re getting ourselves into. Sometimes, we choose the blockbuster film so we can check out for a few hours and have a little escapist fun. Sometimes, we choose the challenging film so we can bear witness to a work of art and feel better for it.
When we choose to see challenging films, we’ll prep ourselves beforehand. We’ll say things like, “I heard this movie’s confusing so I’m gonna pay close attention,” or, “This movie’s supposed to be slow so I think I’ll bring a coffee.”
When we finally make it to the theater, we’re overcome with both excitement and anxiety. We feel the excitement that comes with experiencing a new work of art for the first time, and the anxiety that comes with wondering how much effort we’ll have to put in to appreciate it. And when we’re truly tested, we can count on the dark, distraction-free theater’s rigid rules, which will force us to pay attention during the most boring and confusing parts.
At home, there are no such rules. The code of conduct is more lax. If we’re watching with a friend or partner, we’re more likely to chitchat. We’ll likely keep our phones by our side, should we want to check email or Instagram. We’ll probably press pause a few times to go to the bathroom or get a snack.
The truth is, theater viewing rituals and home viewing rituals are too different, and content that plays well in one environment does not necessarily play well in the other. Even if we install a theater-size screen with surround sound into our living rooms, we still won’t be able to fully recreate the theater experience. It has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with behavior. For whatever reason, when we go to the theater, we’ll often stay to the end, even if we’re not exactly into what we’re seeing. At home, we’re less committed, and chances are if we’re bored and confused more than we’re entertained, we’re going to find something else to watch.
The list below reflects what I could pay attention to in 2020, and what I didn’t want to turn off.
‘Axios on HBO’
Nothing helped me navigate American politics in 2020 more than Axios on HBO. In a year that was dominated by a devastating pandemic and a divisive presidential election, it was difficult to keep track of the facts. With so much hyperbole in the headlines, and so much misinformation on social media, my instinct was to tune out the news all together and turn on another episode of The Great British Bake Off (more on that below) instead.
But to be informed is important to me, and I’m genuinely interested in politics, so it was really just a matter of finding the right material. Axios on HBO has the best political interviews. The team is consistently prepared with thoughtful questions, and their attention to detail, ability to listen, and audacity to call out BS answers in real time are refreshing.
Jonathan Swan’s brutal probe of Donald Trump’s response to COVID-19 rightfully earned 14 million views on YouTube, but for years, Axios on HBO has delivered quality content in digestible snippets. The team crams more topics and creates more news in one half-hour episode than most of the Cable News channels like Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC do in a week. 2020 was no exception.
Sometimes before an important interview, we’ll be shown behind-the-scenes footage at the company’s HQ, where the reporters break down the key players for us, why the interview matters, and what they hope to achieve from it. These moments offer a glimpse of journalists at work. I’m always in awe of the amount of in-depth research each journalist conducts before an interview so they feel like they know their subject inside and out. They’re aware of their responsibility to us, the viewers, and they never let us down.
‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ and ‘Hamilton’
As conceptions of cinema continue to evolve, it seems appropriate that two of the year’s best viewing experiences are filmed versions of live Broadway shows. This isn’t the first time (see Springsteen on Broadway), but as live shows were put on pause for much of 2020, the opportunity to bear witness was welcome.
What a run Spike Lee has had, following up BlacKkKlansman (2018) with two equally relevant films in 2020. Da 5 Bloods is as urgent as his best work, but the one that I’m truly grateful for is David Byrne’s American Utopia, a joyful celebration of community I didn’t know I needed.
It takes the skill of a special filmmaker to capture the energy and excitement of a live performance. Lee’s version, which can be seen on HBO, avoids the rapid cutting we typically see in concert films, and instead lets the performances be the star of the show. And what a performer Byrne is!
The former frontman of the Talking Heads has created a wonderful piece of performance art that plays like an intimate house party. You want to live in his American Utopia, as he and his fellow dancers and musicians bring comfort to a badly bruised country.
If there’s a final message Byrne leaves us with, it’s the need to hear and see one another so we can love one another. This is best expressed in his rousing cover of Janelle Monae’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” in which the names of black and brown people murdered in acts of police and racial violence are read aloud. The artists on stage with Byrne, a 68 year-old white guy, represent the diversity of America, a nation that has always been a combination of different cultures and identities. The symbolism is simple but powerful: We’re all in this together, and the quicker we come to accept that, the quicker we can let our troubles go, unite, and heal.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash about the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton captured the zeitgeist when it first premiered in 2015, but most of us weren’t able to see it. Tickets were sold out far in advance, the ones that were made available were incredibly expensive, and with work and other responsibilities, few of us had the ability to just drop everything and watch a Broadway show for a few hours.
Fortunately, a plan was in place to capture the live show in all its glory, and we’re lucky that the version released on Disney+ over the summer features the first cast that started it all.
As told by Miranda, Hamilton is both a history lesson and a Shakespearean tragedy, merging traditional Broadway show tunes with hip-hop melodies. Sometimes, the show captures this tension in the same song, such as “Satisfied,” in which Renée Elise Goldsberry belts her heart out and busts out the show’s best rhymes.
As with most great musicals, the Hamilton soundtrack became part of my daily routine, and is now on standby when I need a pick-me-up.
‘How to with John Wilson’
If you ever wanted to learn how to make the perfect risotto, John Wilson’s your man, sort of.
In How to with John Wilson, the most original comedy series I’ve seen in years, Wilson takes his camera across the country in an attempt to answer life’s most confounding questions.
Throughout the 6 episodes that were released on HBO in 2020, which are presented as how-to tutorials, Wilson’s constantly moving camera captures human behavior at its most absurd.
As you might guess, it’s about the journey Wilson takes on his way to finding the answers. One of the stand-out episodes, “How to Split the Check,” hilariously captures a frustration all of us feel. When we meet friends for dinner and the check comes, what exactly are we supposed to do? Wilson shares our pain, and he sets out to provide us with some easy-to-follow tips & tricks.
Only, his efforts prove to be futile. He initially suspects that referees might have a clue. After all, if they’re responsible for settling disputes in a sports game, shouldn’t they know how to settle check-splitting disputes, too? Not exactly.
Wilson finds himself at a local dinner for the New York Soccer Referee Association, and all hell breaks loose. The referees talk over each other, don’t clean up after themselves, and when a high-ranking affiliate in the associate wins a coveted prize in a raffle, boos erupt with claims of fraud coming from the rest of the room. Wilson learns that referees can’t be trusted to bring order to social situations, and won’t be able to tell us how to split the check.
Much of How to with John Wilson borders on the eccentric, and the humor stems from the strange situations in which Wilson finds himself. However, the final episode, “How to Make the Perfect Risotto,” brings much-needed empathy in a heartbreaking coda.
Wilson has difficulties making the perfect risotto due to COVID-19, which strikes during filming and causes the lines at the grocery store to be too long, and the ingredients he needs to be sold out. He returns to some of the places he visited in previous episodes, and we approach them with a new perspective this time. If we were once slyly mocking the referees with condescension, for example, as Wilson’s camera passes by the shuttered referee store, we now feel only sadness.
So much has been taken from us as a result of COVID-19. Wouldn’t we be lucky if learning how to make the perfect risotto, or split the check, were the questions that confronted us right now?
‘The Half of It’ and ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’
As much as I think the streaming wars are going to make movie lovers worse off, one upside is the emergence of films by women.
For the most part, streaming provides a larger platform for alternative voices to flourish. In this case, Netflix has given an Asian-American and African-American female director the opportunity to shine.
The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu, follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), an introverted teenage girl who makes extra money writing papers for her classmates. When one of the students, Paul (Daniel Diemer), enlists Ellie’s help to secretly write love letters for Paul’s crush Aster (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie ends up developing a crush on Aster herself. There’s just one problem: Ellie isn’t out of the closet.
Wu takes a well-worn genre and adds fresh nuance to it. It’s not just the representation, either. Each character is complicated with shades of grey, and even Ellie acts in ways that don’t put her in the best light. She, like the rest of us, is finding her way, and Wu gives her permission to mess up and make mistakes. By the end, we can breathe a deep sigh of relief knowing that she’s one step closer to self-acceptance.
Upon first glance, The 40-Year-Old Version doesn’t have much in common with The Half of It. Shot in crisp black and white, Radha Blank’s dramatized version of her own life is raunchy and R-rated. Her character, too, is older in age, and in the film is forced to reflect on her choices as she approaches her 40th birthday.
Still, both films feature female characters who learn to be authentic versions of themselves.
In Radha’s case, she’s a struggling artist whose vision is often suppressed by the white men who finance her work. With each compromise she’s asked to make, she loses a bit of herself to the point where the entire work becomes watered down, unrecognizable, and dislocated from the essential personal truth it was meant to depict.
The final moments of The Forty-Year-Old Version offer an earned happy ending. We root for Radha and are proud of the steps she’s taken to reclaim her voice.
‘I May Destroy You’: “Ego Death” and ‘High Maintenance’: “Trick” (Second Half)
The half-hour television series stood out this year, partly because it was easier to focus on the shorter narratives. We all had the time, but as the world was falling apart, few of us had the emotional bandwidth to sit and watch anything longer.
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is as challenging and devastating as anything television has given us, but in half-hour segments, much easier to take.
The series centers on the aftermath of a sexual assault, as writer Arabella (Michaela Cole) tries to understand what happened to her in a nightclub. I suppose the entire series is worth watching, but the finale, “Ego Death,” is a stand-alone masterpiece.
In “Ego Death,” Arabella tracks down the man who sexually assaulted her at the nightclub, and what follows are a series of surreal sequences that blur reality and fantasy, just as a writer like Arabella would in her own work. It’s a bold, brutal, uncompromising finale that doesn’t spoon-feed easy answers.
If much of the imagery in “Ego Death” is symbolic, the emotional truth is rooted in a painful reality. Throughout I May Destroy You, Arabella has been on a path to recovery, one shared by many sexual assault survivors. She reaches her final destination in “Ego Death” after confronting and killing her many demons. It wasn’t easy, but she comes out stronger on the other side.
Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s High Maintenance is the best New York show on television right now. Each episode offers insight into the daily lives of a diverse cast of characters who connect in some way with The Guy (Ben Sinclair), a pot dealer. While some may dismiss High Maintenance as mere stoner comedy, it’s actually an incredibly profound mosaic of flawed people looking for meaning in a chaotic and confusing world.
High Maintenance returned for a fourth season in February, and though each episode is worth watching, the standout vignette appears in the second half of “Trick.” The story follows an intimacy coordinator, Kym (Abigail Bengson), as she goes from film set to film set. Some days, she handles sex scenes and explains to actors that they don’t have to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. Other days, she handles breastfeeding and birth scenes, which we learn can be traumatic for certain actors if not treated with care.
One afternoon on set she meets Evan (Avery Monsen) and they instantly hit it off. He invites her back to his apartment to smoke weed (cue The Guy connection), and it seems nothing can go wrong. But her excitement quickly subsides when he confesses that he is asexual and isn’t interested in romance.
What follows is a profound exploration of intimacy — what it means and why people go to great lengths to avoid it. After a few false starts, Kym and Evan sit at a bar and share their feelings. Kym confesses that her sex life has never been satisfactory, but she can’t be in a relationship without at least hugging or hand-holding. Evan enjoys Kym’s company, but can’t easily open up.
The choice Evan ultimately makes took my breath away and broke my heart. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and conveys the theme of the entire series with a single gesture that speaks volumes about our capacity to reach out, be vulnerable, and connect.
‘The Great British Bake Off’ and ‘Selena + Chef’
I wouldn’t go to great lengths and defend The Great British Bake Off as some kind of masterpiece, but after a long day of pandemic (or election) fatigue, I could always count on Prue and Paul Hollywood to cheer me up.
As far as mindless reality competition television is concerned, you can do much worse. There’s an earnestness to The Great British Bake Off that’s endearing. The contestants all genuinely want to be there, and even though they’re technically competing with each other, there’s never any bickering or backstabbing happening in the background. They all just want to bake their sweet treats and impress the judges.
And if you’re willing to accept that baking is an art form, and I think you should, then you really start to appreciate the hard work each of the contestants put in, especially during the showstopper challenge.
Alas, this is a competition show. The most thrilling part is watching some of the more talented bakers have a bad week and be booted off the show. It’s as rough as watching the best athletes blow it in the playoffs.
Selena + Chef also deals with food, but this time, we’re watching for the star at the center. Selena Gomez is no stranger to television, having become a household name after appearing on the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place. She has since become a global pop phenomenon, businesswoman, and activist for important political causes. Who knew watching her learn how to cook would be so much fun?
Part of the appeal, I think, is that we’re simultaneously watching the creation of a new celebrity construct. In the not-so-distant past, our celebrities led elusive lives we would read about, but never be able to experience ourselves. The celebrities of yore manufactured a public image for us that aimed for perfection. They may have been breaking behind-the-scenes, but they always put on a brave face for the cameras.
Today’s celebrity construct feels different. Rather than project unattainable glamor, celebrities these days want us to know that they’re regular people just like us. They laugh, they cry, they fall apart, and they don’t care who knows it!
When you watch Selena + Chef, you’ll notice that on some days she’s wearing sweatpants. This isn’t an accident. Her two girlfriends were quarantined with her during the making of the show, and when they come in and out of the kitchen for a snack or simply to chat, they seem so normal. This isn’t an accident. Her grandparents, also quarantined with her, occasionally show up to tease her about her cooking. This isn’t an accident.
The shaggy-dog construction of Selena + Chef, as if someone just turned the camera on and told Selena and crew to simply be themselves, is part of the charm, even though we know everything has been coordinated and calculated in advance. This is Selena we’re talking about here — how could it not be?
The cooking, too, is far from perfect. In one of my favorite episodes featuring Chef Nancy Silverton, Selena has some technical difficulties with her oven that derail the entire show. Poor Nancy tries to keep things on track, but it just gets worse and worse. Rather than cut the mistakes out of the episode and start again, the producers leave it all there for us to see.
The deliberate choices to keep the show and its main star as unpolished as possible are revealing. The Selena they want us to see is the Selena that’s cooped up with friends and family, finding ways to stay sane during a pandemic. Can you relate?
‘Time’ and ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’
In 1997, Rob and Fox Rich robbed a credit union in Los Angeles. Rob and his younger cousin held up the joint while Fox, the getaway driver, waited outside. Garrett Bradley’s Time chronicles the consequences.
When Fox and Rob committed their crimes, they were both in their twenties, high school sweethearts turned newlyweds. They were incredibly in love, but often overwhelmed by life’s obligations. For a while, they tried to do the right thing and opened a hip-hop apparel business. When they struggled to keep the business afloat, the idea of robbing the credit union came into fruition. “Desperate people do desperate things. It’s as simple as that,” Fox explains.
Fox served three and a half years in prison. The hardest part for her was that the sentencing began after her twins Freedom and Justus were born. Rob, on the other hand, was handed a much harsher 60-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole.
After Fox completed her sentencing and was released from prison, she became a criminal justice crusader and made it her life’s mission to free her husband. She takes responsibility for her actions, and Rob takes responsibility for his, but neither of them accept the state’s punishment as fair.
I’ve written about the United States’ punitive criminal justice system before, and it never fails to enrage me. Are we not able to live in a society where, on the one hand, we acknowledge the crimes people commit while, on the other hand, provide them with a path toward redemption?
Fox, too, is enraged. Time interweaves scenes of Fox and her family, filmed by Bradley, with home video footage that Fox herself filmed over the years. This adds up to a powerful portrait of life lived and lost, hopes dashed, and dreams deferred. In just 80 minutes, Time captures the totality of Fox’ life, showing in vivid detail how her husband’s incarceration has defined her very being.
All Fox has is time. Time to wait for a bureaucratic criminal justice system to change. Time to wait for a selfish society to become selfless. She clings to any glimmer of hope she can find, and when things don’t work out in her favor, she keeps the faith and tries harder the next day.
By the end of Time, we’re in awe of Fox’s commitment and want, more than anything, for her to be rewarded. The final moments are as moving as anything I’ve seen.
Whenever I think about Dick Johnson is Dead, I think about the concept of time. Kirsten Johnson knows that her dad Dick is dying. He’s old, his body is weakening, and his memory is fading. As she waits for the inevitable, the self-described cameraperson comes to terms with the bad news the only way she knows how — by making a film.
Like Fox, Johnson is aware of the time she has. Time to spend with her dad before he dies. Time to care for him, to love him, to laugh with him, and when necessary, to cry with him.
Collectively, Time and Dick Johnson is Dead tell deeply personal stories about devotion. What is the purpose of life if not to love those who’ve loved us?
We only have so much time to be alive, and each of us, if we’re lucky, can choose how we spend it. Time and Dick Johnson is Dead ask us to consider spending it with those who need us the most.
‘Sincerely Louis C.K.’ and ‘My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman’: “Dave Chappelle”
COVID-19 restrictions have severely impacted stand-up comedy clubs. In New York City, a number of clubs have shut down permanently, and many more are struggling to stay afloat. This is despairing.
One of the great pleasures of living in New York City is being able to attend a stand-up comedy show at a moment’s notice. Even more established clubs like The Comedy Cellar make it incredibly easy for anyone to enter. Now, no one quite knows what will become of stand-up comedy in 2021.
The comedians will continue to share their humor with us, but where will it happen and how will it work? Intimate clubs like The Comedy Cellar are so popular precisely because people are squished tightly together. The collective laughter creates a palpable energy that fuels the comedians. Without it, what’s the point?
Despite these concerns, the art-form itself is alive and well. The legendary Louis C.K. returned in 2020 with Sincerely Louis C.K., a comedy special he sold on his website for five dollars. Whether or not you support C.K.’s comeback is your business, but objectively, the special is sharp, smart, and hilarious, and reaffirms C.K.’s status as one of stand-up comedy’s greatest talents.
Like Aziz Ansari’s Right Now, Sincerely Louis C.K. confronts the comedian’s MeToo scandal head-on with the typical self-deprecating tone we’d expect. Other hot topics include god and religion, pedophilia, and his move to Europe with his new French girlfriend Blanche Gardin.
Whatever stand-up comedy looks like in 2021, C.K. makes a convincing case that he should have a seat at the table.
In 2020, we saw the return of David Letterman’s Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. The “Dave Chappelle” episode is the best of the bunch.
In the episode, the two comedians have a frank conversation about race, the major career decisions that have defined them, and what it means to be a good father and family man. Their chemistry is undeniable and it’s easy to see that these two men respect each other.
Letterman approaches the series as a journalist. When he walks through Yellow Springs, Ohio with Chappelle, they’re not just engaging in mindless small talk. Instead, they discuss the history of Yellow Springs, why Chappelle chose to settle down there, and what small towns like Yellow Springs can tell us about America today.
You get the sense that Letterman, freed from the demands of a late-night talk show, is having the time of his life doing what he wants. And what he wants to do, more than anything, is learn. His curiosity feels genuine, and unlike the late-night talk show format, which always comes across as forced and fake, there’s a natural flow to the conversation between Letterman and Chapelle that’s compelling.
It turns out, in addition to being one of the great stand-up comedians, Letterman is also one of the great conversationalists.