There’s no way to sugar coat this: 2020 was the strangest year for cinema that we can recall seeing. It’s not every year, after all, that we have to see our beloved industry shutter multiplex doors in order to protect large crowds from congregating, and possibly spreading a deadly disease that continues to plague our planet.
Remarkably, the industry found ways to survive, exploring a mix of theatrical releases and stronger streaming-release models that will continue to be perfected as we roll into 2021. But looking back over this unusual year, there are seven movies that speak to who we were as a movie-going audience (or a movie stay-at-home audience), and that had themes which resonate strongly for calendar year 2020. If you wanted to put together a playlist of bizarre titles that were On Brand for 2020, these are the movies I’d suggest you screen, and why.
Thanks to quarantine, every day in 2020 had a real sameness to it, a “stuck in time” vibe where it never quite felt like we were making any progress. A popular running joke made by people stuck at home for our own safety is that the only way we could break up our day was by changing from our daytime pajamas into our evening pajamas. It was a year-long Groundhog Day, and we’re desperate to break the cycle.
We weren’t stuck in a time loop the way that Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are in Hulu’s Palm Springs. That explains why it appears they are having way more fun that we ever had this year. Forced to relive the same day over and over, Nyles (Samberg) and Sarah (Milioti) make the most of their recycled time, while also avoiding a vengeful wedding guest played to perfection by JK Simmons. Palm Springs would be a hit in any year, but the way that it spoke to our endless cycle of repeat sameness elevated it in 2020.
The New Mutants
Pretty much every movie you were excited to see in 2020 faced one of two disappointing fates. Either it was delayed or it was unceremoniously dumped onto a streaming service/VOD or a compromised theatrical window in an effort to get it off the books.
The New Mutants captures both of those tragic ends. Josh Boone’s adaptation of the offbeat Marvel mutants book was delayed so many times, it became comical. Then, instead of promoting it safely on the streaming service Disney+, the poor superhero story was released in theaters at a time when few felt safe returning to multiplexes, leading to a dismal showing. Regardless of what you think about the movie’s content, no film better represents the sheer uncertainty and confusion of the 2020 theatrical release shuffle than The New Mutants.
This year had a special ability to make us feel like bad news was going out of its way to hunt us down. Not, like, as a global community. Like, individually. That the personification of “Bad News” was literally hunting us down on a daily basis to remind us of how terrible life could be, and no matter how fast we ran or how hard we dodged, “Bad News” always was lurking in our rearview mirrors, waiting to sap away any sort of goodwill that we mustered in 2020.
If that’s the case, then Russell Crowe basically played “Bad News” personified in the relentless and gloriously mean Unhinged, a vengeance drama that held fast to its theatrical release pattern, giving some cautious theatergoers a night out at the cinema when they needed it most. Crowe’s basically an upset guy who wants to vent his problems to the lady in front of him in traffic (played by Caren Pistorius). But where most of us would have let our road rage subside by the next traffic exit, Crowe stays unhinged, leading to some violent acts that feel year-appropriate in 2020.
I’m trying to do this without sounding overwhelmingly depressing, but 2020 likely will be remembered as the year we grew sick and tired of staring at the same walls in our homes. Heading outside was deemed “nonessential” in this difficult time period, and if you happened to live on your own, you might have found yourself going kinda stir crazy without the ability to safely go out and meet up with family and friends.
Now you better understand how Tyler Posey’s character felt in the zombie thriller Alone. After an undead infestation breaks out in the streets, citizens are forced to barricade their doors and stay in their apartments for safety. Only, in time, they slowly begin to go insane from the isolation as they also run out of crucial supplies. Sound familiar for anyone in 2020? Posey eventually takes up weapons and fights back against the zombies that are making life a living hell. If we could swing a bat and take out COVID, I’m sure all of us would have been grabbing our Louisville Sluggers months ago.
Adam Mason’s Songbird should go down in history as the first official movie released during the pandemic that is ABOUT the pandemic. An impressive cast -- including Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Alexandra Daddario, Peter Stormare and Demi Moore -- live in isolation in the year 2024 as COVID-23 rages in our streets and communities. Things are far more aggressive in this future. Soldiers actually drag people from their homes to put them in quarantine camps. Let’s hope we never get to that point.
Just because Songbird is the first movie to directly address the pandemic doesn’t automatically make it good. In fact, our own Mike Reyes reports that the movie “falls flat in its execution.” But when we look back on COVID and think of a movie that speaks directly to it, Songbird likely will be the answer to the offbeat trivia question five years down the road.
No matter what happens in the film industry moving forward, 2020 will be remembered as the year where we wrestled over and fought for the soul of the theatrical experience, even as we realized how circumstances were out of our hands thanks to COVID. Studios debated when it was safe to release major films into multiplexes. Certain directors used what little leverage that they have to ensure a theatrical release. And the film at the heart of the debate for the bulk of its run was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a time-manipulating puzzle that played theaters where possible and tried to meet an impossible box-office standard.
Whether Tenet succeeded or failed depends on what point you wanted to prove. The movie holds a 70% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes (not great), and it banked $359 million worldwide during a global pandemic. Impressive. But for many, Tenet has been labeled as the movie that asked audiences to risk their health to help restore an industry Nolan wholeheartedly believes in… and it might have cost Nolan his relationship with Warner Bros. in the process.
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm
While we are not a political site, we need to acknowledge that a presidential election took place in 2020, and the quarantine associated with the COVID-19 outbreak affected how many across the country participated in our democratic process. Leave it to Sacha Baron Cohen, then, to find a way to inject himself into the middle of the various controversies by creating a comedy in which is character Borat needs to deliver his daughter (the brilliant Maria Bakalova) to Mike Pence as an “I’m sorry” gift for the first Borat movie.
It’s every bit as weird and hilarious as it sounds, with Borat turning a mirror back on our own society to see how far we have come since the last film. Or, how far behind we have fallen. And it’s not reaching too far to say that the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm scene with Rudy Giuliani might have swung a few votes away from the Republican ticket. Honestly, who had that on their 2020 Bingo Card of disasters?
Which of the above most felt most On Brand for 2020 to you? Let us know in the poll below, or head to the comments section to share a different movie.
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Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.