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The films that defined 2020

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·10-min read
(Credit: Shudder/Universal/Warner Bros)
(Credit: Shudder/Universal/Warner Bros)

The year the world will be hoping to forget has finally come to an end. Multiple COVID-19 vaccines have now been approved in the UK and so, with a bit of luck, things will be returning to some approximation of normal in the coming months. And with that, hopefully, will come a return to cinemas.

Read more: Best movies of 2020

The entire movie industry has spent 2020 in a strange combination of limbo and experimentation. Dozens of high-profile releases have been postponed by studios unwilling to risk their bottom lines on sparsely-attended cinemas, while others have embraced new methods of releasing — much to the chagrin of multiplex bosses and, in some cases, the filmmakers themselves.

So when we take a look back at this year, it’s worth looking at the movies which will live in the memory, whether it’s because of their quality, their method of release or the unique ways in which they tapped into the zeitgeist of a year that, hopefully, won’t be repeated.

The Big Winner: Parasite

Back in January, the world seemed mostly fine. An election year promised the imminent departure of Donald Trump, there was an Olympics ahead in the summer and the South Korean festival sensation Parasite arrived in UK cinemas. Directed by Snowpiercer genius Bong Joon-ho, the movie was a masterful, genre-bending tale of rich versus poor in modern Korea that was already riding on a wave of hype into British multiplexes when its fire got even hotter.

In February, Parasite became the first South Korean movie to be recognised by the Oscars, winning four prizes including Best Picture and Best Director. It was the first movie not in the English language ever to win Best Picture.

Read more: Netflix says Roma helped Parasite to Oscar success

Director Bong spoke passionately on the awards circuit about getting over the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles, and his movie did more to achieve that than most. As well as its Oscar success, it also became the highest-grossing non-English film ever released in the UK.

The Window-Smasher: The Invisible Man

February has become a fertile ground for horror in recent years, with Jordan Peele’s hits Get Out and Us both landing in the second month of their respective years. In 2020, it was Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell’s innovative take on The Invisible Man that filled the gap. Elisabeth Moss won plaudits for her performance as a domestic abuse survivor who believed her violent ex had worked out how to become invisible.

Read more: Best horror movies of 2020

Along with a handful of other Universal movies released on the cusp of lockdowns all over the planet, The Invisible Man received an early VOD release in March. This was one of several moves by studios at the time which smashed the traditional three-month window between theatrical release and availability on home entertainment formats. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened this year, of course.

The Guinea Pig: Trolls World Tour

In a sweepstake for the most controversial movie of 2020, it’s unlikely many would’ve been pleased to draw cutesy animated sequel Trolls World Tour. However, the Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake musical became a lightning rod for film industry debate in March when it was announced that the movie would be the first major blockbuster to premiere on what we now know as premium video-on-demand (PVOD).

Read more: Trolls World Tour star discusses future of cinema

This prompted big download numbers — even at a fairly pricey £15.99 rental cost — and a row between Universal and several major cinema chains. Odeon and Cineworld pledged to boycott Universal releases as a result of the move, only to bury the hatchet with an historic agreement several months later that would see the theatrical window shrink to just 17 days.

The Event: Hamilton

'Hamilton'. (Credit: Disney+)
'Hamilton'. (Credit: Disney+)

This year has been very short on appointment viewing. Without the likes of a Marvel blockbuster or a Star Wars movie to bring everyone to the cinema on opening weekend, there was very little that felt must-see outside of Netflix true crime series like Tiger King. The summer got perhaps its only true water cooler — if a socially distanced world even has water coolers — topic when a recorded performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical Hamilton was unveiled on Disney+.

Read more: Best musicals to stream after Hamilton

Disney acquired the rights to the 2016 recording back in February for a gargantuan fee of £57.6m and scheduled a cinema release for October 2021. When lockdowns bit, however, Disney opted to goose subscribers to its streaming service by dropping the hugely popular show. It was a big swing in the streaming wars and gave us something huge to watch, rewatch and rewatch again all summer. It’s fair to say Disney did not throw away its shot.

The Traditional Behemoth: Tenet

Despite the attempts of Russell Crowe road rage thriller Unhinged to steal its thunder, Christopher Nolan’s palindromic spy epic will be the summer multiplex movie from 2020 that everyone remembers. The Inception director has been a vocal proponent of cinema traditions and held out on allowing his latest film to be released until lockdown began to lift in August.

Read more: How well do you know the movies of 2020?

There’s no denying that Tenet was a bona fide blockbuster experience, complete with high-octane action and a sound mix so deafening you could barely hear the dialogue. Few audience members fully followed what was happening, but reviews were mostly good and it was certainly a delight to be back in a cinema.

Warner Bros has since admitted the cinema release was not a success — though Nolan was satisfied — and this may have influenced the big decision the studio made later in the year. But more on that later.

The Premium Experiment: Mulan

Mulan was another casualty of the earliest days of lockdown, initially scheduled for a release at the end of March. It was able to premiere at the beginning of that month, but was yanked from the calendar at the eleventh hour. Months later, in September, Disney offered to release the movie to streaming subscribers — as long as they were willing to part with $29.99 in the USA or £19.99 in the UK for “Premier Access”.

Read more: Is Mulan based on a true story?

Disney has not released any data surrounding the success or failure of this strategy, but the studio notably did not deploy the same tactic when it unveiled Pixar animation Soul on Christmas Day. With that said, animated blockbuster Raya and the Last Dragon is currently set to debut simultaneously on cinemas and via Premier Access in March 2021. This model remains unproven, but the experiment isn’t yet over.

The Timely Terrors: Host and Songbird

At the beginning of lockdown, streaming viewers flocked to Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion — either searching for comfort or indulging their morbid curiosity. Inevitably, filmmakers used the fallow period of lockdown to create something unique based upon the current global predicament.

For British filmmaker Rob Savage, this was Zoom horror Host — the tale of a half a dozen friends meeting for a video call séance. Released via horror streamer Shudder in the summer, the movie became a global phenomenon and Savage has now signed a huge deal with Blumhouse.

Read more: How Rob Savage and his team made Host

Meanwhile, Songbird was the first film shot in Hollywood after production restarted in the summer. Produced by Michael Bay, it tells the story of a mutated COVID-23 wreaking havoc on the world for several years. It’s fair to say its reviews were less kind than for Host — and understandably so — but there’s no denying the enterprise of getting a big action movie made in some of the most adverse circumstances possible.

The Medium-Questioner: Small Axe

'Mangrove'. (Credit: BBC)
'Mangrove'. (Credit: BBC)

Is Small Axe a television series or five individual movies? That’s the question which is debated on Twitter every time Steve McQueen’s work is mentioned. The series is eligible for Emmy recognition rather than the Oscars, but many movie pundits and outlets — including Yahoo Movies UK — have included the likes of Mangrove and Lovers Rock in lists of the best films of this year. Muddying the waters further, the entire anthology as a whole won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association prize for Best Picture.

Read more: Small Axe movie pops up on Barack Obama’s list of favourites

But really, all of the talk of medium is a distraction from the fact that Small Axe is terrific. McQueen was already established as one of Britain’s best filmmakers, but the Small Axe movies are all interesting in their own, individual ways and shine a light on communities who rarely get this degree of exposure and analysis. Film or TV, it’s important storytelling.

The Hybrid: Wonder Woman 1984

Warner Bros is trying something new in 2021. The entirety of its slate will be released — in America at least — in cinemas which are able to open, but also via the HBO Max streaming service. In the UK, these will be cinema releases, but there will likely be some degree of streaming component.

Read more: Wonder Woman 3 gets the green light

With all due respect to the Robert Zemeckis remake of The Witches, the most prominent example of this hybrid model from Warner Bros to date is Wonder Woman 1984. Released on 16 December in UK cinemas — a PVOD release awaits in January — the movie debuted in the States via HBO Max on Christmas Day. The studio claims almost half of its subscribers watched the film on its first day of release.

Warner Bros is rolling the dice with this hybrid model of simultaneous releasing and, despite their claims that it’s temporary, movie fans can expect this to continue well beyond 2021 if the move proves to be a fruitful one for the struggling HBO Max service.

The No-Show: No Time to Die

'No Time to Die'. (Credit: Eon/Universal)
'No Time to Die'. (Credit: Eon/Universal)

The final defining movie of 2020 is one that we haven’t even had chance to see yet. Our list of the most exciting films coming in 2020, written in the heady days of December 2019, prominently featured Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie as a highly anticipated tentpole. In early March, however, it became the first major blockbuster to delay its release in response to the rising threat of the coronavirus.

Read more: No Time to Die costing MGM millions every month

A November 2020 release seemed achievable, but chaos intervened and the film is now set for a still-quite-precarious 2 April, 2021. The second delay sparked an outcry on social media, with many accusing Eon, MGM and Universal of threatening the existence of cinemas by denying them the chance to screen a huge movie in the autumn. Given the fact the UK ultimately spent most of November in a second nationwide lockdown anyway, the decision looks very reasonable in retrospect.

There may be more twists in the already very winding journey of the 25th James Bond adventure, but its continued delays will certainly be one of the defining movie stories of 2020.

Watch: Trailer for No Time to Die