Calling 2020 a strange year for films is a polite understatement. In a matter of weeks, the pandemic changed moviegoing (and movie-watching) as we knew them: cinemas closed, blockbusters were postponed, festivals turned digital, all while the theatrical window shrunk, and streaming platforms became the ultimate destination for an ever-growing number of releases. Which is why browsing through the “Best Films” lists of this annus horribilis is such an eye-opening experience. It is not to weigh the consensus around this or that title that one turns to them, but to question how the changes in our viewing habits may influence the kind of films we’ll watch and talk about moving forward.
“As usual,” Eric Kohn contends at IndieWire, “anyone who thinks this was a bad year for movies simply didn’t see enough of them.”
Despite these dire challenges and the uncertainty of the future, the cinema remained very much alive throughout the year, with a wide range of ambitious undertakings snaking their way into whatever form of release seemed viable. Despite the impossible odds, 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.
With blockbusters delayed, multiplexes opened their doors to a whole array of genre films and B-movies that traditionally struggled to secure theatrical runs. In one of the pandemic’s few silver linings, theatres effectively became “the island of misfit toys for movies,” as Gina Telaroli and Farihah Zaman observe in an end of year symposium run by Reverse Shot.
But as more and more venues shut around the world, the cinematic bounty lived on online, powered by the many alternative streaming platforms that mushroomed through the year. As Richard Brody observes at The New Yorker:
With “virtual cinema” releases, art-house venues such as Film Forum and Film at Lincoln Center have stepped up to become, in effect, distributors; streaming behemoths, including Netflix, Amazon, and the newcomer HBO Max, are playing the part of art houses; and less prominent sites, digital versions of film festivals, and online self-distribution have taken the place of limited theatrical releases.
And while “the meditative and solitary aspects of film watching have increased during the pandemic,” Jonathan Rosenbaum comments in a list submitted to Sight & Sound, “fortunately, online platforms for post-screening discussions have grown as well.”
None of this is to downplay the passivity that streaming can engender in the audience, or the aesthetic compromises it dictates—a point raised by A.O. Scott in his top-ten at The New York Times, and further articulated by Stephanie Zacharek in her own at TIME:
The movie theater is part of the world in a way your living room is not. And going to the movies, giving yourself over to an image larger than you are, entails both an emotional risk and a shift in context. It demands you step out into the night, or the bald daylight, even as you’re still processing what you’ve just seen. The drive or ride home, the conversation or silence afterward—any of those can become part of your experience of a film. We’ve been robbed of that context, at least for now.
Nor is it to gloss over, as Alison Willmore, Bilge Ebiri, and Angelica Jade Bastién remind us at Vulture, a far more worrisome fact: that streaming doesn’t benefit all films equally.
We live in a world of many truths. One is that, with just about everything consigned to a streaming or on-demand release, there was an incredible bounty of films this year — smaller films, in some cases, but certainly more diverse in style, tone, subject matter, story, and origin. The other is that movies still, in many ways, need movie theaters, lest they sink into the all-consuming swamp that is content online, failing to raise the attention of its intended audience — or any audience, really.
The threat is particularly tangible for smaller films—those that need plenty of word of mouth to prosper, and will find it difficult to do so when dumped into an ever-growing cauldron of virtual content. And perhaps the year’s lists can give us a sense of what that risk may amount to already. Commenting on Sight & Sound’s top 50 on Twitter, Guy Lodge observes that—exciting and diverse as the list is—“nearly three-quarters of its selections are English-language.”
It's not that there weren't many ace non-English-language films released this year, or on the (often digital) festival circuit. But collective critical conversation gathers around the Nomadlands, especially online; other films need communal viewing to get word of mouth rolling. And if we're headed for a new normal where theatrical viewing is specialised and home viewing becomes default in cinema coverage, we're going to have to figure out new ways of diversifying what we see, talk about and advocate.
To be sure, the predominance of English-language titles in these yearly roundups is nothing novel, nor is it a trend confined to Sight & Sound alone. Reading through other lists, foreign-language picks are all too often a minority (only eight out of the 36 films ranked at the New Yorker are non-English-language, four out of twenty at IndieWire, one out of ten at TIME).
Among the U.S. titles that have earned widespread consensus one finds Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, as well as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and indeed, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. Venture beyond the English-speaking world and you’ll be rewarded with gems from last year’s festival crop—most notably, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles's Bacurau, and Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole. All of these, one must remember, enjoyed healthy and award-studded festival runs before landing theatrical (and/or virtual) releases. Which begs the same crucial question: would they enjoy the same prominence if they didn’t?
To borrow again from Gina Telaroli’s comments in the Reverse Shot symposium, we should be looking at lists “for discovery, not for consensus,” and if you search hard enough, some of these early roundups do contain a few surprises. Personally, I look forward to catching Alexander Nanau’s bracing exposé of Romania’s broken health system, Collective, and to venture into Chloé Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee’s Bottled Songs, a series of video letters whose chapter My Crush Was a Superstar—a portrait of a French ISIS fighter as seen through his online postings—Jonathan Rosenbaum includes in his top-ten.
Even so, I find myself returning to a question Guy Lodge raises in his Twitter thread: “do even film critics' viewing impulses turn less curious when confined to home formats?”
Granted, keeping oneself curious and receptive to the cinematic riches funneled online all through 2020 has not always been an easy feat. It was a year of “watching obsessively yet indiscriminately,” Manohla Dargis observes in her own best-of at The New York Times, in which movie watching required a complete separation from the other relentless streams of images and news we’ve been devouring:
I finally figured out how to really watch the movies I was reviewing at home when I categorically separated them from the other images I was soaking up, the stream of faces, shapes and moments that also defined my year […] All these streaming images are entirely different from the discrete pleasures of movies not just in terms of how they look — the integrity of their images, where the camera is — but also how movies begin and how they end, the specific rhythms, shape and sense of time they create.
Still, some of the year’s most formidable footage was not mediated by artists, but transmitted raw from “the handy, affordable-to-everyone, moving-image camera,” for which Amy Taubin reserves the top spot in her list for Artforum:
Dziga Vertov’s idea that the motion-picture camera could speak truth to power and therefore was essential to democratic social and cultural aspiration found ample traction in the 1960s, when an army of filmmakers waged resistance with 16-mm and analog video newsreels. This tradition today manifests in the countless nonfiction works largely shot with small video and cellphone cameras, among them two of the great movies of the year, Garrett Bradley’s Time, which focuses on activist Fox Rich largely through the video diaries she kept for twenty years while she fought to win her incarcerated husband’s release, and David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, a dialectical interrogation of video shot during eighteen months of France’s Yellow Vest protests.
Incidentally, both titles enjoyed a virtual run during the New York Film Festival (and Time, for those who are yet to see it, is still available on Amazon Prime). Here’s the paradox of 2020: thanks to streaming, films have never been more accessible and more susceptible to collective oblivion. If home viewing really is the new normal, then the onus is upon us to stay curious, and make sure the new and diverse works we’ll be celebrating moving forward will be watched, discussed, and shared as widely as possible - whichever home they’ll find.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.