All things considered, it was easy to miss that 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of Sunset Boulevard. If the birthday qualifies it for film of the year, hand the prize over now. But the real spoils for any movie are maintaining relevance. And this year — as film-going shrank to fit a world without cinemas — it was hard not to think of Billy Wilder’s Hollywood poison pen and its silent era legend Norma Desmond: “I am big,” she announced in disgust. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
For Norma, a changed movie business would lead to madness. Yet as the shift from cinemas to laptops and TVs accelerated wildly in the pandemic, a curious thing: it proved a fascinating year for the pictures.
Whatever movies are meant to be doing at this point in history, they did it most dazzlingly in Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s film quintet about the West Indian community in London. Yes, after the tumultuous summer of 2020, the timing was right for a searching celebration of black British lives. But in any year, McQueen’s five films would have been a stylistic tour de force. The a cappella party scene in Lovers Rock or the quietly scalding final shot of John Boyega in Red, White and Blue? This was movie-making of giant scale. It just happened to screen — in Britain at least — on BBC television.
With hindsight, we should have known the world was about to spin off its axis in February, after the unprecedented omen of the Best Picture Oscar winner actually being the best film in competition. Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s study of South Korean class warfare, was an upstairs-downstairs firecracker, manic and coolly perceptive at once. (Another contender for scene of the year: the endtimes flood of Dickensian Seoul.)
In fact, the first pre-pandemic weeks of 2020 were filled with movies you wanted to see. Most will have come and gone before you had the chance. It was a problem cinemas will need to fix when they return — the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it big-screen life afforded to all but the blockbusters.
Did anything like enough people in movie houses get to see Marielle Heller’s sensational A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? Or A Hidden Life, the most notable Terrence Malick film in years?
That same first sliver of 2020 also gave us the irresistible Uncut Gems — set in the bedlam of the Manhattan Diamond District, a two-hour adrenaline jolt that made a feature out of one damn thing after another. Following its run in cinemas, the Safdie brothers’ film was always heading for home consumption, a Netflix production in a year when the streamer became a synonym for the entire film and TV industry (to a degree the company itself may have been unnerved by). For now the business model still involved backing brand-name film-makers on ambitious projects from which traditional studios would have reeled in horror. Witness David Fincher’s pugnacious Mank; Charlie Kaufman’s corkscrew for the mind I’m Thinking of Ending Things; most potent of all Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee sending a squad of black veterans back to Vietnam.
Netflix also put out a debut movie I would gladly tell strangers in the street to watch if approaching strangers were still legal in London: His House, the first feature of film-maker Remi Weekes. A ghost story about a married couple fled to the UK from Sudan, it came with a dash of Kubrick and flawless control of its ideas. (Despite the ongoing national nervous breakdown, British film turned out low-budget highlights including Sarah Gavron’s Rocks and Fyzal Boulifa’s jagged Lynn + Lucy.)
The confinements of 2020 only intensified the race for eyeballs in the new world of streaming. As tech giants and the last Hollywood godzillas jostled for place, Disney Plus signed up an army of subscribers. Apple had a hit with another established director, Sofia Coppola, and the neatly realised On the Rocks. In this still evolving ecology, Amazon cast itself as plucky scrapper with a slate of bought-in indies. One was another underseen movie I would once again accost strangers to champion: The Vast of Night, a brilliant homage to The Twilight Zone. But then, in the long darkness of 2020, there being enough interesting new films was never the problem. Can I recommend catch-ups too with Icelandic marvel A White, White Day, the furious Les Misérables, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire? (And yes, The Assistant, The Lighthouse and 1917 as well.)
From Amazon too came the documentary Time, a headspinning close-up of the US justice system. Vital non-fiction also unfolded in Romania’s Collective, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub exposing a whole system. First-draft histories of the year of Covid came from Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control and Chinese artist-film-maker Ai Weiwei, whose Coronation captured the Wuhan lockdown.
For satire, keeping pace with events was harder. The return of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat in time for the US election proved a mixed blessing. The film itself — Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with a breakout performance from the unknown Maria Bakalova — was much funnier than you might have feared. But the centrepiece sting of an apparently amorous Rudy Giuliani “tucking in his shirt” barely dented the news cycle. Baron Cohen may well ask how a comic competes when two weeks after his film was released, Giuliani denounced voter fraud from the now famous Four Seasons Total Landscaping, speaking between sex shop and crematorium.
In a year of grim new normals, it was reassuring that the film industry too could still trip over its own feet. Children got the worst of it, from Robert Downey Jr’s ludicrous Dolittle to the bloodless Artemis Fowl and a botched take on Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Odd adverts indeed for an artform needing a new generation to set aside social media. Then again, adults were given Hillbilly Elegy. Wait, tell me more about TikTok.
And then there was Tenet. Early in the pandemic, Christopher Nolan’s time-travel spectacular was set to be cinema’s silver bullet, proving that some visions could only be appreciated 50ft high. The film wasn’t a disaster. It just wasn’t good enough. Having spent much of the year about to save the movies, Nolan ended it railing against his own studio, Warner Bros, for treacherously turning to streaming. Like Norma Desmond, Nolan remains big. The pictures will continue to be whatever size they need to be in 2021.
Follow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen