Three months in, 2020 was shaping up as another banner year for movies and the cinema industry.
The Oscar season was in full swing, with 1917, Little Women, Emma and Richard Jewell among those from prominent directors and making the running with audiences and critics alike.
They were backed up by three biopics – Vita & Virginia, Seberg and The Current War – and a trio of top-notch thrillers, The Invisible Man, Knives Out and The Gentlemen.
Arthouse fare also offered strong appeal, led by Mr Jones, A Hidden Life and The Lighthouse.
But on March 25, it all stopped as the Covid-19 lockdown closed all cinemas for the next six weeks, including Easter.
This was not just in New Zealand but in much of the world, including movie production in Hollywood. With cinemas out of action, the major studios started cancelling or postponing its “tentpole” features. These are the blockbusters that draw large audiences.
An early victim was the new James Bond, No Time to Die, delayed until next year. Another was Wonder Woman 1984, now due for a Boxing Day release.
But the bad news for Hollywood was a bonanza for another part of the industry – those who could offer movies direct to home subscribers. These included some of the major studios, such as Disney and AT&T’s Warner Bros. Ironically, holding back features allowed the streaming giants to become the biggest threats to theatres since television.
Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple, with billion-dollar budgets to spend on their own products, added many millions of subscribing households. While quantity was the name of game, this didn’t stop them from attracting top talent for original content.
Netflix set the pace with the Oscar-nominated Marriage Story and Uncut Gems, followed by some big-budget action shows such as Extraction, Da 5 Bloods and The Old Guard. More discerning viewers were offered Curtiz, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Tigertail and Uncorked.
Amazon had Blow the Man Down, The Aeronauts, The Report and, later in the year, Thappad.
On May 14, cinemas reopened, but the choice was limited. Radioactive, The Personal Life of David Copperfield and Shirley appeared along with arthouse-oriented The Assistant and The Burnt Orange Heresy.
In July, the New Zealand International Film Festival had restricted screenings, while putting most online. The highlights for me were While at War, Corpus Christi, Martin Eden and The Perfect Candidate.
It was not until August that the year’s first and only blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, drew large audiences, falling behind only 1917 at the box office.
The rest of the year was an anti-climax, though it allowed three local productions – Savage, This Town and Baby Done – to gain traction against weak competition. Savage topped a million dollars, putting it eighth at the box office.
Sorry We Missed You, Hope Gap, Military Wives and The More You Ignore Me from Britain were also lucky to get a higher profile than usual.
Meanwhile, the other festivals were disappointing; the French was aborted in March and those from Italy, Britain and Africa confirmed it was a year to forget.
Top 10 of 2020
The Devil All the Time
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
While at War (Spain)
The gap between piety and madness narrows in this psychological thriller, as the titular palliative care nurse (Morfydd Clark, David Copperfield) tries to convert an ex-dancer (Jennifer Ehle, The Camomile Lawn) before she dies. The setting in a bleak English seaside resort adds atmosphere to the nurse’s conversion to Catholicism and desire to become a “saviour”. Her religious fervour, egged on by her agnostic patient, results in being fired. So Maud doubles down on her efforts, becoming a stalker and worse. Her zealotry may be more that of a martyred Joan of Arc than a jihadist, though this interpretation remains open. Writer-director Rose Glass makes an impressive feature debut, helped by the skill of her two leads, and a story that veers between the real and imagined.
Rating: 16+. 84 minutes.
The Secrets We Keep
Traumatic events from World War II in Europe cast a long shadow over events some 15 years later in an American suburb. The protagonists, a Romanian gypsy (Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and a mysterious Swiss man (Joel Kinnaman, Hanna), are neighbours, and are in marriages involving families with small children. She believes he is a German soldier who tortured her and killed her sister, so she kidnaps him, with a view to getting a confession. The plot resembles Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994), based on a stage-play and set in a South American dictatorship, with Sigourney Weaver as the female kidnapper. Israeli director Yuval Adler (The Operative, an excellent spy film set in Iran) and co-writer Ryan Covington do not credit the source but have constructed a highly coincidental thriller. Amy Seimetz, director of She Dies Tomorrow, has the thankless role of the kidnap victim’s wife, while Chris Messina (Argo) is the kidnapper’s husband.
Rating: 16+. 97 minutes.
J.D. Vance’s autobiography was a runaway bestseller at the time of President Donald Trump’s election. It helped provide an understanding of how Trump politically exploited the plight of white, blue collar workers in the “rust belt” states of Ohio and Kentucky, left jobless by the move of manufacturing to China. Vance’s story was highly personal and redemptive, as he breaks free of a dysfunctional Appalachian community steeped in poverty, domestic abuse, suspicion of outsiders and drug addiction, to become a Yale law graduate. De-glamourised Hollywood stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams respectively play Vance’s compassionate and feisty “grand mamaw” and drug-addled mother, as if an Oscar depended on it (and probably does). Director Ron Howard may overdo the dramatic material, but there’s no arguing with his intentions to show the positive side of aspiration.
Netflix rating: 13+. 117 minutes.