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Cinema 2020: A Few Fine Films vs. TV’s Abundance of Riches

December 28, 2020


As you might expect, 2020 has been a weird year for cinema. In fact, it’s been an almost nonexistent year, with only one major theatrical release to date during the worst of our virus crisis—Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which bombed. Stuck at home, I have streamed some TV shows and limited series I liked very much, including the universally acclaimed Queen’s Gambit, as well as new seasons of The Spanish Princess, The Crown, and The Mandalorian. I finally finished Mr. Robot, which appeared at the end of 2019 but has much to offer us who are processing the turmoil of 2020 and wondering what comes next. Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope for HBO picked up where The Young Pope left off in 2017—namely, as one of the weirdest, most beautiful, and theologically rich entertainment offerings in recent memory. The Great British Baking Show and Long Way Up were my favorite reality show options. And who could forget Tiger King?

When it comes to movies, the big-budget offerings, including a new James Bond film, a Top Gun sequel, and a remake of Dune, were all postponed. Instead, distributors dumped loads of less anticipated content on the streaming services, including artsy options that might have been completely ignored by the general public in a normal year. Imagine if the controversial Cuties had been confined to your local indy brewhouse cinema instead of having the thumbnail staring at you on Netflix.

Nonetheless, if you’re at all like me, you’ve actually seen fewer new movies this year than in most years. With so many options, I have found myself choosing none of them. Perhaps for consolation as much as any other reason, this year I have more often opted to pop in DVDs of movies I already know and love, or classics I should have seen by now but haven’t. What better time to watch things that I can’t see on the big screen than in a year when I can’t see anything on the big screen?

I was, however, edified by some new movies in 2020 from the comfort of my couch. I reviewed Words on Bathroom Walls, Fatima, and The Witches on this blog, and I recommend all three. Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks was a fun diversion that both upheld the value of traditional home and family, while reminding us of the charm of yesterday’s New York City—the kind of place where for the right price you could run around freely and luxuriously. I somehow missed a few I wanted to see, including Autumn de Wilde’s remake of Emma, and Bill and Ted Face the Music (an odd combination, I know). I purposely avoided a few more, including Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and Mulan (although my kids liked it). Dolittle, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Hillbilly Elegy, and The Social Dilemma were all just okay. I have a list of half a dozen newer releases to get through while on vacation, as you read this.

If my end-of-year report sounds a bit blasé, it’s because, in general, one of my greatest sources of inspiration and cultural engagement has bummed me out this year. It’s like everything else.

I find myself instead turning toward the future; but first, a stop off in the recent past.

2019 was a particularly good year for new movies, and I saw twenty-two of them in the movie theater. At the start of 2020 I hoped we were on the cusp of a cinematic renewal akin to the 1960s or 1990s. Maybe the end of the generation-long series of Avengers and Star Wars films marked the beginning of a new era. My very last of just three trips to the movie theater in 2020 was looking to prove me right. On January 24, 2020, I watched Guy Ritchie’s truly excellent The Gentlemen.

Then it all stopped.

Where do we go now?

When the dust of our global crisis settles, movies need to tell better stories and convey a richer and more humane vision of life together. Last year was starting to get us back on that track, despite all the soulless CGI spectacle geared to a culture-less international market. Among the superbly written, directed, and acted films of last year were Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ford vs. Ferrari, Knives Out, Joker, and 1917. We could all do with more of these kinds of offerings.

We also need a better experience at the movie theater. In just the last few years, the big cinema chains have tried to make our movie experience more like home—only bigger and louder. We can now fully recline in our seats, making me feel most of the time like I’m settling down for a nap not only with my family members or friends, but with the random stranger who reserved the seat next to me. It is now commonplace to see people bring throw blankets or even the comforters off their beds to snuggle up. I hope this all goes away. Going to the movies should feel more like going to the theater or the symphony: you’re out, you’re upright, attentive, and rapt by the art you are paying to experience. Likewise, we don’t need to eat meals at our seats. That’s what we do after the movie so that we can talk about what we’ve experienced.

Watching movies at home in our pajamas for nearly a year (and counting) should provoke a rebellion in favor of a renewed moviegoing experience as a liturgical encounter. Like going to Mass, going to the movies should be escapism in the holiest sense—not humdrum, but apocalyptic—one of the few places where we experience the lifting of a veil for a common experience of a deeper, more humane reality. We need filmmakers to aim for this lofty goal. And we need spaces set aside that host it with the dignity it requires.

I am not optimistic that 2021 will bring us to a better place with regard to film. Too many productions were shut down in 2020, and the movie theater industry is now in terrible shape. Recovery and renewal for cinema, as with the Church, may take some time. But maybe because of what we’ve been through, our storytellers will be inspired in new ways, and will inspire us in turn.

Farewell to this strange, unsatisfying year of film, the year of our Lord 2020. Here’s to better days, with God’s help.