Our critics share their lists of the best films of 2020, and discuss the future of cinemas, how streaming movies alters their impact & more.
Alex Rose: I don’t think I really need to make this point, but it goes without saying that this year was not like other moviegoing years. With theatres being open for less than half the year in Quebec and most releases either being pushed back or moved to streaming services, 2020 did not necessarily mirror 2019 in terms of frequency and quality of releases. I hesitated to even go forward with a Top 10 this year since the final list looks nothing like what a Top 10 looks like usually. I didn’t attend TIFF this year (though it was available online) and local festivals had smaller, more obscure lineups due to many distributors opting to keep releases for 2021, so my year-end list is devoid of the usual suspects. (I hate to say it, but it is not likely that, in a regular year, my list would have so many Quebec movies in it.)
I saw 17 movies in theatres this year, which is pretty good for a global pandemic but way, way below what I usually average in a year. And because these viewings happened between January and March, most of it was studio-dumped garbage that was released to clear the docket, and I hold no particular fond theatre memories from 2020. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss it like hell, though. Alongside all kinds of other things like eating a meal outside my apartment, sitting somewhere waiting for someone, seeing live music (even live music that I don’t give a shit about like some chansonnier asshole doing Whiskey in the Jar at 4:30 p.m.) and a myriad of other banal activities that have disappeared from daily life.
Justine Smith: I went back and checked. I only saw eight films theatrically in 2020. Most were not particularly good, except a couple of retrospective screenings I caught at Cinema Moderne and the Cinémathèque Québécoise. As of early January 2021, the last movie I saw theatrically was the truly abhorrent I Still Believe, a not-so-thinly disguised Christian rock musical based on a true story. At this point, though, I’d go and see it again today on the big screen because I miss the experience so dearly.
We’re in a similar boat in terms of our experience of 2020. I didn’t attend TIFF and mostly focused on local festivals. My Top 10 is more eclectic than maybe it ever was before. It was nonetheless a solid year. Being forced out of my comfort zone and beyond the usual suspects, I was thrust into a much different cinematic landscape than I usually would be. I was able to escape the pressure to check out every major blockbuster. It puts into greater perspective that the types of films I miss seeing most on the big screen are not the spectacle-laden extravaganzas but the more intimate small-scale films that benefit from concentration and quietness.
Alex Rose: I’ve definitely noticed that seeing every movie at home somewhat impacted the choices I made for myself. Even while requesting screeners for festivals (something that I did even before the end of the world), I found myself drawn to shorter, more digestible films. It must be said that 2020 was a pretty uncharacteristic year for me on the personal front, and for months in the beginning of the pandemic, I could barely gather myself to watch any films at all. That having been said, I think I was rougher on / less easily bowled over by the films I did see this year, especially when you watch them divorced from all “experiential” factors.
I’m with you, though. To me, the theatrical experience is not directly related to the idea of spectacle. Spectacle works at home, too — I think I way overrated Wonder Woman 1984 simply because it was a year where I didn’t see any other superhero movies. On the other hand, I don’t really understand how Netflix can justify spending so much money on an opulent space drama like The Midnight Sky (which was shot in 70mm) knowing that almost all of its viewers will watch it on Netflix — and were going to watch it on Netflix regardless of the pandemic. There’s definitely a radical shift that’s going to occur when it comes to the theatrical experience, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a wholly negative one, even if the in-between period is going to be rough.
Justine Smith: People keep asking me about the “death of cinemas.” After this is over, will people still head to their local cinema to catch a movie? It’s a good question. I’ve spoken to some people who have had a better than average year at the movies; people who, for various reasons (health, time and price) are not frequent filmgoers or festival attendees. This year offered more access than ever before. The question, though, is how sustainable is that and how successful were these virtual screenings? Unlike a big festival room where you can gauge, more or less, how many people are attending, virtual screenings remain cloaked in mystery. We pretty much know at this point that the major streaming giants are not trustworthy in terms of self-documenting their numbers. Right now, we are seeing Warner Brothers rewrite history on WW84, saying it’s the biggest hit of the year, when according to their numbers, Tenet made more money. In general, the conversations surrounding cinemas’ survival are always a little too focused on the big corporate cinemas and the blockbuster hits. (I’m guilty of that as well.)
I sincerely hope my favourite cinemas survive. We’ve already seen the shift over the past few years in Montreal towards smaller venues and screens which have been able to carve out space in the community and offer a more niche filmgoing public new and exciting films from around the world. I don’t personally worry about the success of places like Cineplex. If they die, I’ll survive. But, my heart will shatter if smaller venues like Cinéma Moderne or Cinéma du Parc are gone. This ties into my questions about what people are watching. I find, anecdotally, that most people are watching fewer new movies than standard years. While many of us have spent most of the year stuck at home, it does seem as though more people have turned to TV rather than movies as the entertainment media of choice — at least when it comes to new content.
Even though I do think 2020 was a great (or at least interesting) year for watching movies, most of my memorable film experiences were watching older titles.
Alex Rose: Obviously, this is not the first time in history that TV (or even the general potential of watching things at home) has threatened movies. I can tell you with utmost certainty (one of my pandemic hobbies, as you personally know but people at home might not, is reading old Montreal newspapers) that people have more or less predicted the end of cinema since the 1950s, and it has not died. The advent of TV was going to kill movies once and for all; it only led to a parallel industry of TV movies. (I’m pretty sure I went through this rigamarole last year as well, before the pandemic was really a thing.)
If theatre, opera, ballet, stand-up comedy and live music can survive perpetual changes, then I don’t see why movies would die. It might change — in some respects, the cinematic experience should change — but I don’t see it dying out completely. In many respects, there’s never been a better time to be a movie watcher. If you’d told a 15-year-old me that, one day, I would not need to tool all over town on my bike to check out what other video stores might have and that my computer would have more movies than I would ever be able to watch, I don’t think he’d believe you.
If nothing else, the last year has provided me with reasons to watch things I’ve put off my entire life rather than zonk out over some supernatural Netflix show or what-have-you.
The best films of 2020
Justine Smith: Maybe we should get into some of the highlights of the year. I could be making assumptions, but I haven’t seen many of your choices, and I have a feeling you’ve only seen a handful of mine. I find this pretty exciting. I’ve heard some American critics bemoaning the fact that this year’s year-end lists are all over the place or “elitist.” For the first time in my lifetime, there aren’t any obvious Oscar forerunners. Maybe it’s because people don’t care or just that studios are investing less money in “for your consideration” campaigns, but it’s one of the most notable changes in how we engaged with film culture in 2020.
Strangely, in a market typically so manipulated and saturated by “buzz,” the pandemic has mostly quieted those kinds of discussions. Even if some films have emerged as stand-outs, it feels more organic than in previous years. I don’t particularly like awards bloggers, so I’m not especially sad to see them frustrated that this year isn’t panning out the way they want.
Both First Cow and Da 5 Bloods were in my Top 20. First Cow has been my go-to when people ask me for recommendations of 2020 films to watch. I usually describe it as a frontier film about male friendship and stolen milk. I can’t say I’m especially good at selling movies to people… but it’s such a lovely and gentle film and furthers my appreciation for Kelly Reichardt as one of my favourite working American filmmakers.
It’s interesting too that both First Cow and Da 5 Bloods are very “American,” not necessarily in their construction (though that, too) but also in how they tackle the question of American identity. They’re both nuanced and critical films that take into account the ideology of the American state. Big Blockbuster tentpole movies are still the most representative of American cinema, but I believe that both Lee and Reichardt will be considered among a handful of filmmakers who sincerely explore the question of what it means to be American in the 21st century.
Alex Rose: I think one of the factors here is that you and I were the two people covering festivals for Cult MTL this year and, thus, if you saw one movie, I was seeing a different one. In other years, I would definitely have caught up on the biggest, buzziest titles during the festival, but when you’re looking at a potential entire other year of being in lockdown, you save some for later!
I also think that streaming releases immediately attract less buzz, regardless of their quality. It’s interesting because the opposite is also true for streaming shows. People are much more likely to mainline whatever recent dogshit Netflix puts out and talk about it ad nauseam than they are about a movie. I think that in a regular year, something like Mank (which I found entertaining but hardly worthy of awards-season conniptions) would have spilled a lot more ink simply from its festival run. There’s a general fatigue to buzz this year that I actually think is pretty interesting, from a critical point of view. Though there are always going to be dissenting voices ready to chastise you for swimming against the current of “important” films, it seems like there was just more space for more films to be considered important this year.
My lists always skew towards the more mainstream angle of things simply because those are the movies I wind up watching in a year, be it for reviewing, interviewing or simply keeping abreast of what’s happening. One thing that does happen more these days is the democratization of arthouse and international titles. I cannot imagine what it would have been like 15 years ago to track down a copy of La Flor, for example, when it now just makes its way onto the Criterion Channel.
In truth, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve seen precisely none of the films on your list — although quite a few of them are on the docket in the next year.
Justine Smith: When I was still in CEGEP, in the golden age of torrenting, one of my teachers mentioned that almost all film history was accessible online, if you knew where to look. You could get your hands on a four-hour Jonas Mekas film just as quickly as you could watch a shitty cam of Spiderman 3. My teacher expressed frustration; with the world at our fingertips, we still mostly watched the same old blockbuster films. I still have mixed feelings about what they were trying to say. It does feel a bit like the old man yells at cloud meme, but there is some truth to their statement.
Does unlimited access mean people will be more adventurous in their viewing? My list is a bit eclectic, but a lot of them are also short films, bite-sized movies that were easy to digest, at least in terms of commitment. Overall, I’d say that what I was searching for this year were films that moved me or excited me somehow. Many of these are personal documentaries about love and loss and the difficulty in reconciling those feelings. With more freedom to choose what I wanted to see, I found myself gravitating towards films that offered cathartic release. I know that, for some people, this was the season for comfort and escape, but I just needed to feel something.
Looking back on my life and the films that marked me, I often associate watching them with what was happening around me. Regardless of how my list ends up changing (or not) over the years, the movies I watched in 2020 will all be marked, at least somewhat, by the experience of watching them during a pandemic.
I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I have a feeling that your experience of Wintopia maybe aligns with that, at least a little bit. I wonder if it’s the kind of film you might have experienced differently in another year or under different circumstances. Or maybe I’m wrong.
Alex Rose: I definitely felt kind of blindsided by Wintopia, which I originally chose to watch mainly because I knew the director a little bit from my undergrad. Though the film has nothing to do, specifically, with world events at this time, it felt like it was touching on something profound for 2020. When an entire year of your life is treated as pretty much a write-off whether you like it or not, someone’s life and work being laid out like that got me.
I think as far as movie years go, 2020 isn’t quite a write-off. There were great films released this year, and at the very least some great movie-watching experiences of older titles (I also, it must be said, watched all five Sharknado movies this year) — but it certainly wasn’t the most memorable one.
Justine Smith’s Top 10 Films of 2020
- DAU. Natasha
- City Hall
- Still Processing
- Point and Line to Plane
- The Metamorphosis of Birds
- Mon Amour
- In My Room
- Inventing the Future
- This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
Alex Rose’s Top 10 Films of 2020
- First Cow
- Another Round
- Jusqu’au déclin
- Da 5 Bloods
- The Vast of Night
- Sorry We Missed You
- Il n’y a pas de faux métier
- The Nest
- Nadia, Butterfly
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