2020 felt like an eternity for many – but fittingly, streaming sites became packed with several lifetimes’ worth of content. It was a year to learn about the little things about culture that we enjoyed, and for me, the fact that I miss occasionally seeing a movie in-theater snuck up on me.
I predicted back in April that closures would extend to a point that studios would need to start releasing things on streaming services instead of waiting for theaters. Now, as studios approach bankruptcy, a slew of new movies will be rolling onto streaming channels at the beginning of 2021.
So as we plan our New Year’s viewing schedules, here are some highlights that I particularly enjoyed in 2020:
Gretel and Hansel (Jan. 30, 2020): 4.5/5 (available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime)
This retelling of the Grimm classic, which focuses the story on Gretel’s discovery of her own power, was directed by Oz Perkins, whose work I have previously reviewed. Starring Sophia Lillis, whose breakout role was in IT pt. 1, and Alice Kriger, renowned South African stage actor and cult horror favorite, this fairytale shifts away from rescue by the huntsman and instead focuses on the women at the center of this and other timeless stories. I really enjoyed this film as a whole, and although it was the last film I saw in the theater I still felt that a second viewing was well worth it to catch the more subtle occult references and visual layers. Although I felt the twist at the end could have been a little stronger, I thought the story overall was visually stunning, with strong performances from all.
Hamilton (Jul. 3, 2020): 4.5/5 (Streaming on Disney+)
I should preface this review by saying that I tend to be very critical of filmed versions of live shows; a part of me wishes I could have waited to see this live, but knowing the reality we live in I appreciate the way that Disney+ pushed to release the filmed version. I have enjoyed the music of Hamilton ever since I was introduced to it through the American Sign Language classes offered at Seattle Central, and as a result enjoyed the chance to finally see the finished product in context. Lin Manuel Miranda, who wrote, composed, directed, and starred in both the original Off-Broadway and filmed productions, spent over eight years developing the script.
Using a blend of hip hop, rap, and Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque grandiosity is engaging; George Washington speaks in a tight, information-dense patter; King George’s songs all utilize Baroque elements; Benjamin Franklin is framed with R&B influenced sounds. This is a complex piece of work, and truly is an American telling of American history. I didn’t find myself distracted by the elements of moving a live piece to film, which is the risk that such adaptations run.
Palm Springs (Jul. 10, 2020): 4/5 (Streaming on Hulu)
This Groundhogs Day-esque surreal comedy premiered at Sundance early this year. The story of Nyle and Sarah, trapped in a repeat of Sarah’s sister’s wedding in Palm Springs, plays with the philosophical and ethical ramification of the concept of an unending, near-consequence-free repeat of time. I was especially impressed with the performance by Andy Samberg, who I think has the potential to split comedy and drama. While the story and performances are strong, this remains a fairly light romantic comedy which can be a wonderful break sometimes.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Sep. 4, 2020): 4/5 (Streaming on Netflix)
This incredibly layered, surreal offering from master of the genre, Charlie Kaufman, premiered on Netflix following a limited theatrical release. Based on the novel by Iain Reid, this film follows the story of an unnamed young woman and young man who have been dating a few months. The two travel in a snowstorm to the young man’s parents’ house, skillfully portrayed by Toni Collette and David Thewlis. Intercut with images of a high school janitor watching rehearsals of Oklahoma, the film culminates in a textured dance sequence. Several interviews with Kauman helping to guide viewings through the symbolism have since been published, and the director has commented that while he normally doesn’t offer such explanations, Netflix gave him so much creative control that he understood the need in this case. The surrealism will likely lose some viewers, however as a fan of the genre I really enjoyed the visually stunning, albeit confusing, plot and solid performances from the cast.
The Social Dilemma (Sep. 9, 2020): 3.5/5 (Streaming on Netflix)
This critically acclaimed, award winning documentary, directed by Jeff Orlowski, felt like a timely addition to films this year. Featuring interviews with many former employees, executives, and other professionals from top tech companies and social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Apple. These interviewees provide not only expert testimony on the realities of how social networking and AIs operate and function, but also adds a human face to a seemingly inhuman industry. While it offers as many questions as it does answers, it also helped me to better understand the reasons why “fake news” is so rampant, as well as the ways my devices are programmed to keep me using them. As a documentary, the information is solid. Unfortunately, every documentary needs a b-story, and I felt the “mini-drama” of a family consumed by their devices was really weak. Overall, I recommend the film; I think that while there may be a lack of immediate answers, knowledge is power.
Trial of the Chicago 7 (Oct. 2, 2020): 4.5/5 (Streaming on Netflix)
This star-studded historical drama of the real life trial of The Chicago Seven was written and directed by Aaron Sorken and this particular story definitely plays to Sorken’s strengths as a director. Written in 2007, and intended for theatrical release in September of this year, the film was acquired by Netflix and had record streaming numbers. As the child of ‘60s activists, this is one of those stories I was told like a bedtime story growing up, and I thought the writing was extremely effective with strong performances from the ensemble cast, with particular nods to Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, John Carroll Lynch, and Michael Keaton. This tense legal drama surrounding this circus of a trial following the Chicago riots remains gripping throughout, despite taking some poetic license with historical accuracy. As a story about mass protests and the legal aftermath, this film feels especially well-timed.
Over the past decade, as large studios, movie theaters, and traditional distribution have struggled to keep pace with changing technology, 2020 has seen a huge shift to newer formats. We have also seen traditional genres, long the marketing backbone of the entertainment industry, shift, blur, and collide. Following the large release of nearly a year’s worth of movies onto streaming formats in early 2021, it will be extremely interesting to watch as both large studios and independent producers adapt to the cultural changes resulting from the pandemic, as well as the continued evolution of how film, and media in general, is distributed and consumed.
It is my hope that the varied, rich storylines and skilled talent that 2020 has generated is a sign of how film will develop over the next decade.