Variety Editors & Critics Analyze Hollywood’s COVID Movie Recovery, From James Bond to Borat

2021 Year in Review
Courtesy Images

COVID-19 dominated the news cycle this past year, but it was also a season of thought-provoking cinema that reflected various political and sociological themes from “The Trial of the Chicago 7” to “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Variety asked some of its editors and critics to answer three questions about this past year in film and discuss its standout moments.

1. How do you rate the 2020 slate against previous years?

2. What was the biggest scandal or most talked-about issue of
the year?

3. What aspect of film this year made you stand up and cheer?

Peter Debruge
Chief Film Critic 
1. It’s not really fair to compare. This has been such an exceptional year that nearly the entire slate — from a studio standpoint, at least — has been delayed or shelved till the coast is clear for theaters to reopen. Or, to put it in blockbuster speak: No match for COVID, James Bond declared 2020 “No Time to Die,” and nearly all the other tentpoles followed suit (the exception being Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Russell Crowe road-rager “Unhinged”). Meanwhile, like rare fauna repopulating the earth after the T-Rex went extinct, dozens of terrific indie and foreign films benefited from the lack of competition. I’m thinking of everything from “First Cow” and “Saint Frances” early in the year to “Nomadland,” that unlikeliest and most encouraging of Oscar frontrunners.
2. Given all that’s been happening, hardly any movies actually managed to penetrate the pop culture conversation, apart from “Promising Young Woman” and the “Borat” sequel perhaps. The public (people we used to think of as “audiences,” until they stopped watching movies) has been too distracted with real-world problems like COVID, Black Lives Matter protests and the elections.
3. Streaming services. Two years ago, studios were effectively waging war against the streamers (look at Cannes’ ban on Netflix films in competition), but now, it looks as if that very same technology may have saved the film industry, inspiring Disney, Warner Bros. and Paramount to launch their own subscription platforms. Amid the lockdown, film fans turned not to home video (sadly, the DVD biz is still in a death spiral) but to every conceivable form of on-demand entertainment, from curated services such as Mubi, Criterion Channel and Shudder to fast-adapters such as Kino Marquee and the innovative “virtual cinema” model (by which shuttered exhibitors share revenue on digital releases). Had COVID struck five years earlier, we would’ve been stuck watching reruns on cable. Instead, advances in broadband speeds and streaming options made it possible for us to VJ our way through an unbelievably challenging year. I’m also ecstatic for the revival of drive-in moviegoing, but dismayed that most new cars (including the electric Audi I borrowed for one such excursion) don’t let the radio run for two hours in auxiliary mode.

Owen Gleiberman
Chief Film Critic  
1. 2020 was a unique year in movies, almost a kind of experiment. As a result of the pandemic, the whole vast layer of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking got stripped away. It was kind of like standing in a forest, and suddenly the giant trees are all gone. Yet as it turns out, much of the forest is actually still there. It’s just smaller trees and plants, the life wriggling on the ground, much of it quite alluring, only you might not have noticed it as much before. That “other” life is the small- or medium-sized movies that came out on streaming services, films that entertained and enlightened people — and proved that this art form, even when you radically reduce the popcorn intake, is still brimming with treasures. If you looked closely enough, 2020 gave us a feast of movies we’ll be watching for years to come, from the haunting “Nomadland” to the powerful “Promising Young Woman” to the devastating “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” How does the year stack up to previous movie years? It generated less buzz. It made less money. But all that just wound up testifying to how much movies, in a quieter way, could still matter.
2. This year will always be defined by the pandemic. Yet even if you had to sum up 2020 in a haiku, you’d be amiss if you left out the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, and what that horrific tragedy meant to the nation. This was our COVID year, but it was also a year of profound racial and social awakening. And putting those cataclysms together, the message that emerged was nearly karmic: that in ways both big and small, our society could not simply go on as it was. There is too much inequity, too much hatred, too much about the government that no longer works. I think the great theme that will come out of all this — you can feel it in the already transformative spirit of Joe Biden’s presidency — is: How can America now change? How can it become better? The cataclysms of 2020 laid us bare, but crisis, as has often been said, is another word for opportunity.
3. The push for diversity in filmmaking, not just in front of the camera but behind it, is more than essential; it’s potentially revolutionary. For as the reins of power and creativity are seized by more women and more people of color, the stories they tell will hold up a new mirror to the world. It’s already happening. You could feel the catharsis of it in “Promising Young Woman,” which combines the suspense of a thriller with the passion of a parable, or “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which explores the life of the slain Black Panther Fred Hampton with the dizzying perspective of a moral kaleidoscope. I saw many terrific films this year, but what made me want to cheer was the heady charge of being invited into bold new worlds of experience. For isn’t that what movies have always been about?

Tim Gray
Senior Vice President 
1. There are some really terrific films, but we can best answer this question in 20 years, because a lot of movies are hot (“An instant classic!”), but cool down over the years (“What were the voters thinking?”) And while studios shifted a lot of films into 2021, most are popcorn movies rather than “Oscar bait.” So the awards race was affected by COVID, but not seriously damaged.
2. The virus was the only talked-about issue, wasn’t it? It affected every aspect of the industry. As public tastes change, showbiz is always forced to redefine itself and the 21st century created new demands in the digital world — so it’s surprising that the film-awards season was so familiar: festivals as a launch pad, the invitation-only screenings, the last-minute Q&As, the pool of frontrunners that was determined in October and changed very little after that — all the familiar staples, but done virtually. This formulaic approach is either reassuring or alarming, depending on your point of view.
3. Oscar voters were thinking outside the box, with nominations for Thomas Vinterberg, LaKeith Stanfield (as supporting, though he was campaigned as a lead), “Pinocchio” and “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” to name a few. In addition, it’s worth celebrating the many great international movies and documentaries this year (even though none managed a best picture nomination).

Jenelle Riley 
Deputy Awards and Features Editor
1. I think 2020 was a great year for films — in fact, it’s the first time in quite a while in which I genuinely like all the eight films nominated for best picture and think they deserve to be there. In fact, I would have been happy with 10 nominees. Any year that gives us the smart comedy of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” popcorn fun including “Freaky,” the subversive brilliance of “Promising Young Woman” and gems such as “Minari” has to be considered a pretty good year.
2. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the theatrical experience was all anyone could talk about. So many big movies going direct to VOD, the fact “Tenet” would only be in theaters, when it would be safe to return, how theaters would survive … everything could be traced back to the pandemic and lockdown.
3. Just the appreciation for the power and perseverance of film. In lockdown, what was everyone turning to in order to keep from going crazy? Entertainment. And though I mourned the loss of attending a theater, in many ways it somewhat evened out the playing ground when you have blockbusters, star vehicles and small indie films all available in your home.