Even the most out-there screenwriter couldn’t have imagined the year that 2020 has shaped up to be — and even if they had, who would have believed them? A global health crisis has radically redefined work and leisure habits worldwide, forcing people to hunker down at home. That means no movies (not in cinemas, at least, for most people) though many of us have turned to cinema in new ways to distract from the anxieties of doomscrolling: for inspiration, virtual human connection and a reminder of what life was like before social distancing.
The big studios reacted by postponing their tentpoles — with the exception of “Tenet,” which insisted on an at-your-own-risk theatrical opening — or pivoting to streaming platforms (as Pixar’s “Soul” does this month). But reports of the industry’s demise are premature at best: Hollywood has survived world wars and the onslaught of at-home competition before. To meet this latest challenge, the Academy relaxed its rules to allow for an extended awards season — which means that prestige films that might have opened before year’s end can still qualify with early-2021 openings.
But 2020 has hardly been barren of cinematic marvels. Far from it. And the good news, at least insofar as those riding out the second wave at home are concerned, is that there’s an abundance of great movies at your fingertips. As crippling as the pandemic has been to movie studios and film festivals, this challenge came at a time when studios’ own streaming platforms like HBO Max and Disney Plus have allowed them to deliver films such as “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Mulan” direct to audiences while we wait an even bigger flood of Warner Bros. product on HBO Max in 2021. On the indie side, Kino Lorber and Alamo Drafthouse have done the same for smaller movies and docs.
Theaters will come back. In the meantime, America has experienced a drive-in resurgence the likes of which no one could have predicted. And as much as people crave a return to “normal,” the crisis has validated the artistic ambitions of upstarts like Netflix and Amazon Studios, tech companies which have proven their commitment to prestige cinema — and who’ve forged ahead with releasing some of the year’s strongest films.
So, whether you have been too distracted by all the turbulence to watch anything or have adapted your viewing habits to keep up from home, take comfort in the fact that so many of the year’s exceptional cinematic achievements are available to be screened now. Through it all, Variety’s two chief critics have been keeping up with the hundreds of films still being released, spotlighting the standouts no matter what form they take. (Click here to jump to Owen Gleiberman’s list.)