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2020 was a lot of things, but in the entertainment industry, perhaps the biggest impact the pandemic has had has been on the release of movies. Film studios have pushed back releases all year long, and only a hand full of would-be blockbusters actually saw release. Meanwhile, streaming services have been flooded with movies, both major and independent. All the while, fans and professionals have been asking, is 2020 the beginning of the end for movies?

 

charade movie poster / audrey hepburn and cary grant running against a yellow background with the tagline I love movies. If there is anything in my life that I would call a passion, it is the art and majesty of the moving picture. I’ve loved them since I was a kid, when I would sit in rapt attention every Saturday night for Elwy Yost’s double feature on TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. I was definitely the only kid in my fourth grade class who had seen The French Connection, and the only person I knew until university who had ever heard of Charade. My love of movies has brought me to the point where I am currently the Chair of Programming for the Grand River Film Festival, where to my delight I spend most of the year reviewing unreleased independent film from around the world. So, unlike most, my 2020 did not lack for new movies.

 

But something we all missed out on was the reason movies are great: the shared experience. There are few experiences that we can have in the modern day that match sitting in a packed house, the lights down, and a bright screen shunting us into an entirely new world for a few hours. To hear a room of strangers all laughing simultaneously, or gasping in shock, or crying. So many experiences, especially with art, are private ones. Theatrical movies are a way to connect with humanity that, sadly, are also one of the least safe and healthy venues during a pandemic. So, as much as I hate it, theatres being closed is a good thing for now.

 

But there was two months at the start of 2020 where theatres were open and prospering. Aside from a few random films that were pushed into theatres during that brief period in late summer before the second wave, almost the entire Box Office of 2020 comes from Jan and Feb, notoriously a time when studios dump their movies which are expected to underperform. And it makes for one of the most interesting box office reports to look at.

 

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE POSTER / MARTIN LAWREN AND WILL SMITH WALKING TOWARDS you with guns at their side

The top grossing film, a title usually reserved for a film grossing billions, like an Avengers, went to Bad Boys for Life with $204 million. This was the third in a series of police action films, coming 17 years after the second entry, and reunited stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Will Smith used to be the most bankable actor in Hollywood, during a run in the nineties which saw Smith release high grossing films on the July 4th weekend that included Independence Day, Men in Black, and Wild Wild West.

 

 

sonic the hedgehog poster / the blue video game running at high speed toward you while a scary looking jim carrey's head surrounded by a golden ring hoers in the skyIn the number two spot for 2020 was the video game adaptation Sonic the Hedgehog, a movie which had been pushed back from 2019 due to a negative reaction from fans of the titular character’s CGI design. The character was retooled to look closer to his video game appearance, which he has sported since 1991 when he became for the Sega system what Mario was for Nintendo. The movie featured human actors as well, including Jim Carrey in the villainous role, another actor who during the nineties was considered Box Office Gold for his run of Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask.

 

 

birds of prey poster / heavily tattooed margot robbie is swinging a baseball bat at you, while four diverse women strike violent poses behind herSpot three went to Birds of Prey, a DC Comics movie starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. The character had previously featured in Suicide Squad, but this female directed-and-centric film sees a mismatched group of down-and-out women living in Batman’s Gotham City band together to combat toxic masculinity, and try to enjoy a good breakfast sandwich. For my money, this is one of the best superhero movies of recent years, with John Wick-esque action sequences and a focus on the actual emotion motivation of characters instead of giant CGI explosions.

 

 

dolittle poster / robert downey jr leans to his side while surrounded by a CGI polar bear, giraffe, fox, gorilla, duck, parrot, ostrich, and dog wearing glasses. A tagline reads The fourth spot of the year went to Robert Downey Jr’s misguided career follow-up to his Iron Man run, with Dolittle, the third live action adaptation of the 1920’s book. Undeniably the only bomb on this list (which still landed it at third best performing of 2020), and the worst received by critics, this movie wouldn’t have lasted much longer in theatres if the pandemic hadn’t closed the doors early. Interestingly, Robert Downey Jr, due to his struggles with addiction in the nineties, was uninsurable and could not work until the combination of his sobriety and Marvel’s backing made him a star again.

 

 

invisible man poster / a distressed looking Elizabeth moss is half in frame, while a handprint in moisture hangs in the air behind her The fifth spot on 2020’s list was my favourite movie of 2020, The Invisible Man starring Elizabeth Moss. This feminist interpretation of the classic HG Wells novel follows a woman who cannot escape the ghost of an abusive relationship. The unseen terror of the man who won’t let her go the perfect metaphor for the lingering trauma experienced by victims of abuse. Blumhouse, producing the studio, has quickly established themselves as the makers of the most interesting “mid budget” films right now, especially bringing prestige and acceptance to the horror genre with films like Get Out, The Purge, and Ma. They’ve also begun making dramas, with Whiplash and BlacKkKlansman making waves. This is an example of a smaller studio who are willing to make movies that the big studios wouldn’t consider, and finding great success.

 

 

tenet poster / two versions of John David Washington stand back to back, separated by the word TENET. Behind them, skyscrapers rise into the airThe rest of the top ten is a grab bag of content. The Call of the Wild saw Harrison Ford and a poorly CGI’d dog live in the wood. Onward, a Pixar fantasy film had a whole two weeks in theatres before lockdown saw it get bumped directly onto Disney+. Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s time travel action mystery movie was forcibly released into theatres in September because of the filmmaker’s insistence that it should be experienced on the big screen despite it not being safe to go to a theatre to see it. Guy Richie released his latest ensemble crime comedy The Gentlemen, which I think everyone promptly forgot existed. And finally for the top ten of 2020 was Fantasy Island, another Blumhouse picture which reimagined the 1970s TV show as a horror film, released on Valentine’s Day and dismissed by critics.

 

 

007: no time to die poster / a cast of character's heads floating within the silhouette of Daniel Craig, with a burning car in the foreground and the numbers 007 in the background

Of all these films, had 2020 gone as planned, only Tenet I would have expected to remain in the top ten earners, as Nolan’s films such as Interstellar, Inception, and the Dark Knight trilogy are consistently billion or near-billion dollar movies. This year, Nolan ended up with $46 million. Other major studio films, like Marvel’s Black Widow or the 25th James Bond movie, No Time To Die, have opted to wait the pandemic out and be released when it is safe (though Bond has now been delayed so long that the product placement in the film is out of date and needs to be reshot).

 
 

Wonder Woman 1984 poster / gal gadot as wonder woman stands facing you with neon coloured audio waves and television static behind her, some of the waves forming the numbers 84

Some films like Mulan or Soul were released directly on Disney+. Or Scoob, which was meant to both reboot Scooby-Doo and launch a Hanna-Barbara film universe, was quietly and unceremoniously put on Amazon Prime in the summer. Warner Bros announced that starting with Wonder Woman '84 at Christmas, all of their films would be released directly on HBOMax (unavailable in Canada), which drew major complaint from the filmmakers themselves, who hadn’t been told, and might see long standing relationships with directors like Christopher Nolan or Patty Jenkins end.

 

 

nomadland poster / /francis mcdormand sits in a lawn chair outside a trailer, with a clothes line stretched over her, and the American desert behind her.Meanwhile, independent films have had a dramatically reduced festival circuit to travel this year, and so many are ending up on streaming platforms far sooner than usual. I Care A Lot, featuring Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage premiered at TIFF in September and is already on Netflix. Nomadland, which premiered at the Venice festival in September was released last month on Hulu and is the favourite to win the Academy Award this year. I can say that despite there not being movie theatres open this past year, there were many amazing films released, and considerably more independent films given attention because of the lack of big blockbusters. And DVDs continue to be produced, revitalizing the physical media that many have been writing the obituary for, for many years.

 

Movies will survive the pandemic. Delivery of movies will absolutely change post-pandemic, but I see it as a good thing. Big, flashy movies like the Avengers will play in megaplexes for a few weeks then go to streaming. Art houses will still have a bounty crop of independent films to showcase. And just like in the 70s and the 90s, there will be a rise of mid level studios who produce innovative films from independent filmmakers who are ready for the next stage. In the past, this has given us directors like Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Bros. With independent film bubbling over with female and minority voices, I am excited for a new era of film to begin.

 

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Yours Fictionally,

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