The year that was, and wasn’t, in movies


By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

You already know this has been the most unusual year in the 125-year history of commercial movies, and you already know about the delayed releases of major blockbusters from “No Time to Die” to “Black Widow” to “Coming 2 America,” and you already know about the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the movie business and theater chains, and we have fingers crossed and prayers sent that we’ll be back at the movies in full force in 2021, as soon as it’s safe to do so.

In the meantime, here’s my annual look back at the highlights and lowlights of the year in movies.

They are women, hear them roar

You could have a stellar one-day film festival just with 2020 movies with “Woman” in the title:

  • “I Am Woman”
  • “A Regular Woman”
  • “I’m Your Woman”
  • “Wonder Woman 1984”
  • “Pieces of a Woman”
  • “Promising Young Woman”

Christmas wins the War on Christmas

Lightning-rod conservative commentator Ben Shapiro caused a tweetstorm when he got his undies in a bunch over “Happiest Season” (a movie he hadn’t seen), a holiday love story featuring a lesbian couple played by Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis.

“I’m not saying it’s terrible to make … a lesbian romcom,” said Shapiro. “All I’m saying is if you’re a conservative with conservative sensibilities, at a certain point you might get sick that Hollywood only wants to make the kinds of movies that you despise. Right? [‘Happiest Season’] is all about how a conservative family learns that all of their religious values have been a bunch of crap for years.”

Pro tip See the movie before you critique the movie. That way, you won’t make a wildly off-base assertion concerning what the movie is actually about.

Also, it should be pointed out that “Hollywood,” led by Hallmark, Lifetime and Netflix, is releasing more than 80 — EIGHTY — new holiday films and specials this year, including some 65 with the word “Christmas” in the title. The great majority of these movies and specials actually carry messages in keeping with the most important Christian values — you know, the whole “love thy neighbor,” Golden Rule school of faith and thought.

Never in the history of Hollywood have there been as many Christmas movies as there have been in recent years. Why, the characters are even allowed to say “Merry Christmas!”

The gold standard

It was a great year for former Oscar winners, many of whom will be adding at least another nomination to their resumes:

  • Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in “The Father”
  • Meryl Streep in “Let Them All Talk” and “The Prom”
  • Frances McDormand in “Nomadland”
  • George Clooney in “The Midnight Sky”
  • Tom Hanks in “News of the World”
  • Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
  • Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead”
  • Gary Oldman in “Mank”
  • Ellen Burstyn in “Pieces of a Woman”
  • Nicole Kidman in “The Prom”
  • Marisa Tomei in “The King of Staten Island”
  • Dianne Wiest in “Let Them All Talk”
  • Mark Rylance in “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Singin’ on the screen

The streaming version of “Hamilton” is not eligible to compete for Academy Awards due to a 1997 rule barring films “that are essentially unfiltered records of performances.” Actually, that very language should mean “Hamilton” IS eligible for Oscar consideration. Yes, it is a filmed record of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant Broadway sensation, but it’s not as if director Thomas Kail stuck a few cameras around the Richard Rodgers Theatre and pressed “record.” As The New York Times reported, the “Hamilton” you see on Disney+ was filmed over a three-day period, with nine cameras and more than 100 microphones capturing the production. In addition to the two full performances that were recorded, the cast performed 13 numbers with a crane, a dolly-mounted camera and a Steadicam to get close-ups. Then began the editing process.

That’s a movie.

Regardless of the label we affix to “Hamilton,” it’s the leader of a standout lineup of 2020 musicals and music performance films, from the colorful and rousing “The Prom” to the instant holiday classic “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” to the old-fashioned and uplifting “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” to the masterful “David Byrne’s American Utopia” to Taylor Swift’s “Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions” to Beyonce’s “Black Is King” to the animated “Over the Moon” and even the hilarious “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.” Granted, 2020 also gave us the execrable “Valley Girl,” a tone-deaf musical update of the 1983 teen classic, but that lump of coal doesn’t take away from the bounty of fantastic musical presents under the tree.

Coming soon to a living room near you

To the dismay of big-canvas directors Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, WarnerMedia announced all of its 2021 films would be released simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming service, HBO Max. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Nolan said: “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed … thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”

Even before the pandemic, the gap between theatrical release and VOD was rapidly closing, and of course, this year brought about the straight-to-video release of films that normally would have opened on thousands of screens, e.g., “Mulan” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”

All great respect to the filmmakers, I don’t believe releasing films in theaters and on video simultaneously is a sure recipe for disaster. Even after it’s safe once again to see films in theaters, there’s a substantial audience of a certain age (and financial comfort) who love movies but almost never go to theaters and wait for the home video release. Those folks will pay a premium to see “event” movies from home on the same day we hope millions of others will flock to their local cineplexes.

COVID material

Some of the first TV shows and movies shot after the outbreak of the pandemic were ABOUT the pandemic, including NBC’s smart and funny “Connecting,” the impactful Netflix dramatic series “Social Distance,” the bombastic action thriller “Songbird” and the HBO movie “Coastal Elites,” which came across as, well, a bit elitist.

Are we clear? Crystal

Tom Cruise’s profanity-laced rant about crew members not following COVID protocols on the set of the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie went viral, with many praising Cruise for rightfully calling out the reckless behavior. As much as I agree with Cruise’s messaging, I disagree with his methodology. When you’re the undisputed Alpha King on the set of a movie that will gross you tens of millions of dollars, dressing down the working crew like a 1960s football coach is unnecessarily demeaning and will make for some tense days on the set. Why not address the troops in a firm but calm manner? The message can be the same — anyone who violates safe practices will be fired — but would probably have been even more effective if Cruise hadn’t been so strident and abrasive. 

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times

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