2020 - The Year in Cinemas (sort of!)

[Above: Jurnee Smollett in Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey]

   On December 16th 2020, against all odds (an in part down to director Patty Jenkins' determination to support cinemas), Wonder Woman 1984 had its UK theatrical release. Two days later, I discovered that my county would be staying in Tier 3 (as Tier 4 was introduced in other parts of the country); the cinemas were remaining shut, and my last chance to watch a film on the big screen this year disappeared without a trace.

   WW84 was left floating, audienceless - one of the only films to take a chance on the cinema experience when other production companies opted for an online release during this difficult year. More on that later, but first, a little bit of background information...

   Ever since December 2017, I've set myself the goal to see one film in cinemas a month, as a way to help keep this floundering industry alive. When 2020 started, I had every intention of continuing in that tradition - spurned on by a great awards season, during which Bong Joon-ho made history with Parasite. But then, we all know what happened. The world was seemingly changed overnight, with the Covid-19 pandemic spreading from country to country at an increasing speed. Businesses were forced to close their doors - and many of the UK's already-struggling cinemas found it difficult to open again - including Cineworld, one of the largest cinemas chains, which couldn't stay afloat due to the repeat delays of big-money films like James Bond.

   It's not all doom and gloom. The BFI swooped in like a sort of magical hero, its Culture Recovery Fund ready to support many of my favourite independent cinemas, and MUBI launched a funding campaign to help the industry further. What's more, in spite of two nationwide Lockdowns in the UK this year, I was able to see 12 films in cinemas - which still equates to roughly one a month. I was inspired to go to the cinema three times in February, which felt frivolous at the time, but something I'm grateful for on reflection.

   So without further ado, here's all the films I managed to see in cinemas this year, along with a quick review of each:


Film: Little Women

  My regular cinema-buddy, Tommy Draper, and I are big fans of Greta Gerwig, so we were keen to seek out her latest directorial film, Little Women - particularly with all the awards season buzz (and controversial Best Director snub) surrounding it. We watched Little Women as a sort of post-Christmas treat, and although it didn't blow me away, it was very well crafted. The ensemble cast was superb - particularly Florence Pugh, who did the seemingly impossible task of making audiences warm to the character of Amy March! Gerwig also made some interesting and clever choices with the script, such as the none-linear plot structure and the feminist alternative ending, which was much closer to the author's original intentions. 


Film 1: The Lighthouse

   My partner Edward Harvey and I watched The Lighthouse on our anniversary; we caught it on the smallest screen of our favourite indie cinema, which is definitely the perfect way to watch this film! We both loved Robert Eggers' previous film, The VVitch, so The Lighthouse had some strong expectations to live up to, but it matched its predecessor's perfect handling of traditional folklore. Furthermore, this time Eggers created some incredibly striking visual moments, with cinematography inspired by gothic pieces of art. The result is bleak, beautiful and bonkers, with booming, unsettling sound design throughout - and it was probably one of my films of the year.

Film 2: Birds of Prey - and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

   Joined by Tommy Draper again, the next film I saw in February was Birds of Prey. As a big DC fan (check out my Poison Ivy fan film, if you haven't seen it), I was really looking forward to this one, even after the lacklustre response to Suicide Squad. Pretty much straight away, I loved Birds of Prey - yes, it was very much 'the Harley show', and the other characters could've done with more time to shine, but the fight choreography was so exciting to watch, the colourful set, prop and costume design was a feast for the senses, and Ewan McGregor was brilliant as OTT villain Roman Sionis. As I mentioned in a previous blog post on female directors, I also loved Cathy Yan's approach to the film's handling of women, from bigger moments - like a cautious take on an abusive scene - to the smaller details, like Jurnee Smollett's Black Canary having to tie her long hair up during a fight scene. The film also made me REALLY want a fried egg sandwich!! I loved it all.

Film 3: Parasite

   The third film of the month was Bong Joon-ho's Parasite. Tommy Draper and I had just watched the Oscars together on TV (not to mention the fact that we both attended the BAFTAs in person this year!), so we were keen to see whether all the hype was justified. I must admit, this film wasn't for me; I need slightly more likeable characters, or at least more of a sense of escapism, in order for me to enjoy a cinema trip. I also wasn't made keen on the sudden genre twist. That being said, I agree that Parasite is a stunningly well-crafted film, Bong Joon-ho is a brilliant director (as well as being a genuinely lovely person), and I think Parasite should be shown in film schools as a learning tool. Just look at the use of lines - both visual and metaphorical - in the film.

March 2020

Film: Emma.

Although I had been struck down by a sudden illness in March (don't worry, it wasn't Covid and it wasn't contagious), I forced myself out of bed and hobbled over to a gorgeous little cinema in Belper to watch Emma. I did this for two reasons: firstly, I have been a fan of Autumn de Wilde's work for years and I wanted to support her directorial debut, and secondly, this is one of the few times my parents wanted to go to the cinema with me (they both love Jane Austen!). The film was larger than life in look and tone, which took some getting used to, but it was genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, with some quieter, clever character moments thrown into the mix. It made me want to work with Anya Taylor-Joy even more than before, and I can't wait to see what Autumn de Wilde does next.

  Tommy and I also had our tickets booked to see Misbehaviour this month - but then the UK's first Lockdown was announced. The screening was cancelled, our tickets were refunded, and the cinemas closed their doors for the next three months...

July 2020

Film: 1917

   When the cinemas did open their doors again, they did so very tentatively. The big releases had mostly been delayed, and people were understandably nervous to venture out into the public, so cinemas mostly re-screened older films - including some from the start of the year. This worked really well for me, as I'd missed Sam Mendes' 1917 the first time round, and I was delighted to get a second chance to catch it on the big screen - which it was definitely designed for! This film has some seriously harrowing, sickening scenes, and the 'one take' camera style helped to put you in the position of those poor young soldiers who fought in the first World War. But of course, because the cinematography was done by the master that is Roger Deakins, there were some breathtakingly beautiful scenes as well, like the flickering nighttime raid scene, pictured above.

August 2020

Film 1: Tenet

  The next film I saw was perhaps the biggest new release of the year - and the one that divided people the most. Overall, I have enjoyed Christopher Nolan's films; I think he's a wonderful, deeply intelligent director - and I enjoyed Tenet as well, although I felt the film moved too quickly for me to comfortably follow the complicated plot (which bugged me more than the sound levels). Although I agree with most of the criticism of this film, I think it is slightly unfair; there are much worse blockbuster films out there which were torn apart a lot less! We put too many expectations on Tenet because of who Nolan is as a filmmaker, and because of how few new films were released this year. Tenet was hailed as the 'saviour' of the cinema industry before it came out, which is a bar that no film could have reached during this awful year, no matter who directed it.

Film 2: Babyteeth

   Following on from our lukewarm reaction to Tenet, and determined to find any more new films in cinemas, Tommy and I ventured out to Nottingham to watch Babyteeth at a pre-closure Cineworld. Any other year, we may have missed this film on release, and maybe caught it on-demand; in that scenario, it would've probably been watched as 'background viewing'. But because we chose to watch it on the big screen, we really appreciated and ultimately loved Shannon Murphy's heartbreaking debut film. A lot of the characters and the brilliant soundtrack reminded us of our own film, Night Owls, and the feature version we long to make.

September 2020

Film: The Roads Not Taken

   Inspired by watching Babyteeth, Tommy and I decided to seek out more indie films we wouldn't usually see in cinemas; with all the big releases postponed or moved online by this point, there wasn't much else to choose from! Derby Quad had just re-opened, and we were also keen to see what they were screening so that we could pay them a visit.

   We settled on The Roads Not Taken, the latest film by Sally Potter - a director we were lucky enough to see in conversation a few years ago. TRNT had some great performances from Elle Fanning (in her most mature role to date) and Javier Bardem, but the slow pace, non-consequential alternative plot lines, and uncomfortable central subject all meant that, unfortunately, this is probably the film I enjoyed the least this year - but I'm still glad that I went to see it!

October 2020

Film 1: On The Rocks

  Tommy is a huge fan of Sofia Coppola, so we teamed up again to watch her latest release, On The Rocks. As the film was commissioned by and for Apple TV, we didn't think it would get a cinema release at all - let alone in 2020 - so watching it felt like a real bonus, even though this was the first time we had to embrace the glasses-fogging discomfort of wearing masks during a film. On The Rocks felt like Coppola's most grown-up film (particularly in the decision to cast Bill Murray as a father instead of a love interest), and it was perhaps her least stylistic piece as a result, but it was a lovely piece of a escapism during a difficult month.

Film 2: Saint Maud

  The second film of the month for us (and Edward, who couldn't resist seeing this one!) was Saint Maud, the latest release from the always-reliable indie studio A24. Saint Maud, by director Rose Glass, is one of the strongest debut films I've seen in years; it kept things at a clever scale, working with a minimal seaside location and a small cast, but that doesn't stop the film from being interwoven with style and dread. I didn't expect the two jump scares towards the end, as it's more of a 'slow build' kind of film, and I shot up out of my seat as a result! Keep an eye on Rose Glass - she's going to be one to watch.

Film 3: Kajillionaire

   Back in the cinema for the third time this month, our next film was Miranda July's Kajillionaire. Miranda July's loveable and loopy Instagram posts are always a highlight in my feed, but having found her previous film The Future a bit too abstract for my tastes (clever as it was), I wasn't sure what to expect from Kajillionaire. However, it toned down the bizarre elements in favour of laugh-out-loud moments and some moving character studies. Evan Rachel Wood was particularly brilliant in the central role of Old Dolio (amazing name, with a hilarious and brutal back story), and Kajillionaire ended up being in my top five films of the year as a result.

   Shortly after that, the UK's second Lockdown was announced, and our beloved cinemas have remained shut ever since. Kajillionaire ended up being the last film I saw theatrically in 2020 - and although that fact sucks, I'm glad that I ended this list on a high note.

The Ones That Got Away...

   With the cinemas closed, I had to buck up and accept that if I wanted to watch new films, I had to do so online or on DVD.  Misbehaviour was the first of these - the film Tommy and I had tickets booked for in March - and in spite of the slightly fluffy ending, it was an enjoyable and surprisingly impactful film with a great cast. I caught The Turning (which I missed in January) on Amazon Prime, and although the film had Floria Sigismondi's trademark lush gothic visuals, I was disappointing by the sudden and somewhat bizarre twist ending. 

   Then Netflix brought me Rebecca and I'm Thinking of Ending Things (pictured above); I am a big fan of Hitchcock's Rebecca, as well as the book, so I was a bit cautious about Ben Wheatley's adaptation - and I kept pointing out things that were or weren't in the source material - but aside from a few jarring plot choices, I think he made a confident, fun and decadent film. I'm Thinking of Ending Things was the polar opposite - a film so clever that you actually have to read spoilers to appreciate it! It really does deserve to get some acting nominations come award season (particularly for David Thewlis, in his disturbing supporting role), but it was so unsettling to watch that it ended up being the film which has stayed with me the most this year - and I'm not sure if I'm happy about that fact!

   And finally, we have to talk about Mulan. It was the film I'd looked forward to the most (as it promised epic, realistic battle scenes with weapons and armour by Weta Workshop), and the cancelled cinema release I was most disappointed by. Not only that, but the film made a lot of enemies in the process. Disney Plus charged a premium fee for people to watch the film in their own homes, and the Chinese audience (who actually got to see the film in cinemas) were unhappy at the film's Western view of their culture - among other controversies surrounding the film's release.

   I eventually accepted that I was never going to watch this film on the big screen, and reluctantly watched it when it became free for Disney Plus subscribers in December. That wasn't the end of the disappointments - it was the start. My god, I cannot believe how many marks this film missed! The battle scenes were minimal and mostly off-screen, the heroes had the most bizarre 'plot armour' I've seen since Game of Thrones, and Donnie Yen's fighting skill was criminally under-used; the feminism was forced rather than empowering, with Mulan removing her armour and letting her hair down in battle, which made her look 'more womanly' but unrealistically vulnerable for the scene (compare this to the hair tie scene in Birds of Prey at the start of the year); and the choice to make Mulan more of a Jedi/superhero figure instead of a relatable, clumsy character who had to earn the respect of her fellow soldiers meant that the film was no longer empowering for young viewers. This is on top of multiple plot points and character choices that simply made no sense. 

   I could list more faults, and I'm going to have to stop now before this ends up being a blog post that's mostly about Mulan, but I'll summarise my rage by simply sharing this video of a very angry cinema owner! (And I will just add: my negative reaction to the film is not a reflection on the efforts of everyone who worked on the film. It's a stunning-looking piece of cinema which deserved to been shown on the big screen, and that is down to the efforts of Weta Workshop and everyone who worked in the production design, costume and cinematography departments).


   So, looking back at my 'watch list', what can I say about the year in cinemas? It was upsetting for me to not be able to go and see new films for so many months (although that wasn't the worst thing about this year!), but it did make me determined to go as much as possible when cinemas were open - and to give films a 'try' which I wouldn't normally go and see, due to the lack of big new releases. As a result, my money supported indie filmmakers and studios, as well as cinemas.

  The films I saw weren't necessarily the ones I had on my list for this year, but they were generally all really good, with plenty of unexpected gems. If I'm completely honest, my top five were Birds of Prey, The Lighthouse, Babyteeth, Saint Maud and Kajillionaire - but Emma gave me the best cinema experience, sat in that gorgeous little cinema with my parents, and I'm Thinking of Ending Things is, as I said, the film that's stayed with me the most.

  Here's the other positive thing about this year's viewing choices; with 'big films' stepping back, 'smaller' filmmakers were given more of an opportunity to show their work - and among those people were many female filmmakers. Out of the 17 new films I saw this year, 11 of them were directed by women. That's a very high majority, it's never happened before, and it may have not been the case if more of the male-dominated Hollywood releases had come out this year. It's a very encouraging statistic for little old me!

  I am worried for the future of cinemas, though. I've said that before, but it's even more prevalent now. There are so many great films slated for 2021, mostly comprising of this year's delayed films (I'm particularly excited for The Green Knight) - but with the pandemic still casting its destructive force across the world, the studios may still yet have difficult decisions to make. Will they release their films as planned (if people can go back to cinemas, audiences will be cautious and minimal, resulting in a potential loss), will they delay again indefinitely (causing further delays down the line for other films and award seasons), or will they take the same stance as Disney Plus, and opt for an online release instead? If all the studios take that route, it WILL result in the death of the cinema industry as we know it. If even Cineworld is in trouble, you can imagine the impact on the smaller chains.

[Above: A24's The Green Knight, the film I'm most looking forward to next year - if it reaches us!]

  If you love cinema, get out there as soon as it is legal and safe to do so. Rush to the doors. Pay the unnecessary fee for average popcorn. Or if you don't feel like you can go, consider buying a membership or a gift voucher from your favourite cinema, so that they can still get money in their pockets in the meantime. I know that times are tough right now - but if cinemas mean as much to you as they mean to me, you'll regret it if you don't support them now.

   And on that note... it's time to go back to my opening point. How do we support Wonder Woman 1984, the film that came out too late to change its plans? Well, a slightly old-fashioned solution was found; at present, there is a rising number of drive-in cinemas popping up across the country, with even restaurant owners offering their car parks to help enable the cinema industry to continue. This novelty way of viewing films - previously only used as a way to screen older releases - is now the only form of cinema we have, and the only place for Wonder Woman to go. So yes, of course, I have my ticket booked. Whatever the reviews say, I cannot wait; it will be my first cinema trip of 2021, and my first ever experience of a drive-in cinema. Get yourself to a screening now - the full list of venues is available here.



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