I remember how 2020 started: as indistinctly as any year ever has. The last one I got worked up about beginning was Y2K. What that taught us is that even when we expect the worst, it does not cause a more difficult outcome. And so, in a year where we didn’t have expectations, it makes sense that it would become the largest-scale disaster of our lifetimes. Because best wishes and thoughts and prayers have not much moved the meter. What has happened, in 2020, is an uprising of social consciousness. Not only have we witnessed the largest scale civil rights movement in the history of the world but we have all learned so much, about ourselves, and especially about each other.
Given the difficulties of the year — it’s not just that we stayed indoors, but that our entire industry took a year off from the status quo — it makes sense to handle our Film of the Year differently. It was only two years ago we handed our Film of the Year to an outstanding Orson Welles film, The Other Side of the Wind, a project forty years in development, that showed Welles’ unaging prowess. That many years after shooting, his film was still the most modern and compelling of 2018. Then, in 2019, we awarded a film that highlighted the technology of 1930s-1940s lenses. Indeed, Robert Eggers’ phenomenal The Lighthouse showed us how preliminary technology, the kind used to make the first horror pictures, remained the method du jour. Within those two years, we highlighted exactly what it meant, to create ageless pictures. Films that moved like nothing else in their respective years. Throwbacks to better times with endlessly inventive methods for spanning decades of film. For telling us the whole story of what film could be.
Luckily for us, another throwback to another era was released just this year, David Fincher’s Mank. We were lucky it was so easy to eliminate from the process. And so, what else? Women directors owned the year. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow affirmed her position as the preeminent poet of American film. Tenderly, she told a compassionate story, that happened to be about men, in a way no other Western ever has. Along the same path (but not quite the Oregon Trail), Chloé Zhao doubled her reputation as another great cartographer of the American West with Nomadland. Two women, at the absolute peak of their powers, now charged with telling our defining American stories. If we ever have any doubt about the future of cinema, we must check in with them, first.
There is a great shift happening in the cinema of the moment. New voices are making important work in old forms, where it was once only a certain kind of white man. The lack of monolithic entertainment in 2020, while disastrous for the theater industry, has allowed these voices to carry the year. It’s given space in the release schedule. What’s happening is not just the cause of a volatile release environment. It’s a growing trend within the creative space. Black Lives Matter. Black Voices Matter. What a year it has been for diversity in film.
When we boil it down, what has really changed is our means of accessing film. Rather than corporate events for the five-movies-a-year crowd, our once shared spaces have sat empty and dark, while our living rooms poured with light and sound. The context of our experience has dramatically changed. Films have become intensely personal. Experiments in that space, shifting film watching to our small devices, have come and gone (thanks for the memes, Quibi). But our entertainment excursions have become deeply personal. The film space has been caused to catch up with television’s hyper-specific programming, in a very short amount of time.
As our means of access has changed, so have our dialogues. With our individual use cases, we’ve become more interested in the stories of the individual, than of the corporate monopoly. A rise in Documentaries, the most prolific genre of our time, has finally caught up with our culture. There has never been a more grandiose release schedule for the Documentary. Every week there was an intensely personal story or a deep dive into current events. We needed it. When the outside politics became unbearably caustic and fear-based, we turned inward, and personal voices rang out as though it were always the standard. Even our biggest corporation, Disney, in what would be their most interesting release of the year, found Pixar creating their most existential, diverse, and deeply personal work in Soul.
It was not only the context of how we watched movies that changed. What we watched materially changed, too. We returned to the stage. David Byrne returned to the Musical Documentary with Spike Lee’s transcendent American Utopia. It was a brilliant work that, much like Stop Making Sense (1984) before it, understood the music as performance art. It took old songs and made them more inclusive. It took new songs and broadened their historical scope. It was the epitome of the hopefulness and kind of alternative cinema that 2020 will be remembered for.
And then there was Hamilton. Let’s be out with it: Hamilton is our Film of the Year. Like our prior two winners, it returned cinema to its origin points. This time, the stage. An act of theatrical art, Hamilton sang the songs of the people. In a protest year, it was our protest movie. In a year where Black voices most needed to be heard, it sang their songs with passion and vigor. It was the landmark musical that landed in the middle of the pandemic, to a rousing and loving audience. Because its stories, so distinctly important, so timelessly valuable, transcended their medium, too. It gave us what had been the hot-ticket group activity of the prior decade, in our own homes. Hamilton met our means of access. It shifted the industry back to the stage. In total, it’s a significant, and important, work, adapted as it was, for the camera. Because that was the only way it could be.
As we enter 2021, we are not entering with the same indifference. There is a feeling that we are rounding the corner. Our elections have produced different results. Have shown a rising participation in our political process. Have shown that in a time where we’re all tuned in, we also all have something to say about it. And we enter the new year with a new American President. And COVID-19 vaccines. A hope for returning to the theater. We’re not entering 2021 with indifference. After this year-long intermission… let the new decade begin!