During a year like no other, many of us relied on movies and TV shows to escape the grim reality of COVID-19 lockdowns.
As 2020 draws to a close, Cinema & Screen Studies lecturers, Associate Professor Liam Burke, Dr Jessica Balanzategui and Dr Dan Golding look back at the top five film and TV highlights from the year that was.
The Kings, Queens and Crowns of Watercooler TV
Remember the Tiger King era? Early in 2020 we locked down, began sharing sourdough recipes, and became transfixed by oddball Zookeeper Joe Exotic. With so much of 2020 feeling like a slow-moving blur, much of the year can be measured by the watercooler TV series that dominated and demarcated our collective cultural lives.
It wasn’t just Tiger King, either. Throughout 2020, a string of inescapable streaming TV series have taken turns at being “the thing we talk about when aren’t talking pandemics or politics”.
From The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit, to science fiction Fridays, where new instalments of beloved blockbuster franchises Star Wars and Star Trek compete in the form of The Mandalorian and Discovery, 2020 has been a year defined by the TV shows everyone talks about.
Coming to a theatre (very) near you
The most streamed film of 2020 wasn’t a film at all, but a recorded live performance of hit Broadway musical Hamilton on Disney+. Hamilton was to be released in cinemas, but Disney+ changed course in response to the pandemic. Yet, Hamilton’s success indicates that audiences craved a “theatre”-based viewing experience while cinemas were closed during lockdown.
To fill the cinema-going void, new forms of communal and event viewing emerged in 2020. “Watch party” functions became available for Netflix and Disney+, facilitating synchronised viewing accompanied by group chat. Major festivals like the Melbourne International Film Festival pivoted to streaming, maintaining “opening night” features which encouraged viewers to dress up at home and watch together. Pop-up outdoor, rooftop, and drive-in cinemas (and even rooftop drive-ins!) offered socially-distanced ways to go to the movies.
Nice guys finish first
The biggest story in TV comedy for 2020 was undoubtedly Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek, which concluded a historic sweep of the Emmy Awards for its final season. The show won all four acting Emmys, as well as awards for writing, directing and the overall Best Comedy award - a feat never before achieved by a small-screen comedy.
Schitt’s Creek is a wholesome comedy that prioritises character growth and life lessons above cheap and mean jokes, and in this respect it’s simply the best of a recent line of warm-spirited North American sitcoms that includes Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Ted Lasso.
The crises that defined the 20th century saw the entertainment industry double down not on the calamities that audiences were all-too-familiar with, but instead turn to more optimistic, positive, and nostalgic tales. If history is any indication, expect more positivity to follow the year that was 2020.
And the Oscar goes to…Netflix
This year’s favourite to sweep the Oscars, Mank, continues Hollywood’s obsessions with itself. Following in the footsteps of recent movies-about-movies (e.g. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Mank charts the production of what is often described as the “greatest film of all-time”, Citizen Kane. However, the film’s interest in Hollywood goes beyond its subject to recreating the style of 1940s’ cinema with black-and-white photography, a 4:3 aspect ratio, and mono sound. Given this celebration of cinema, it is somewhat surprising that Mank is a Netflix movie.
With COVID-19 closing multiplexes, most of this year’s awards contenders will now be released via Netflix including News of the World, Hillbilly Elegy, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. However, the pandemic has only sped up Netflix’s annexation of cinemas, with the streaming behemoth even courting cinema purist Martin Scorsese with last year’s The Irishman. If Netflix triumphs at this year’s Oscars, the real loser might be cinemas who will struggle to attract audiences in a post-COVID-19 landscape dominated by video-on-demand.
From the monster movies of the Great Depression to the post-9/11 rise of torture porn, the horror genre often flourishes at times of crisis, operating like our collective nightmares. Already, a sub-genre dubbed “Quar-horror” has emerged in response to the pandemic. In 2020, the horror-focused streaming platform Shudder launched in Australia, ensuring we could access the best of “quar-horror.”
The most acclaimed entry into this sub-genre is Shudder original movie Host. Released in July, when many around the world were coming to grips with life in lockdown, Host tapped into our shared fears about the claustrophobia of quarantine. Filmed under strict lockdown conditions in the UK, the film unfolds entirely on Zoom, as six friends decide to try a socially-distanced séance during a video catch-up. Host captures the horror of buffering video calls at a cultural moment when we relied on video-conferencing software for social connection.
Associate Professor Liam Burke, Dr Jessica Balanzategui and Dr Dan Golding are available for media comment. You can also find them on Twitter: @burkeliam, @JKBalanzategui and @dangolding