2020 may not have had many open cinemas, but Netflix delivered with some incredible original movie content, including some genuine Oscar contenders…
In a world robbed of the theatrical experience, Netflix (and the other so-called streaming giants) have been a haven for film-makers and film fans, and there have been some incredible releases throughout 2020. While binge-worthy TV shows are still Netflix’s most easily marketable commodity, the original movies catalog is being asked to do more heavy lifting with other platforms taking their stock back. It might be expensive, but Netflix has a model to combat that, bringing in big names, emerging talents, and bankable brands.
While some movies that found their way to streaming platforms out of necessity or desperation that has now defined an entire model of release for 2021, Netflix’s originals were already targeted to release direct to homes. Their achievements in film-making this year – which should warrant at least a handful of awards nominations (should the awards even happen in a traditional sense) – stand as validation to the countless millions pumped into buying up the works of the likes of David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, and Adam Sandler (some more than others). The company has offered hugely popular comedies (no mean feat in 2020) alongside action movies outside of huge franchises (again, a huge achievement)
The question, as with most things at the end of any year – but particularly one that so readily invites a deep breath and a stocktaking – is which of Netflix’s movies were the best of 2020. And considering how much money the company pumped into original content for the past twelve months, the deal-makers can certainly be proud of the filmic fruits of their labor, ranging from a breezy Europhile comedy through to genuine Oscar contenders and franchise starters.
- Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
While lots of the year’s biggest and best Netflix movies took a far more serious line, Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams’ Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a triumph of completely opposing markers. Ferrell often gets accused of losing his grip on comedy, but Eurovision strikes the right chords, seeking to victimize nobody and absolutely understanding the affection behind the cult of Europe’s often baffling obsession. It’s silly, admittedly, but there’s a lot of heart beneath the surface, both in how it celebrates the great competition – which it was supposed to release alongside in May – and also in the central friendship and romance between Ferrell and McAdams’ characters. Perhaps a little over-long, Eurovision might well be one of the most misunderstood movies of the year, whose gentler approach combined with some great musical set-pieces to make for a disarmingly charming experience.
- The Trial Of The Chicago 7
It should go without saying, by now, that Aaron Sorkin knows how to craft a compelling tale, and when he’s dealing with real-world material with considerable weight behind it, the master writer turned director dials up his characteristic deftness of touch. There are, somewhat inevitably, creative liberties taken in the name of story-telling – Sorkin, after all, is no documentarian – but almost everything is in service to crafting a message that resonates with modern audiences. That does come with the unfortunate trade-off in how Bobby Seale’s defiant stand against corruption and racism is depicted (as he’s too easily silenced compared to the true story), but generally speaking, most of the changes to the real Chicago 7 story are defendable. The cast – amassing an eye-watering pile of talent including Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langhella and Mark Rylance among others – is stunning and the performances great, and the true testament to its success is that is remarkably restrained in the face of what must have been the irresistible potential for Sorkin to really let fly.
- The Old Guard
Netflix has a particularly strong recent track record in action movies, perhaps buoyed by how well even the less impressively crafted ones (like the passable Ava) tend to do with their audience and The Old Guard was a real stand-out. Based on Greg Rucka’s comic and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the Netflix original took what amounted to a particularly high-concept conceit – the idea of immortal mercenaries hunted as test subjects – and made it feel impressively grounded. That was largely thanks to the relatable performances of the cast (and Charlize Theron in particular) and the accessibility of hating the villain (played by Harry Melling). The Old Guard impressed most in its action sequences, which were hard-hitting and imaginative, but there’s also a lot to be said for the movie’s commitment to the kind of diversity in gender and sexuality of its heroes that the MCU and DCEU should be envious of. That it managed to so openly set up a sequel without it feeling cynical is testament to how welcome a return for these characters will be.
- I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman has rather a knack for constructing narratives that invite the audience to get completely lost in his characters’ psyches. In I’m Thinking Of Ending Things he once more deftly navigates the problems of the human condition in a deeply, troublingly relatable fashion while also meandering through fantasy and magical realism. As usual, he plays with the idea of not only the unreliable narrator but also the unreliable narrative, making a movie that is, somewhat inevitably, conventionally “strange” and which challenges the audience to even understanding at times, let alone interpret it, but as with all Kaufman projects, there’s an element in I’m Thinking Of Ending Things that actually celebrates the lack of meaning. Memory is not to be trusted, as ever, and as such, it’s a challenging experience, but it’s not without merit or reward and it’s another Kaufman film that absolutely necessitates multiple watches. Just perhaps not all in close proximity.
- Enola Holmes
Sherlock Holmes exists in that special artistic space of being so familiar that the simple image of a hat or a pipe is immediately evocative of him and yet manages to avoid outstaying his welcome despite countless adaptations. But it was definitely time for the equally countless attempts to reinterpret Holmes to stand aside for a whole and allow for something different and Netflix managed that feat impressively this year with Enola Holmes. Perfectly cast in all four of the lead roles (and with a special nod to Louis Partridge as Tewkesbury), Enola Holmes is a vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown to explore the outer limits of her brother Sherlock’s story and the idea he might not be entirely infallible. Buoyed by a defiant but never annoying obstinance, the movie feels both nostalgic and revisionist, and positively drips with teenage appeal, given its celebration of the unexpected and the written-off. It is also unafraid of casting Henry Cavill as a truer picture of Sherlock Holmes – eccentric but something of a rogue when it comes to his familial duties, even if it rather undersells Holmes’ usually relatable weaknesses. The central mystery could have been developed better – especially since one strand of it is seemingly forgotten as soon as a more interesting side story takes central focus – but this was a strong start to what should be a franchise.
- His House
A decade ago, Javier Bardem’s Biutiful offered an all-too-rare cross-section of the immigrant experience and horror, but Alejandro González Iñárritu’s drama was more contemplative than frightening and the scares were infrequent as a result. Jump forward to 2020 and Remi Weekes’ His House takes things far further, telling the other side of the story, of refugees trying to integrate into a new land that isn’t necessarily welcoming, with the shouting allegory of a haunted house thrown into the mix to spell-binding effect. Using more conventional scare methods, Weekes tells the refugee story, cleverly drawing parallels between the “debt” the night witch demands of central pair Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu) and the cost of attempting to find a life of safety. Horror has always been political, but here it speaks its politics particularly loudly, offering a haunting backstory that is terrifying on its own but twisting it with a horror twine that magnifies the power and the impact. The ending isn’t quite up to the standards of the rest of it, but as a debut, it’s a stunning example of what Remi Weekes could go on to do. And kudos to Netflix for helping bring that talent to its deserved audience.
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Because of the devastating tragedy of Chadwick Boseman’s death, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was given a subtitle it was never intended to be marketed with: the final performance of a truly great actor robbed of his chance to show the limits of his potential. But the movie soars under its own power even without the invitation to watch and celebrate Boseman, because alongside his typically great performance is another by Viola Davis as the titular Ma Rainey in this adaptation of August Wilson’s play. Netflix picked up the rights as part of a bumper package for producer Denzel Washington, who is set to make more Wilson adaptations (having already made Fences, of course) and for their money got a captivating consideration of black culture and the ownership of art and music and culture more broadly. The story zips and darts in places and swells grandly in others, like the jazz at its heart and it is a fitting tribute to Wilson’s original text. Boseman and Davis will both, rightly, received awards attention, and Boseman’s performance, in particular, will likely dominate that conversation because the surprisingly dark turn (at least at the end) stands as a monument to everything he was and could have been further.
- Da 5 Bloods
In someone else’s hands, Da 5 Bloods could well have been an over-blown Expendables-type exercise in redundant gunslingers coating themselves in nostalgic grease and fighting back against their own irrelevance, but with Spike Lee in charge, it was far more meditative. That is by no means a suggestion that Lee was in any way blunted in his post-war story-telling, because Da 5 Bloods still packs in a lot of action, but it does so in a far more clever, far more nuanced way, dispensing with the idea of de-aging its stars to have them relive their painful memories as they are in the modern day – a creative choice that hauntingly doubles down on the idea of the perpetual, unshifting nature of trauma. Lee, inevitably, uses his platform to talk up black experiences – particularly relevant to the Vietnam War’s double-layered politics – but he ties it into an almost B-movie-like frame with more frenetic, caustic energy than his usual joints. Because of how Lee uses memory, it’s somewhat self-consciously messy, but where it stands firm is in the beautiful, unwittingly prophetic memorialization of Chadwick Boseman’s mythology and in Delroy Lindo’s stunning, unraveling performance that manages to feel like a one-man stage show reflecting on traumatic memories. To achieve that in an ensemble is incredibly impressive.
Given that it charts the genesis of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, David Fincher’s Mank is, fittingly, a labor of love that isn’t for all people. It is also the perfect advert for Netflix’s more auteur focused programming because Fincher’s take on the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz and how it entwined with the murky underbelly of Hollywood’s kingmakers was never going to be a populist movie, but its quality proves it deserved to be made. Far from the overt love letter to Hollywood it has so bafflingly been labelled at times, Mank is more in line with how The Artist painted Tinseltown, only with a rather less romantic sheen. Everyone is a monster, including the ones we’re supposed to admire, and Gary Oldman’s wise old owl who witnesses what he believes ought to be the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah (but which defiantly prove otherwise) is far from a saint himself. Oldman is, of course, great as Mank, Amanda Seyfried is incredible as Marion Davies, Arliss Howard is unsettlingly good as Louis B Meyer and Tom Burke saunters in every now and then as a captivating Orson Welles so perfectly observed you’d think it was a hologram. The whole thing is slow but satisfying without ever trying to really offer a money shot and is a triumph of observation, as you’d expect from Fincher.
- The Boys In The Band
Rather unfairly over-looked in comparison to some of the other biggest Netflix original releases of 2020, this Ryan Murphy-produced adaptation of the firebrand (and deeply controversial) stageplay of the same name by Matt Crowley is a stunning achievement in historical cinema snapshotting. Though the cast – topped by the way-better-than-just-Sheldon Jim Parsons – is modern, the aesthetic is drenched in its late 1960s setting and there is a turbulent vibrance to its portrait of life just on the wrong side of an LGBTQ awakening. The Boys In The Band has, in previous versions, caught attention for seemingly reveling in the use of dangerous, reductive, and bigoted language, but it is a reclamation, and Joe Mantello’s film counts for that doubly, since the play was originally cast-off as irrelevant in the new progressive LGBTQ movement and this feels like a reminder of its magnitude.
Parsons is excellent as the fragile but incredibly volatile Michael, Zachary Quinto is mesmerizing as the guest of honor Harold, and both Robin de Jesús and Michael Benjamin Washington deserve further accolades for their performances as the effeminate Emery and Bernard, whose journey includes dealing with racial prejudice on top of homophobia. Bold enough to reclaim some of the stereotypes used to bludgeon queer people in the arts and never afraid of exploring the characters’ flaws through the lens of what their suppression in society has turned them into at their worst, The Boys In The Band deserves credit as the best of Netflix’s 2020 crop.