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Arts and Culture

What 2020 Was Like For The Movie Industry

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hollywood has never had a year like 2020. Box office revenues are down 80%. And nine months after the pandemic closed the nation's cinemas, most still aren't open. While critic Bob Mondello can't offer his usual 22 best list, he still has some favorites. It's just that, like everything this year, they come with an asterisk.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Last year, the film industry set global box office records. In 2020, it's been struggling so much that observers pin nearly all their hopes for a year-end rescue on Wonder Woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: This new program will be a lifeline.

MONDELLO: What? Senator Amy Klobuchar is not the Wonder Woman you were expecting? Come on. It's been a tough year. That's her on the Senate floor, describing the $15 billion that Congress reserved for cultural organizations in last week's relief bill before her storyline's supervillain called it a disgrace; dollars to help arts and entertainment venues survive a pandemic that's made toxic their very reason for being - people sitting elbow-to-elbow in an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KLOBUCHAR: We have worked with the museums and with the zoos, as well as the movie theaters. We wanted to make sure...

MONDELLO: The National Association of Theatre Owners fought hard to be included in that grouping. Many of its members have had to remain closed since March. Chris Escobar, who has scrambled to keep Atlanta's Plaza Theatre open with everything from checkerboard seating patterns to inflatable screens in parking lots, is frustrated but philosophical.

CHRIS ESCOBAR: There's a great meme that said, well, at least there's light at the end of the tunnel and then cuts to the end of the tunnel, and it's Darth Vader with a lightsaber.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTSABER)

MONDELLO: The problem is not just that movie studios started releasing films on streaming services or that audiences are nervous about attending. It's that social distancing protocols so radically reduce his theater's capacity that he can't make money.

ESCOBAR: Best-case scenario, a full auditorium is going to be (laughter), you know, 30% full.

MONDELLO: I asked whether folks might be less anxious about attending if they knew how socially distant things are inside; that theaters midweek can be like ghost towns, playing to just a patron or two per auditorium.

ESCOBAR: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. That's literally true for us. There's more people on the sidewalk.

MONDELLO: Getting them to come inside may take time. Escobar guesses that the first signs of cinematic life getting back to normal could conceivably be May. But...

ESCOBAR: Even after majority of folks have had the vaccine, there's still going to be a sort of a gun shyness.

MONDELLO: Which is to say people being uncomfortable in close proximity indoors after months of being told it's not safe.

ESCOBAR: There's the difference between when can people do it and when will people do it. And I think there's going to be a lag.

MONDELLO: So the COVID relief bill's cash is needed, as that tunnel with Darth Vader at the end feels longer than ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTSABER)

ESCOBAR: I honestly think it's going to be well into 2022 before revenues and consumer habits will be back on track of where it was in January of 2020.

MONDELLO: Studio release calendars bear that out. All the big special effects blockbusters have delayed their openings, with the exception of "Wonder Woman 1984," which - to the distress of theater owners - is simultaneously streaming.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WONDER WOMAN 1984")

PEDRO PASCAL: (As Maxwell Lord) Well, aren't you resourceful? Remove this woman, please. Permanently.

MONDELLO: By contrast, all the franchise films in the Disney pipeline are delayed - Marvel, Star Wars, Avatar - each installment with the potential to be a billion-dollar smash in multiplexes, so not good candidates for immediate streaming.

But with blockbusters sidelined, something had to step up. And what did, oddly enough, is a form even more endangered than movies - live theater, star-studded adaptations of Broadway hits, including two that would make my 10 best list in most any year. So let's stop talking business and start talking art and 2020's best films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, singing) I am not throwing away my shot.

MONDELLO: Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" was sitting on the Disney shelf when the pandemic hit; ready to go, but in no rush because the stage version was still playing to standing-room-only crowds. With Broadway shut down, bringing out the movie almost seemed a public service, especially as the film version was the stage version shot in the Richard Rodgers Theater, with the camera swooping in for intimate close-ups that no fifth-row seat could match.

Director Spike Lee did something similar for "David Byrne's American Utopia."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

DAVID BYRNE: Who we are extends beyond ourselves.

MONDELLO: "American Utopia" was a staged Broadway concert that gained heft and substance in making the jump to film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Burning down the house.

MONDELLO: If those two were essentially theatrical performances brought to the screen, four other terrific films this year were about performance; specifically, about making music. In the black and white comedy, "Forty-Year-Old Version," Radha Blank envisions a new career at midlife.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION")

RADHA BLANK: (As Radha) Think about me doing hip-hop.

PETER KIM: (As Archie) Doing what to it?

BLANK: (As Radha) I want to make a mix tape.

KIM: (As Archie) We are not in high school. We are almost 40.

BLANK: (As Radha) I found this producer on Instagram.

KIM: (As Archie) Oh, my Jesus.

BLANK: (As Radha) He doesn't take calls. I think you just show up with a bag of weed or something like that...

MONDELLO: Her new career path is not smooth. But she encounters nothing like the obstacles facing a drummer who loses his hearing in "Sound Of Metal."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF METAL")

RIZ AHMED: (As Ruben) I can't hear you, do you understand me? I can't - I'm deaf. I'm deaf.

MONDELLO: Actor Riz Ahmed learned to drum and to sign to play the lead in "Sound Of Metal," a story of loss that leads to growth.

Loss also figures in Pixar's "Soul," in which Jamie Foxx voices a jazz pianist. But the film's real magic lies in its devotion to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL")

JAMIE FOXX: (As Joe) It's like he's - it's like he's singing. And I swear, the next thing I know, it's like he floats off the stage. That guy was lost in the music. He was in it, and he took the rest of us with him.

MONDELLO: I have to imagine that millions of children will emerge from "Soul" infatuated with jazz.

Their parents will emerge from "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" infatuated with the blues and with two of the year's powerhouse performances - Viola Davis, as the blues singing title character...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Ma Rainey, singing) I want to see that dance they call the black bottom.

They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.

MONDELLO: ...And the late Chadwick Boseman, heartbreakingly alive as Ma's trumpet player.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Levee) If my daddy had of known I was going to turn out like this, he would have named me Gabriel.

COLMAN DOMINGO, GLYNN TURMAN AND MICHAEL POTTS: (As Cutler, Toldeo, and Slow Drag) Oh (laughter).

MONDELLO: All six of those movies are streamable, having arrived after the coronavirus closed theaters. But a few films made it into cinemas before the pandemic and are worth seeking out. The tragedy "Beanpole," about a Russian woman in a wrenching situation right after World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Ken Loach's British drama, "Sorry We Missed You," about a London family in crisis after dad takes a job as a delivery driver.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SORRY WE MISSED YOU")

KRIS HITCHEN: (As Ricky) You're just going to end up like...

RHYS STONE: (As Seb) Like you?

DEBBIE HONEYWOOD: (As Abbie) Seb.

STONE: (As Seb) Do you really think I want that?

HITCHEN: (As Ricky) I'm doing me best, Seb.

STONE: (As Seb) Well, your best isn't good enough, is it?

MONDELLO: For a lighter look at the stresses of capitalism, there's Kelly Reichardt's frontier tale, "First Cow," about a baker whose cakes become the hit of the Oregon territory after he starts stealing milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Good Lord. Give me another.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'll give you six ingots for that last one.

TOBY JONES: (As Chief Factor) I taste London in this cake.

MONDELLO: Also resourceful? Frances McDormand in "Nomadland," as a widow roaming the southwest in her van after suffering financial setbacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) My mom said that you're homeless. Is that true?

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Fern) No, I'm not homeless. I'm just houseless.

MONDELLO: McDormand is resolute, strong and haunting in "Nomadland," while the houseless hero of "The Personal History Of David Copperfield" is resolute, strong and a hoot. The film is cross-cultural, directed by the creator of "Veep" and led by Dev Patel, who turns out to be an absolutely ideal Dickensian leading man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

DEV PATEL: (As David Copperfield) What are you doing?

TILDA SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) Medicine. Reviving you.

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) This is salad dressing.

SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) Is it? Thought it was Armagnac. Don't have my spectacles on.

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) Do you have a lettuce somewhere covered in ointment?

MONDELLO: No idea how many movies that is, but except for "Nomadland," which comes out in February, they're all streamable right now. Considering the kind of year it's been, it's a pretty robust list. Here's hoping 2021 will be better still and will find us all back at the multiplex.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.