The coronavirus pandemic has had quite a few effects on the movie business, even beyond the obvious ones of movie theaters closing, the delays of major blockbusters, film festivals going virtual, and film culture suddenly becoming centered on streaming.
This strange year has led to another anomaly that’s been talked about much less: The Oscar eligibility window has been extended by two months, to the end of February. Yes, most years we get movies that come out on one screen in New York and L.A. in December, for awards reasons, before rolling out to the rest of the country in January.
This year, though, has been completely different. With the 2020 “Oscar season” continuing into one-sixth of the way into 2021, there’s a whole 60-day period in which movies with serious ambitions are coming out every day — when most years, January and February are the most boring months of the movie calendar.
This year’s rules have created a weird, 60-day interregnum, in which a couple of dozen films of consequence have been released that are sort of 2020 movies
It’s been weird for critics, as most of us made our top ten lists at some point in December with numerous movies still unseen, while most critics groups handed out their awards a couple of months ago as well. We get weird moments like one of the best movies of 2020 being seen by the public, for the first time, at the Sundance Film Festival on February 1, 2021.
But even if you’re not a critic, this year’s rules have created a weird, 60-day interregnum, in which a couple of dozen films of consequence have been released that are sort of 2020 movies, and sort of 2021 movies. And it’s only going to get more confusing, especially when 2021 ends and us critics are going to have to decide whether movies from that limbo will count towards our best-of-2021 lists.
Here are some of the notable movies that have arrived during the Great Movie Limbo of 2020/2021:
Judas and the Black Messiah
If Judas and the Black Messiah had come out on its original release date in late August, I think it probably would have been the consensus choice for best movie of the year, and emerged as the Best Picture frontrunner.
The film, from a director — Shaka King — so obscure he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, is a brilliantly rendered telling of the life and death of Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panthers leader who was killed by Chicago police at the age of 21 in 1969. And as the film convincingly argues, his death was essentially engineered by the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.
Judas and the Black Messiah did not show at any fall festivals, and it premiered on February 1 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was a late addition to the lineup. But the reception at Sundance was rapturous, and the film can now be viewed by all on HBO Max.
The film had an even longer and stranger journey. It premiered at Cannes in May of 2019, showed at Telluride and Toronto that year, and then showed at Sundance in 2020. It was set for theatrical release in March of 2020, but the pandemic scuttled that and multiple other release dates throughout 2020, until it got a brief theatrical bow right at the end of the year, before its VOD release in early January.
But it’s an absolute gem of a comedy/drama. The film was directed by Michael Angelo Covino and starred Covino and Kyle Marvin, who also wrote the script together. It depicts several years in the life of an extremely toxic friendship between two men, one which has adverse effects on their families, the women in their lives and themselves.
It’s frequently hilarious, and on a different wavelength than most comedies I’ve seen. It’s now streaming for rental on most VOD channels.
Director Chloe Zhao‘s film, about a subculture of older people who travel the country in trailers, showed at festivals throughout the fall of 2020; I saw it at the Philadelphia Film Festival, at a drive-in screening that was very much the wrong venue for a film like this.
The film, beautiful and awful heartbreaking, features memorable performances from Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, and a group of nonprofessional actors.
Even though Nomadland hasn’t been released yet, and won’t be until it gets a simultaneous bow on Hulu and in theaters on February 19, it was rightly recognized as one of the best films of 2020, winning multiple critics group awards and getting a Best Picture nomination from the Golden Globes.
Malcolm & Marie
Most of the films on the list were shot before the pandemic, but Malcolm & Marie was made during it, with the advantage of a skeleton crew and a cast of just two people, John David Washington and Zendaya. The film, directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, consists entirely of the two of them, a movie director and his young girlfriend, arguing over the course of a long night.
Film Twitter hates this movie with the fire of a thousand sons. I haven’t seen this kind of anger from that crowd about a film probably since Green Book. Levinson is widely seen as an arrogant nepotism case who’s putting his own complaints in the actors’ mouths.
But I liked it more than most, as I was happy with both the look of the film and the two performances. And I saw it something of a satire of Hollywood arrogance, rather than signing on to it full-throatily.
Malcolm & Marie debuted on Netflix at the start of February.
This is a gorgeous coming of age film, with director Lee Isaac Chung telling the story of his own family, which came to America from Korea and arrived not in a big city but rather in rural Arkansas, where they sought to grow produce. The film stars The Walking Dead alum Steven Yeun, South Korean legend Youn Yuh-jung and scene-stealing kid Alan Kim.
Minari, an A24 film, debuted at Sundance in 2020, and I saw it last fall at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Like Nomadland, it got on lots of top ten lists and critics groups awards roll calls, even though it’s not coming out in the U.S. until February 12. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film, even though it’s set entirely in the United States.
The World to Come
The third period lesbian romance of the last year-plus, The World to Come, directed by Mona Fastvold, tells the story of two neighboring 19th-century couples (played by Christopher Abbott, Katherine Waterston, Casey Affleck, and Vanessa Kirby), whose feud is complicated when the two women fall in love with each other.
While the performances are strong, I found the film low-key to the point of complete inertia. It’s no Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and it’s barely even an Ammonite.
I did like the poster, though, featuring the two men looking morose at the realization that the women are kissing each other instead of them.
The World to Come, filmed pre-pandemic, played at Venice and got acquired by Bleeker Street last fall, and was another 2020 movie that played at Sundance in 2021. It comes out Friday in limited theaters, with a VOD release to follow March 2.
Director Azazel Jacobs‘ film, starring Michelle Pfieffer in her most acclaimed performance in quite some time, debuted last fall at the New York Film Festival. It starred Pfieffer as a supposedly rich woman who flees to Paris with her son (Lucas Hedges) when she discovers she’s actually out of money. I was with it until the part where her dead husband takes on the body of a cat.
The latest release plan for this one was that it will open in New York and LA on the originally announced release date of February 12, with the wide release set for April. It’s still Oscar-eligible, though, even though momentum seems to have stalled.
I never knew a movie about farm animals could be so captivating, especially without all of the usual crutches. There’s no celebrity narration, no soaring music, and really no nothing at all-just a pig, cows, and a chicken. The director is Viktor Kossakovsky, but the only big name in the cast who isn’t a pig or cow is executive producer Joaquin Phoenix.
Gunda debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in early 2020, and the New York Film Festival in the fall, and then had a “one week virtual run” in New York and Los Angeles in December, thanks to NEON. The press release at the time said it would come out on “big screens everywhere in 2021.”
This Russian film, capably telling the story of the Soviet massacre of a workers strike at the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant in 1962, was directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, and it was shortlisted for the Best International Film Oscar, as Russia’s entry.
The film played at festivals throughout 2020, winning the Special Jury Prize at Venice last fall. While it opened theatrically in Russia last fall and while it was nominally attached to distributor NEON, it made its U.S. debut on Hulu last week.
Well, not every movie of the limbo period is notable for good reasons. Music, directed by singer Sia, stars Maddie Ziegler as an autistic teenager and Kate Hudson as the addict half-sister who becomes her unlikely guardian.
This film, which was shot back in 2017, was notorious for two reasons before anyone had seen it: It casts a non-autistic performer (Ziegler) as an autistic teenager, which by newish but understandable norms, is a no-no. Also, the film, which even those who follow awards season closely had barely heard of, was nominated for Golden Globes Best Picture and Best Actress.
It’s an extremely bad film, just off the charts in its badness, between Ziegler’s over-grinning and bug-eyed imitation of an autistic person, and the weird and overlong musical interludes. If you have to choose this weekend between Music and Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s not a hard choice.