In a year pandemic-related stay-at-home orders affected millions, a recent Harris Poll survey reported that more Americans now watch streaming services than traditional TV. With 85 percent of U.S. households now subscribed to Netflix, Disney Plus, their rivals, or several, it reveals how this unprecedented year has accelerated trends already in process.
By now, most of the world has been fatigued (if not traumatized) by the pandemic and its related restrictions. As streamers try to capture more viewing time and loyal subscribers, big-budget films formerly planned for theaters have made it to the small screen—including “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max and Pixar’s “Soul” on Disney Plus released this past week.
During New Year’s Eve weekend, much of the nation will face stormy weather while Times Square in New York City is being closed over COVID-19. It looks like another night in. Even if board games or a good book don’t hold interest, no need to re-watch what you’ve already seen. Here are five notable films you may have missed that released this year.
‘Mosul’ (War/Action, TV-MA, 102 minutes)
After conquering the box office with “Avengers: Endgame,” co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo kept getting asked: what will be your next film? The two brothers turned to war thriller “Mosul,” which premiered in November on Netflix.
As they describe it, the true story has long been a passion project: “The Nineveh SWAT Team combed the streets of their broken city searching for loved ones, spending their blood trying to pry their hometown from the deadly grip of ISIS.”
It’s an unflinching, first-person, shaky-camera dramatic war narrative akin to award-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” except this time Iraqis are not terrorists or helpless refugees. They are the protagonists of “Mosul,” Iraqi men who have spent years fighting ISIS to defend their families. In a story that depicts one front in complex, years-long Mideast conflicts, the Nineveh SWAT Team goes block-by-block to clear their cherished city of hidden enemies.
‘Enola Holmes’ (Mystery/Dramedy, PG-13, 123 minutes)
Families found the top streaming service a decidedly mixed bag this year, with French documentary “Cuties” creating an uproar and other titles like “The Baby-Sitters Club” revealing conflicts over values. For those who stuck with Netflix for “The Crown,” “The English Game,” or other quality dramas, fast-paced family film “Enola Holmes” offers a smart, classy mystery that follows the first case of Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister.
It turns out the fictional detective’s sibling is equally good at solving puzzles and detecting the smallest of clues. Like the novel it’s based on, the film takes liberties with the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and casts the pair’s mother as a suffragette organizer. Watch for “Enola Holmes” cast members Millie Bobby Brown (“Stranger Things”), Helena Bonham Carter (“The King’s Speech“), and Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel”) to reportedly return for several sequels.
On Disney Plus
‘Clouds’ (Family Drama, PG-13, 123 minutes)
In a year of hard losses for many families, inspirational film “Clouds,” which deals honestly with grief and the will to live, has helped millions of viewers. It recounts the true story of Minnesota teen Zach Sobiech, who takes up songwriting after receiving a terminal diagnosis and sees his songs top the global iTunes charts. His mother Laura was closely involved in helping craft this biopic, and their Midwest town has rallied around the family.
Director Justin Baldoni, a practicing Baháʼí believer, sought to accurately portray the Christian core of the Sobiechs’ story, including miraculous aspects of their journey. “Life is going to be hard,” he told me in an interview. “But, ultimately, all of us have a choice: Can we find hope and light in the darkness? To think, contemplate, and meditate on mortality is to ask ourselves how we want to live and how we want to spend our time.”
‘Hamilton’ (Musical, PG-13, 160 minutes)
Winner of 11 Tony Awards and even the Pulitzer Prize, unconventional musical “Hamilton” ran for only 18 months at two New York City theaters with its original cast. Considering tickets cost hundreds or (in some cases) thousands of dollars, only a select few Broadway fans ever saw it live, although millions made the cast album a best-seller. Even touring versions sold out.
With theaters shuttered this year, Disney worked with producers to move up the streaming release to July 3. Fans could only quote a song lyric: “How lucky we are to be alive right now.”
This taped Broadway performance of “Hamilton” has been among 2020’s most-watched films. However, some viewers unfamiliar with the hit soundtrack did not immediately connect with the music, driven by a variety of hip-hop styles along with traditional show tunes. Those who delved into the historic events behind “Hamilton,” as well as producers’ reasons for their creative choices (as recounted in a companion documentary), have come to appreciate this musical as a celebration of the American founding.
In Limited Release
‘Minari’ (Family Drama, PG-13, 115 minutes)
Currently playing in select theaters, this drama that earned top honors at Sundance has significant Oscars buzz. Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung adapts his life story in “Minari,” named for an edible Korean herb that can grow in any environment. It follows an immigrant family, led by a determined patriarch portrayed by Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”), who move to rural Arkansas to start a farm and improve their lives together.
This story of living the American dream avoids clichés with well-rounded family relationships—between father and son, husband and wife, and mother and grandmother. Residents in their rural community stumble over some cross-cultural interactions, but also help the family out during various trials.
Eye-opening and intimate, “Minari” presents a cinematic experience rarely seen in Hollywood, affirming the value of fighting for one’s family. It opens in February in wide release.