Year In Review: Movie hits and flops of 2020

Teng Yong Ping
·Lifestyle Editor
·8 min read

SINGAPORE — It hasn’t been a pretty year for cinema. The COVID-19 coronavirus shut down theatres and many movies were delayed way past their original release dates. But as the dust settles on 2020, it’s time to judge the films that studios and streaming platforms decided to release this year. There were hits, and there were flops – and not all movies that bombed could be blamed on the pandemic. Let’s take a look at what entertained or moved us, and what made us want to throw our popcorn at the screen.

The Hits

Bad Boys For Life

Bad Boys For Life was released in January. Yeah, remember that time, like a distant memory now, before COVID-19 caused cinemas to close for months? The action film starring Will Smith is the only film this year to gross over US$200 million, harkening back to what made the ’90s franchise work.

That self-awareness, coupled with lively humour and passable set pieces, make this long-delayed third franchise entry a modest surprise, suggesting there's still some life left in its '90s-era brand of goofy banter and chaotic gunfights. — The Daily Beast

Will Smith as Detective Mike Lowrey and Martin Lawrence as Detective Marcus Burnett in Bad Boys for Life.
Will Smith as Detective Mike Lowrey and Martin Lawrence as Detective Marcus Burnett in Bad Boys for Life.

The Trial Of The Chicago 7

This Netflix courtroom drama by Aaron Sorkin exposing the fallacies of the justice system has a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding it. It’s also one of a few films in this list that was released on a streaming service and not in theatres.

Sorkin's latest directorial is timely, engaging and undeniably thought-provoking. It is also spectacularly acted across the board. — MovieFreak.com

The Trial of the Chicago 7. Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Cr. Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020
The Trial of the Chicago 7. Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Cr. Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm

Sacha Baron Cohen reprised his satirical Kazakh character, Borat, 14 years after the first Borat film – presumably he felt that the surreal political climate was ripe for another unforgiving skewering of American culture. The semi-unscripted comedy, which pulled pranks on unsuspecting non-actors, had an immediate real-world impact after it caught top Trump aide, Rudy Giuliani, in a sexually compromising situation on film.

Maria Bakalova is terrific in it, but the difference I think between the first film and this is that it's hard to do Borat stuff in a world where reality – forgive the expression – "trumps" drama. — FilmWeek

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat in Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm.
Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat in Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm.

Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train

Who would have thought that a shonen anime about demon slayers would topple Spirited Away’s box office records in Japan? Perhaps the Japanese were starved for a good movie after cinemas were closed for months because of COVID-19. The film covers the Mugen Train arc of the manga series on which the anime series is adapted from. It’s currently progressively screening across Asia.

First things first – the action is spectacular... the movie is really all about Rengoku... the character slowly builds a connection with you without you even realising it. The eventual (but slightly predictable) payoff is worth it though, because the climax of his character journey is a powerful one. — Yahoo Lifestyle SEA

Kamado Nezuko in Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train. (Movie still: Odex)
Kamado Nezuko in Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train. (Movie still: Odex)

Tiong Bahru Social Club

Director Tan Bee Thiam’s Tiong Bahru Social Club was one of the few Singaporean films to screen in cinemas amid the pandemic – and what a breath of fresh air it was. The quirky indie film, which has received festival circuit attention, provides laughs for local audiences while tackling a subject that affects all modern societies.

Tiong Bahru Social Club is a funny and light-hearted satire that both serves as a cautionary fable about the dangers of integrating artificial intelligence into our lives, as well as a tribute to the historic Singaporean districts which form the settings for the film. — Yahoo Lifestyle SEA

Tiong Bahru Social Club is a satire that follows the story of Ah Bee, who goes on a comedic odyssey through Tiong Bahru Social Club, a data-driven project to create the happiest neighbourhood in the world.  Written by Tan and Antti Toivonen, the film is inspired by the cosy, happiness-inducing feeling of the iconic neighbourhood. According to director Tan Bee Thiam, the whimsical film is a stylised love letter to the neighbourhood and its striking art-deco architecture and communal feel.  Starring award-winning local actors Thomas Pang, Goh Guat Kian, Jalyn Han, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jo Tan and Munah Bagharib, the film’s quirky flavour comes from an eclectic team coming together. The striking cinematography and art direction are by Looi Wan Ping and James Page, who have worked on numerous internationally acclaimed Singaporean movies.  (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)
Goh Guat Kian and Thomas Pang in Tiong Bahru Social Club. (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)

Dear Tenant

LGBTQ tearjerker Dear Tenant received three Golden Horse awards — Best Actor for Mo Tzu-yi, Best Supporting Actress for Chen Shu-fang and Best Original Film Score. Director Cheng Yu-chieh said in an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle SEA, “I made this film for all the people in society who carry on loving, and are determined to love, despite facing a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding from others.”

Dear Tenant is a must-watch... the film filled with dilemmas is thought-provoking and tear-inducing. But above it all, it is the bittersweet fatherly love that triumphs. — Yahoo Lifestyle SEA

Taiwanese LGBTQ film Dear Tenant by director Cheng Yu-chieh revolves around the unusual but moving relationship between Jian-yi (Mo Tzu-yi) and his “adopted” son (Pai Jun-yin) in the form of his dead partner’s child, You-yu. Jian-yi faces homophobic discrimination as he is investigated for the death of You-yu's grandmother, Hsiu-yu (Chen Shu-fang). (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)
Taiwanese LGBTQ film Dear Tenant by director Cheng Yu-chieh revolves around the unusual but moving relationship between Jian-yi (Mo Tzu-yi) and his “adopted” son (Pai Jun-yin) in the form of his dead partner’s child, You-yu. Jian-yi faces homophobic discrimination as he is investigated for the death of You-yu's grandmother, Hsiu-yu (Chen Shu-fang). (Photo: Golden Village Pictures)

The Flops

Dolittle

Coming straight after Robert Downey Jr’s swan song as Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame, Dolittle, produced by the star himself, has a paltry score of 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. It has loads of impressive CGI talking animals voiced by a star-studded cast, but critics panned the fantasy flick for its jumbled story and stale humour.

An awkward, unwieldy movie that has lots of material to show you and lots of surface distractions, but nothing at all to say. — Times (UK)

Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. John Dolittle, and the animals in Dolittle.
Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. John Dolittle, and the animals in Dolittle.

Tenet

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which cost US$200 million, was the first big-budget film that dared to brave COVID-19 restrictions with a theatrical release while many cinemas were closed. The bold move didn’t pay off – it’s lost between US$50 million and US$100 million, when global marketing costs are factored in. Its box office failure can’t be fully attributed to cinema restrictions – the film’s ambitious mind-boggling palindromic plot was designed to demand repeat viewings just to figure out what the hell happens in the movie.

Maybe you could follow what is happening if you wrote it all down on a flow chart with circles and arrows and multiple coloured inks, but it wouldn't be worth the effort - and that's hard to do in a dark movie theatre. – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

John David Washington as the unnamed Protagonist in Tenet.
John David Washington as the unnamed Protagonist in Tenet.

The New Mutants

This X-Men spin-off, featuring five young mutants just discovering their abilities, scored only 33% on Rotten Tomatoes. It squandered the talents of a cast that includes Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) and Maisie Williams (Game Of Thrones) with a weak storyline and confused concept.

We get a partial horror film without the scares and a partial coming-of-age story without the heart. – SciFiNow

The young meta-humans in The New Mutants.
The young meta-humans in The New Mutants.

Mulan

This highly anticipated blockbuster may have recouped its US$200 million budget for Disney, even though it was released straight to streaming, albeit with a hefty US$30 fee (it was still screened in theatres in markets without Disney+). But it can be termed a flop in a few ways. The story featured tropes that are alien to Chinese culture – qi isn’t gendered and the Chinese phoenix doesn’t rise from ashes like its Western counterpart! There was also a huge political brouhaha when it was revealed that large parts of the film was shot in Xinjiang in collaboration with the provincial government there, who has been accused of genocidal practices targeting the Uighur population in the region. Not cool, Disney.

Who would’ve thought that an all-Asian cast could feel so disappointing on racial representation? – Mediaversity

PHOTO: (Screenshot of 'Mulan')
PHOTO: (Screenshot of 'Mulan')

The Diam Diam Era

As is Jack Neo’s style, Diam Diam is not so much a movie, rather than a collection of loosely connected skits with no coherent storyline. It’s essentially an outlet for the director to rant at the Singapore government’s policies to downgrade the primacy of Chinese-language education in the ’80s. The main characters’ stories never get resolved before the movie segues into a trailer for its already-filmed sequel, which is set to be released in February 2021.

Regrettably, Neo’s characters, dialogue, and plots are on-the-nose and unbelievable, as has always been his preachy style of filmmaking... Mark Lee turns in a grating one-note performance. – Yahoo Lifestyle SEA

Richie Koh (left) and Danny Lee in Jack Neo's The Diam Diam Era. (Photo: mm2 Entertainment)
Richie Koh (left) and Danny Lee in Jack Neo's The Diam Diam Era. (Photo: mm2 Entertainment)

Monster Hunter

It wan’t enough that Monster Hunter hardly bore any similarity to the video game which it’s based on, which definitely doesn’t feature modern-day soldiers transported into the world of the monsters. The producers also had to make an unfunny and offensive joke about “Chinese knees”, resulting in the movie being banned from cinemas in China on the very day it began screening, after being slammed by nationalist netizens.

To be fair, all this movie promises from the start is monsters and hunters, and Anderson delivers both, from the first frame to the credits. But for way too long, the generic title is matched to generic action. – Los Angeles Times

Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa in Monster Hunter.
Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa in Monster Hunter.