A global pandemic. Violence in the streets. Chaos in the White House. A turbulent election. Russian hackers. Murder hornets, for Pete’s sake! 2020 really upped the ante on just how much one year could dish out, and how much all of us could possibly take. Its final days would normally be set aside for celebrations, but given that we are suspposed to stay home for the good of everyone, it’s time for more streaming movies.
Rather than presenting the usual batch of New Year’s-themed movies with streamers and champagne, we thought we’d offer something different: 11 movies about disasters and the end of the world! Send 2020 out with a sneer! Then, we suggest two actual New Year’s movies that seem to fit with the times, followed by two more movies with moments of genuine hope, to welcome in a better 2021.
Rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu ($3.99)
Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbuster Armageddon (1998) makes the potential end of the world into a roller-coaster ride filled with flash, noise, color, Charlton Heston narrating, and Aerosmith shrieking “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Bruce Willis and a team of drillers take a rocket ship up to an approaching asteroid, intending to make an 800-foot hole, drop a nuclear bomb into it, and get the heck outta Dodge before it blows up, and thereby saving the earth. Even though it’s an end-of-days movie with billions of lives at stake, it’s all swagger and gusto, with a huge pack of lovable actors playing lovable misfits and outcasts, and a razor’s-edge ticking-clock countdown to the final sweaty-palm moments. Will the world be saved? Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Peter Stormare are just part of the massive cast.
Stream on Peacock Premium or rent ($3.99)
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best and purest films, The Birds (1963) is nearly an experimental work, stripped down to its basics, and without even a music score; the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann used all his skills to create a cacophony of screeching bird noises instead. In Bodega Bay, Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, and Veronica Cartwright find themselves attacked by birds, all different kinds, for absolutely no reason. There’s no catalyst, and no explanation. Sometimes cataclysmic things just happen and humans are in the way. Hitchcock postpones the first attack for a surprisingly long time, and yet manages to build crisp tension anyway. Crime novelist Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain) adapted the short story by Daphne Du Maurier. Look for the director’s cameo at the beginning of the movie near the pet shop in San Francisco’s Union Square.
Escape from New York
Stream on Amazon Prime
Set in 1997, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) certainly resembles 2020 more than it did that long-gone year. Sneering, eyepatch-wearing anti-hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is forced to drop into a dangerous, crime-ridden, apocalyptic New York City to rescue an ineffectual POTUS (Donald Pleasence) before time runs out. He meets all kinds of colorful characters including Ernest Borgnine as a helpful cabbie, Isaac Hayes as the “Duke,” Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain,” and Adrienne Barbeau as tough-as-nails Maggie. Carpenter makes a relatively low-budget movie look amazingly large-scale (James Cameron started his career as a matte artist on this film). Carpenter provided the tense synthesizer score. Lee Van Cleef co-stars.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Rent on Vudu, Google Play, iTunes store ($3.99)
Here’s a sequel so damn good that critics voted it the best movie of the year, and it won six Academy Awards (even if the Academy messed up by not giving Best Director to helmer George Miller). Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is the fourth movie in the series, and it came a full thirty years after the third. Tom Hardy took over the role of post-apocalyptic tough guy Max Rockatansky from Mel Gibson, but the real star here is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. The entire plot is built around two long, astoundingly inventive chase scenes, as Max and Furiosa escape from the main bad guy with his harem of young wives, head to “The Green Place,” and then back again. But Miller manages to go deep with themes of motherhood and the connection between violence and madness. Villain Immortan Joe, who rules over a grim kingdom by controlling both water and fuel, would feel right at home in 2020.
Stream on Hulu, Vudu, Tubi, Kanopy, or PopcornFlix
Kirsten Dunst gives one of her finest performances in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), in a powerfully moving examination of the title condition. Melancholia is also the name of a rogue planet that is, apparently, on a collision course with Earth. Dunst plays Justine, who begins the film getting married to the kind Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), but soon grows despondent and depressed for no tangible reason. In the film’s second half, she lives with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as the ominous sphere in the sky grows larger and the days grow numbered. The science fiction here isn’t terribly interesting, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the small gestures that occur underneath the big events. Sometimes it takes an international disaster to bring out the most human things in all of us.
Rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes store ($3.99)
This strange, little-known cult favorite from the 1980s is one of the best movies about a looming nuclear annihilation, partly because it’s also a romance. In Miracle Mile (1988), jazz musician Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets and makes an instant connection with Julie (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea Tar Pits. They agree to meet again, but Harry oversleeps and loses touch with her. Then, he answers a ringing phone and receives a warning of an impending nuclear attack. Harry and all the local denizens at his favorite diner decide to evacuate, but first Harry goes on an all-night, ticking-clock search for Julie. It’s a weird adventure, leading up to a truly unbelievable ending. Denise Crosby (Star Trek: The Next Generation) co-stars as a well-dressed woman who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Writer/director Steve De Jarnatt made this and only one other film, Cherry 2000 (1987), also a cult favorite.
Stream on Netflix
This remake of The Poseidon Adventure (1972)—and also based on a novel by Paul Gallico—is a great disaster film. Poseidon (2006) is set on a huge, luxury ocean liner and kicks off with a glamorous New Year’s Eve party and midnight countdown before the ship is hit with a “rogue wave.” (It sounds ridiculous but apparently, it’s a real thing.) A handful of passengers (Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Jacinda Barrett, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum, et al) must make their way to the bottom (now the top) of the overturned ship. It’s full of cliches—white people survive the longest, women need to be rescued, etc.—but director Wolfgang Petersen (who also made the great submarine thriller Das Boot) creates tight, gripping sequences of suspense, and wraps up the whole thing in a compact 98 minutes. (Note: this movie expires December 31 from Netflix, but will still be available for digital rentals, from $2.99.)
Stream on Hoopla, Kanopy
Emerging from an Australian filmmaking collective called Blue Tongue Films, David Michod’s The Rover (2014) is one of the group’s finest efforts. It’s a spare, mesmerizing, post-apocalyptic movie that often brings to mind Mad Max, but has its own burning, personal reasons for existing. Guy Pearce, with a weird, sickly haircut, plays Eric. The movie begins with a shocker; Eric sits in what looks like a dingy cafe, and a silent car crash occurs just outside the window, outside his peripheral vision. The hapless motorists steal Eric’s car, and he spends the rest of the movie relentlessly chasing them to get it back. He even enlists the aid of a man they left behind, the gut-shot Rey (an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson). Michod (Animal Kingdom) includes plenty of strange details during this mysterious, often exciting quest, hinting at some kind of global economic meltdown and showing the miserable, detestable practices that have sprung up in this burnt-out, 2020-like land.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Stream on Peacock
It’s a few weeks before the world ends, and neighbors Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) find themselves on the road together, Dodge seeking a lost love, and Penny hoping for a private plane that can fly her back to her parents in England. Of course, they fall in love, but in this bittersweet directorial debut by screenwriter Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Hustlers), the mood is decidedly fatalistic. The world is absolutely ending, there’s no cheating it, and every small choice matters. What the characters choose to do with their time says volumes, even for a man who does little more than tend to his lawn. Yet, while Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) may make viewers misty, it’s also sometimes quite dryly funny, with Adam Brody, Rob Corddry, Melanie Lynskey, Amy Schumer, Patton Oswalt, Gillian Jacobs and others in smaller roles.
Stream on Netflix
Brilliantly made—both technically and thematically—by multiple-Oscar-winning South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), Snowpiercer (2014) takes place in the year 2031, after an attempt to stop global warming has left the world a frozen wasteland. Survivors circle the earth in a constantly moving, self-sustaining train that takes a year to speed around the globe. The story tackles the unfair class system on the train, with poorly treated workers in the rear cars and the rich and elite in the front cars. Talk of a revolution begins stirring, and Curtis (Chris Evans) may be the one to lead it. They’ll need plenty of help to break though the locked doors into each new car, and each car is laden with its own pitfalls. No one has ever made it to the engine before, but perhaps this could be the time? Tilda Swinton is a delightfully wicked Minister Mason and Ed Harris is excellent as the creator of the train. Song Kang-ho, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and Alison Pill also star. Appropriately, a spinoff TV series began in 2020 during the pandemic.
Stream on HBO Max
Inspired by Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (1962), Terry Gilliam’s bonkers 12 Monkeys (1995) tells the story of a time-traveler, James Cole (Bruce Willis), who departs from the year 2035, headed to the year 1996 to attempt to stop a deadly virus from being released. (Too bad he didn’t make a stop in 2020.) But time travel apparently isn’t perfect, and he’s accidentally sent to 1990, which sets off a strange, sometimes baffling, but always incredible series of events, involving fanatical mental patient Jeffrey Goines (an Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt) and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Gilliam cleverly applies his signature visual style to the film, with stark, startling angles, weird (Oscar-nominated) costumes and wild set decoration and backdrops, giving everything a little more visual depth and, at the same time, more of a dreamlike/nightmarish quality. David Morse, Frank Gorshin, and Christopher Plummer co-star. A TV series (2015-18) followed.
New Year’s Eve
Stream on Amazon Prime, HBO Max
Speaking of total disasters, this sprawling, all-star romantic comedy takes place on, of course, New Year’s Eve in New York City. (The dropping ball is part of the story.) Directed by the late Garry Marshall, New Year’s Eve (2011) is a big, dumb mess, forced and phony, and pandering to the lowest of everything. Watch as Sofia Vergara talks about her cleavage and brings spicy enchiladas to Jon Bon Jovi! Watch Robert De Niro try to evoke tears as a dying cancer patient! Watch Zac Efron kiss Michelle Pfieffer for some reason! See also Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Alyssa Milano, Common, Jessica Biel, Seth Meyers, Sarah Paulson, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Katherine Heigl, Ashton Kutcher, James Belushi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Josh Duhamel, Penny Marshall, Cherry Jones, Hilary Swank, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Hector Elizondo, Matthew Broderick, and John Lithgow and try to guess how much they were paid versus the number of days they worked! Even so, in this horrible year, a movie like this might provide some kind of primal comfort in its confident assertion that true love really exists.
Stream on HBO Max
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) has a gorgeous New Year’s Eve party sequence that makes it essential viewing on December 31, but it’s also dark and vicious enough that it fits right in with 2020. This is Anderson’s smallest-scale movie since Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and his finesse with small moments and just a few characters is, in many ways, more effective than when he uses his films to say something grand and important. In the 1950s, fashion titan Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his stern sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run a tight ship, dressing all the most important people. One day, Woodcock is charmed by clumsy cafe server, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and brings her home to become his muse. But when he begins to tire of her, she takes matters into her own hands, turning their relationship into something bizarre and possessive, but mutually appreciative. It’s an exquisite movie, beautifully designed and performed, but also sly and mischievous.
Stream on HBO Max, Criterion Channel, Hoopla, Kanopy
Now that we’re all done saying farewell to this truly trying year, we will attempt to muster up hope that change will come and the future will offer something better. And so we turn things around and leave off with a pair of films that contain indelible images of hope. In Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times (1936), the Little Tramp and a beautiful orphaned girl (Paulette Goddard) try to get by in a harsh, unhelpful world, working various jobs and largely (hilariously) failing, before the movie’s final shot. The pair walk toward the sunset, arm-in-arm, in silhouette, toward some kind of future, but their poise and their gait suggest that they haven’t given up yet.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
Stream on Disney+
In the original Star Wars (1977), now amended with its full title Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, a naïve Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wanders to the top of a small dune on his boring home planet of Tatooine, and gazes at the two setting suns. His face registers everything: that there’s something better out there, somewhere. By the time we get to the silly, happy awards-ceremony epilogue, it’s clear that he has found it.