How 2020 Was Unintentionally Reflected in the Movies of 2020

We reflect on films that somehow managed to successfully capture the cultural zeitgeist of this year.
Kate Lyn Sheil She Dies Tomorrow Mortality

This article is part of our 2020 RewindFollow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more released in this very strange year. In this entry, we look at how some movies managed to unintentionally capture the cultural zeitgeist of 2020.

Suffice it to say, it’s been a rough year. Yes, 2020 was uniquely awful, in ways that anyone who reads this article is already abundantly aware of and doesn’t need an entertainment writer to explain for them. But despite the immense difficulties that COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions put, in particular, on the film industry and future of film distribution, many of the films slated for a 2020 release were still able to hit streaming services, virtual festivals, and/or very limited theatrical showings nonetheless.

Thus, due to the peerless unpleasantness of 2020, it became fascinating to see which films were strikingly able to capture the distinct zeitgeist of a culture impacted by a global pandemic, an unprecedented United States election, climate change, protests, and civil unrest, et al., and find a unique kind of success or resonance with audiences because of it. Films that were conceived months, even years before the COVID-19 situation took hold in March of this year offered eerily prescient, affecting themes. Here are a select handful of such films, that struck various topical chords for all of us trapped in the unending horror show of 2020.

She Dies Tomorrow

Let’s start off with Amy Seimetz’s latest, She Dies Tomorrow. In this psychological horror film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as a woman who not only becomes disturbingly convinced that her life will end when she wakes up the next day but also infects every person who comes in contact with her with this same ideology, infecting even more people, spreading the thought further like a disease, and so on and so forth.

Over the course of the film, this idea spreads to friends, family, strangers, until it seems that everyone in their immediate area in California and beyond is uniformly certain that they are going to die the following day. Aside from the very obvious “infection” aspect, it’s s film whose overall theme can be surmised as pessimism towards an uncertain future. Journalist Annika Morling of Little White Lies writes, “The film can be seen as the defining film of the doomer generation.” “Doomer” is a new term that refers to recent generations who have taken on a nihilistic outlook in response to what feels like numerous, impending existential threats to our way of life, making the concept of coming-of-age impossible in a future that seems entirely inaccessible anymore.

This outlook took a stronger hold in 2020 for obvious reasons: an economic nosedive, a pandemic, increasingly destructive effects of climate change, the threat of fascism tightening its grip in the United States and elsewhere. Morling writes that “in She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz intensifies both the gravity and the virality of doomerism, transforming a general anxiety about the future into a belief that one is, quite literally, going to die tomorrow.”

But there is also a glimmer of hope offset with the excess of despondency, and which could be viewed more of a critique of the doomerist mindset than anything — this is also touched upon in Morling’s essay. All of those infected still attempt to work through it and figure out what to do with their remaining time on earth, as opposed to truly giving up.

Their denial or rage towards what might soon be inflicted upon them could be seen as resilience towards an increasingly unfavorable future, but that which still remains just that: uncertain, not definite. But sitting around, posting woebegone on the internet does nothing to account for the people that will still be here, possibly suffering. Inaction and fear of the future are, quite possibly, more deadly than the future itself.

Palm Springs

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti star as a pair of wedding guests-turned-time loop prisoners in Max Barbakow‘s Palm Springs. Unprepared maid of honor Sarah (Milioti) and carefree party guy Nyles (Samberg) meet during the reception and bond over their shared jaded sentiments towards Sarah’s sister’s wedding, but when Nyles is chased by a crossbow-wielding maniac as they’re about to hook up that night, Sarah discovers Nyles has been stuck in a time loop — and, suddenly, she’s stuck too.

Palm Springs set a new record at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival for the biggest sale of a film ever. The film already had a swarm of positive buzz upon its premiere in January and well before its debut on Hulu. Once it hit streaming, it had an overwhelmingly favorable response despite the familiar Groundhog Day premise only a little over a year after the success of the Netflix series Russian Doll, and walking on a well-tread “will they or won’t they” B-plot.

Thus, there were some dissenting opinions towards the film’s wild success; you could attribute the popularity of a film which could, perhaps, be seen as a run-of-the-mill, even forgettable romantic comedy to the moment in which it hit general public access: mid-July when many states were only just coming out of strict lockdown orders. During a year marred by dwindling film releases and many lives turned monotonous by quarantines and lockdowns, the occasionally perceived “tepid” comedy provided a brief release of joy in an otherwise as yet uneventful release slate.

But it’s true that the film reaped great success because of the time that we’re living in, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was ultimately able to capture our uniform sentiments of feeling trapped in an endless nightmare, especially for those of us who were relegated to our homes for multiple months with limited access to the outside world. Palm Springs was able to find success as feel-good fare that counter-balanced its rom-com conventions with nihilistic sentiments of fear, despair, and even suicidal ideation, helping the film to never become overly saccharine or pandering. For many of us, we simply wanted to be offered hope of an escape to our never-ending day.


In a retro-futuristic version of our world, assassinations can be carried out via mind-swapping, and assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is the best of the best. But she’s been overworked for some time now, and in the aftermath of a particularly harrowing assignment, in which she experienced difficulty in being able to pull herself out of her host body, she asks her boss for some much-needed time off. This is easier said than done.

Her simple request is met with an amount of stupefaction, as her superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), questions her desire to spend time away from her work, namely with a husband who’s been separated from her for some time now. Still, she allows Vos to get away and visit him and their young son. When Vos arrives at the complex she spends time rehearsing basic, human pleasantries before knocking on the door, and it’s clear that a schism in Vos’ humanity has formed from her devotion to her job.

It only takes one night away from work for Vos to come crawling back to the employers who aren’t particularly concerned with her wellbeing, ready to take on her next big assignment. The bloody phantasmagoric events that follow suit are emblematic of Vos’ displacement from her former self, as her mind becomes one and the same with that of her newest host, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). 

The placement of Brandon Cronenberg‘s Possessor in 2020 is wholly fitting, as months of people’s livelihoods being relegated secondary to potential economic prosperity have gone undeterred, despite the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases as the days have drawn on. Indeed, it’s become increasingly clear how little not only employers truly care for the safety and wellbeing of their employees, but the government as well, putting profits ahead of human lives at every turn and even as the death toll rises.

Our culture is obsessed with work and productivity as, amidst the rippling standstills caused by the pandemic, many still wish to harp on the benefits of producing fiscal labor in the wake of widespread suffering and death. It has become a sickness itself, the endless, parasitic symbiosis of life and work. Possessor proffers the idea that after a certain point, we’re too far gone. And if 2020 has shown as anything, it’s that maybe we already are.


Set during the economic hardship a few years following the Great Recession, Nomadland follows a Nevada woman from a previously prosperous industrial town who now lives out of her van looking for insecure work, traversing the American West as a modern nomad. Fern (Frances McDormand), travels from trailer park to trailer park, taking on odd jobs and creating relationships with the other nomads (played by real-life nomads themselves), all of whom have their own grounds for taking on — or being forced into — this unique living situation.

The film attempts a tightrope walk of telling the stories of these people living not only unconventionally, but scantily, while not reducing them to “poverty porn.” And though there are some who live the nomadic life by choice, the idea that everyone comes to the lifestyle for different reasons does not detract from the idea that they are all there together. Of course, there is the inherent difficulty in the level of romanticism director Chloe Zhao affords Fern’s journey and the lives of the people she meets, shakily trying to balance hardship with the film’s rose-colored glasses for the Western frontier.

However, within this humanist portrait of forming connections amidst material scarcity is a commentary on our inherent connection to the planet. Rather than the idea that poverty is a fitting lifestyle for embracing the therapeutic energies of nature, the film comes off as more an attempt to keep us from forgetting what we are and where we come from: Earth. 

At one point in Fern’s travels, she, along with a group of other nomads, look up into the night sky, while a woman explains our genetic relationship to the celestials above. As the effects of climate change tighten their grip on the environment and continue to make distressing headlines, and corporations prove countless times that Earth’s natural beauty can be bought and sold, the film offers a comforting reminder. As long as humans are here, even those who wish to exploit the earth for the fruits it bears, the idea that the earth has been abandoned rings hollow. 

We’re still here, and we cannot disavow our link to the planet and to the universe. To say that humans are greater than Mother Nture or that we’re a plague inflicted upon the planet are both far from the truth. After all, the stars are made from the same matter that we are.

Sea Fever

Perhaps the 2020 film most curiously representative of our COVID-stricken year is a sci-fi horror surrounding a fishing crew and a young marine biologist, all of whom become victim to the adverse effects of a hostile and enigmatic sea creature. In Sea Fever, after venturing out into an exclusion zone unwittingly at the greedy behest of the skipper, Gerard (Dougray Scott), the crew aboard the Niamh Cinn Óir trawler find themselves at the mercy of an unrelenting deep-sea oddity, with massive tentacles that attach themselves to the side of ship’s hull and secrete a strange blue slime.

After discovering and boarding an abandoned boat nearby — the crew of which seemed to have committed mass suicide — the crew of the Niamh Cinn Óir are soon at the mercy of a similar fate. Marine biologist Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) discovers that the creature’s slime carries parasitic larvae, which can infect like an illness and spread among humans to deadly results. The advent of the crew falling victim to the creature and the ensuing fallout between crewmembers is uncanny in its similarity to current pandemic responses.

The first of them to succumb to the illness, Johnny, was infected via an open wound in his hand. Siobhan informs the crew that, since they all sport various minor cuts and wounds as well, they are all as likely to have the virus as Johnny. “We’re all vulnerable to get it,” Siobhan says. Everyone is on the same playing field since they’ve come in contact with an infected party. There’s a window of time for symptoms to emerge — 36 hours — and Siobhan pleads with the crewmembers to quarantine before they reach land.

But the crew can’t conceive of the bigger picture. Siobhan does her best to impart upon them that, once they reach land, if they’re infected, they are all liable to spread it. However, the crew cannot break away from obstinate sentiments expressing that they “know” they simply don’t have it, or that they “have” to put themselves and their immediate families over those of thousands, potentially millions of others. As we’ve learned over the course of this grueling year, a small number of people can cause immeasurable spread and suffering.

Health screens are enacted, a sentiment of potential immunity is expressed; the crew is left to fend for themselves, as the person ultimately in charge of them (Gerard) was the one who sent them to their deaths. The conclusion of the film sees survival but at the cost of many more lives. Poor leadership, willful ignorance, selfishness, and individualism were what killed the men and women aboard the Niamh Cinn Óir more so than the virus. In this way, Sea Fever hits a little too close to home.

Brianna Zigler: Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.