After I became a parent, I created a secret ritual: Once a year, I would take a vacation day from work, tell absolutely no one in my family about it, and go see the latest Marvel blockbuster. In the mostly empty theater, I’d forget about the long hours commuting in standstill traffic, the dark circles that had formed under my eyes after a child woke me up multiple times a night, and all the other mundane sources of suburban exhaustion. The movie theater was my refuge, and for a few hours every year, nothing mattered except the buttery popcorn between my fingers and the outcome of the epic battle on the big screen.
That changed in 2020. Like many Americans, I didn’t step inside a theater last year. But I signed up for free trials of almost every streaming service out there—and read more books. As it turned out, good streaming went hand in hand with good reading: Many of last year’s acclaimed new releases were based on notable works. Director Autumn de Wilde’s charming if “rather routine translation” of Jane Austen’s Emma was “told with just enough flair and attention to detail to make it stand out,” my colleague David Sims wrote last spring. It’s now a contender for two Academy Awards in the costumes and makeup/hairstyling categories. News of the World—nominated for four Oscars—is based on a 2016 National Book Award finalist. Nomadland, the director Chloe Zhao’s adaptation of a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder about senior Americans living out of their vans and RVs, earned six nominations, including best picture. The Personal History of David Copperfield didn’t receive any nominations, but perhaps it should have: The director Armando Iannucci “knows in a couple of places better than Dickens himself what David Copperfield is about,” my colleague James Parker argued last summer. Even the blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 has an equally fascinating origin story, as relayed by Jill Lepore.