Time is hard to gauge. But somewhere between delta and omicron, my parents called to discuss plans for maybe reviving the holidays, and they took the opportunity to ask what they should look out for during Oscar season. I started rattling off titles before arriving at how Steven Spielberg’s long-delayed remake of West Side Story was coming out soon and looked pretty good.
“They remade West Side Story?” my dad said. “That’s good. We need something happy.”
“‘Happy’?” my mom objected. “West Side Story isn’t happy.”
And no, strictly speaking, it’s not. It’s Romeo and Juliet with songs. But it’s also something that few films of 2020 were. It is robust—or, to be more precise, it is robust in a particularly Hollywood way. 2020’s Best Picture nominees were almost exclusively downbeat, quiet, grave, or penitent. West Side Story is color, music, and spectacle. It is love at first sight, comic relief, big displays of emotion, and the marriage of old-fashioned hokum to the latest in technical craft. Pauline Kael, currently resting in as much peace as she lived, praised Spielberg in the 1970s by saying, “this is something only movies can do: dazzle you by sheer scale.” For most of 2020, dazzling you with scale simply wasn’t a tenable business model. In 2021, that aspiration was back with a vengeance—albeit with a bumpy box office success rate whose casualties included Spielberg himself.
So in this disorienting year, where we weren’t collectively sure if we still had an active pandemic, a functioning democracy, or a shared definition of “normal” to go back to, something robust was in demand. Anecdotally, the two movies that got the most people I know to make their first trip back to the theater since COVID were No Time to Die and Dune. Neither one is a “happy” film either, I suppose—No Time to Die is even the rare 007 tear-jerker. But if you were to place an order for several metric tons of “movie”, I imagine that those two films might be the result. Meanwhile, on the repertory circuit, stir-crazy but freshly-vaxed older audiences made a surprise hit out of The Swimming Pool, a 1969 French erotic thriller starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. It was held over at Film Forum for months last summer, earning a lengthy riposte from Richard Brody, who begged vicarious thrill-seekers to remember that the film had been forgotten for a reason. I liked it well enough, and its sleeper appeal isn’t hard to divine: its logline is impossibly attractive movie stars nipping at each other and committing murder on a decadent riviera holiday. In short, it showed that arthouse audiences—the ones who show up early to Film Forum to get a good seat—are moviegoers like any other. They crave stimuli.
In that spirit, here is a brief, off-the-cuff, and by no means all-inclusive catalog of stimuli offered by the movies of 2021. Be they good, bad, small, or odd.
- For starters, the Cannes Film Festival returned in full force. For all the ways that Cannes can be, should be, and has been taken to task by cinephiles, the difference in having it back as a launchpad for discourse, debate, hype, and backlash was palpable.
- …and for those following the festival as a thread of film history, don’t miss that Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or win for Titane is not only the second for a female director, but the first for any filmmaker born after 1980. (Which raises a sensitive question: when will a millennial canon form, and who’s a plausible contender for it?)
- The disreputable subgenre of “nunsploitation” got a moment in the sun. Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta was worthy of all the debates, and Ken Russell’s long-unavailable shocker The Devils briefly glimpsed the mainstream spotlight.* (*As an easter egg in Space Jam 2).
- Clint Eastwood proved how little he could do and still have a worthwhile Clint Eastwood movie.
- Edgar Wright delivered a double bill showing the dangers of excessive fandom—a point that Last Night in Soho makes on purpose and The Sparks Brothers makes by accident.
- The Mitchells vs the Machines became the first family film to feature a cartoon of Hal Ashby.
- David Cronenberg released a 60-second NFT of himself hugging his own corpse, and I’m not being glib when I say I got more out of it than I did from some of the Oscar contenders.
- Lana Wachowski flushed a cherry bomb into the plumbing of the reboot machine, and the mess that resulted—The Matrix Resurrections—was genuinely fascinating.
- For most of the year, the highest grossing film in the world was a propaganda epic commissioned by the Chinese government, until Disney/Sony took over the top spot by conscripting every living Spider-Man. (I await the geopolitical thinkpiece).
- And Don’t Look Up got people to care. Not about climate change—I can’t imagine it moved the needle there—but about an Oscar contender. As of this writing, it has more user ratings on both IMDb and Letterboxd than The Power of the Dog, Belfast, King Richard, and Nightmare Alley combined. So whatever your take is (and mine is that it has the right targets, but is barely sufferable), it demonstrates the combination of subject matter, presentation, and release strategy that can get tentpole levels of attention for a director’s undisciplined passion project. For better or worse.
Which brings us to the Oscars themselves. I can’t think of another year with such a dour lack of enthusiasm within the L.A. bubble for the nominees, as if a ceremony built for self-congratulation were set to backfire and reveal an industry with little to congratulate itself about. I’ve given up prognosticating the Oscars with any degree of confidence. And if I knew what was good for me, I’d give up drawing any symbolic conclusions from them either. The Oscars are too swayed by hyper-specific electoral dynamics. And too likely to change in the next cycle.
But the word is that Apple TV’s CODA has gone from a long shot to the principle frontrunner, largely thanks to two factors. First, by the time final voting began, a narrative had set in that the previous frontrunner, Jane Campion’s Netflix film The Power of the Dog, was too slow, too odd, and too alienating—for all its prestige, did it actually have many ardent fans? And second, this vacuum of consensus allowed Apple to position an Oscar win for CODA as a feel-good Cinderella story not unlike the film itself.
Either would be the first Best Picture win for a streaming service, so there’s a high chance that tonight will make history in a way that doesn’t really satisfy anyone. (A lot to expect of history right now, I know). If the Academy does go with CODA, a fatally flavorless film, my guess is that it’ll be remembered with the ignominy previously reserved for Crash. But on a symbolic level, it does have a certain kind of logic. The Oscars are the Academy not just recommending a film, but the idea of a film—a notion of what (the Academy imagines) people go to the movies for. And of the ten Best Picture nominees, the one distinction that CODA deserves is that it’s the happiest. The most uncomplicated.
I don’t begrudge the Academy, or anyone, for gravitating towards that superlative.
But I wouldn’t want anyone to look back on our movies and think for one minute we lived through flavorless times.
My 10 favorites of 2021:
10. All Hands on Deck (Guillaume Brac, France)
Let the record show up front that the List Industrial Complex can be good for something: Guillaume Brac’s lovely comedy would likely have passed me by had it not popped up on a few. It’s one of 2021’s breeziest films, though when it comes to the vicissitudes of youth, life in a rapidly pluralizing society, and understanding why people do what they do, it actually has a keener eye than most self-serious takes on those subjects. The place: a summer vacation spot where different barriers might dissolve. The hope: that it lasts as long as it can.
9. Titane (Julia Ducournau, France/Belgium)
A Palme d’Or win invites a degree of backlash. So as this body-horror spectacular made the rounds and the word “transgressive” kept popping up, some skeptical critics asked just how transgressive Titane really is in the scheme of things. To which I would agree: not very. But suppose Titane came not for transgression, but for sentiment? Suppose it comes from a social mindset where a degree of fucked-up-ness is taken as a given—perfectly respectable for films festivals, certainly—except that no amount of cheerfully disintegrating taboos can make the emotions of sex or solitude any simpler? Granted, “supposing” is a lot of what you have to do; part of the nature of Titane is that what it “means to say” is coy, mucky, and up for debate. But you’ll be repaid for wading in. Its combo of souped-up passion and deep ambivalence, not to mention sensory craft, is a striking vision from a director who shows every sign of having more to come.
8. Annette (Leos Carax, France/US)
Annette dropped on Amazon Prime as the most divisive movie in a lull that needed one. I’ve seen the film twice since then, dipped into excerpts, and literally, in a sense, walked past it. (The opening shot, which turns a random block of Santa Monica Blvd. into a musical, was filmed not far from where I live, on a stretch of road I traveled regularly during the pandemic). And each time, it looks less and less like a gimmick and more like something whose arch humor, po-mo games, and isn’t-it-unironic? tragedy could only come from veterans of their craft. Confound certain categories it may, including which nation it belongs to. But whether it’s wringing its affect from extravagant set-pieces or a close-up of two hands, it belongs to a musical tradition as old as The Red Shoes: those cautionary tales about the limelight, where any warning is belied by the ecstasy.
7. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
Aimless? Capricious? Shambolic? Insanely messy? I’m not sure there’s a criticism you can throw at P.T. Anderson’s storytelling that doesn’t also perfectly describe the phase in life he’s trying to evoke, which is what can make Licorice Pizza so frustrating—at least until it’s satisfying. Not for nothing does the final shot return, for the umpteenth time, to its hero and heroine running—not ever arriving anywhere, but now happier than ever to be in transit. Rumors that this comedy is a “more accessible” Anderson film may be greatly exaggerated; I’d have wagered it contains as many alienating decisions as anything he’s done. But the full potency and complexity of their dynamic—two awkward, dueling imitations of adulthood in a California where no actual adult is doing wonders for the term—can quietly sneak up on you.
6. Introduction (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
With the exception of Steven Soderbergh, no one shows the potential of light, mobile digital filmmaking like Hong Sang-soo. And if, like Soderbergh, he doesn’t set his eye on capital-M Masterpieces, it may be because his “masterpiece” is one long filmmaking project—in his case, to show how rich and heady you can get with only a few actors and a tripod. And so he arrived at 2021’s (virtual) Berlin Film Festival with a 65-minute meal: a game of connect-the-dots that ponders where to draw the line between life and art. It’s terrific. And by the time it opened in American theaters, he’d already made two more.
5. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Colombia/Thailand)
Tilda Swinton wanders a foreign land, having conversations with people who may or not be real, seeing details that may or may not be connected, and getting afflicted by loud sounds from some phantom source. It’s hard to believe this haunted allegory was shot before the pandemic; I can’t imagine a film more abstractly in tune with the anxiety that a whole world might fall ill. So Memoria is a difficult film, first for all of Apichatpong’s usual reasons—slowness, ellipticism, diffusion—and second, because you can’t miss the despair. Which sounds austere or joyless, but isn’t. His imagination is too lush for that, and he remains one of the few filmmakers who can invoke cosmic ideas without coming across as a charlatan. Running theme: the world’s mysteries are sacred, so attend to them with humility. And open ears.
4. The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, US)
In which Wes Anderson piles on miniaturism until it becomes maximalist. The French Dispatch is a short story collection where each “short story” is really a condensed epic, stuffed with tangents, character histories, and flashbacks within flashbacks, until it’s all too much. But like (almost) all of Anderson’s comedies, the density rewards revisitation, offering an endless inventory of wistful/comic detail that says little about the real France but a lot about a fantasist growing older. So as the stories and their framing devices fall into dialogue, the whole air hanging over its maximalism seems to ask: how much longer do we get to do this?—and that question arrives at an unexpectedly, even exquisitely moving final resting place.
3. Drive My Car + Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
Drive My Car is long for the same reason Kenneth Lonergan’s films are: because the characters’ crises take time to process, and their detours are necessary for doing so. It keeps on growing, but I’m not sure the instant-masterpiece reputation that’s preceded it since Cannes necessarily does it any favors. People expect masterpieces to knock them off their feet, and Hamaguchi prefers a quieter key. So instead, I’ll note his other film of the year: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a trio of short stories that’s smaller than Drive My Car in every way and has earned only a fraction of the attention—and yet 2021 wouldn’t quite be his year without it. What Drive My Car does as a life-sized epic, Wheel does as an omnibus, spinning encounters in which no person is a main character and no plotline is central. So if this has indeed been “his year”—and in terms of festival hype, critical acclaim, and unexpected crossover appeal, I don’t see any way to argue the point—there’s a good reason for it. After a year of social distancing, he delivered two delicate, perceptive features about how badly people need each other.
2. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway)
Turning thirty, with a considerable margin of error, becomes the modest saga it deserves in the hands of Joachim Trier. What starts as a wonderful comedy of millennial flightiness ends as an appealingly open take on how where a person ends up is a mixture of choice and chance. Which is hardly a new observation—more like something each generation figures out for themselves. But the specifics of this rendition rise high. And Renate Reinsve deserves every acting award thrown at her because she hardly seems to be acting at all.
1. Red Rocket (Sean Baker, US)
Sean Baker’s latest film is a wildly funny, daringly alive, and deeply alarming new comedy. Its very premise—a washed-up porn star tries to convince a teenage girl to be his ticket back into the industry—may go some ways in explaining why, when awards season arrived, A24 didn’t seem to know what to do with it. But buckle up. Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project) remains one of the most vital voices in current American cinema—a seasoned pro at mixing comedy with shocks, the offhand with the composed. And the success of his tightrope walk suggests that having the good taste to navigate bad taste may be the only honest way to make a movie about America right now, especially if you find a perspective that’s moral but not moralizing, critical but not condescending, and as much in love with this country’s energy as it is mortified by it. You can take this metaphor as far as you want; Red Rocket plays out against the backdrop of the 2016 election, a context that Baker is ambitious enough to include but shrewd enough not to belabor. Simon Rex is terrifyingly, hilariously plausible as a corrupter who’s also a naif—the classic image of a bullshit artist who believes his own lies. And Suzanna Son supplies such nuance and vibrancy that Rex’s blindness to her real potential becomes a grim, mordant joke. I don’t suppose the US will ever run out of hucksters or meat for its meat-grinder. But try this on for a scene of the year: a teenager plays a piano cover of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”, transforming a pop sugar high into something impossibly soulful, while across the room, a blank man-child watches and sees only a resource to exploit.
The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year:
About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, Sweden)
Azor (Andreas Fontana, Switzerland/France)
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, France/Netherlands)
Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Belgium)
Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
The Green Knight (David Lowery, US)
The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe, US)
Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, Australia/New Zealand)
The Souvenir: Part II (Joanna Hogg, UK)
Summer of Soul (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, US)
Unclenching the Fists (Kira Kovalenko, Russia)
The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, US)
West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, US)