The Current Debate: The Best Films of 2021

The future remains uncertain, but films are back with a bang: a look at the year's "best of" lists.
Leonardo Goi

Drive My Car

It was the year when everything was supposed to go back to normal: cinemas would reopen, and people would once again sit among strangers to enjoy a deluge of films (new and delayed) all while the pandemic would recede into the background. That things didn’t unfold according to plan is quite the understatement, but after the annus horribilis that was 2020, it’s difficult not to think of 2021 as an “exuberant, celebratory spring,” to borrow from TIME’s Stephanie Zacharek, “a celebratory season of light after months of darkness.” Yes, COVID is still among us, and the future of the medium (and of moviegoing as we knew it) is all but certain, but 2021 did treat us to a bounty of memorable movies, many of which are now bobbing up in the cascade of year-end polls and best-of lists. Once again, flicking through these provides more than just a chance to assess the consensus around this or that title, but to question our viewing habits, and the power dynamics that determine which films we’ll watch, discuss, and spotlight in the future.

 As usual, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, and Eric Kohn write at IndieWire, “anyone who thinks this year (read: any year) has been bad for movies simply hasn’t seen enough of them.” 

"While the 2021 landscape looked a fair bit different than that of 2020 – for one thing, in-person festival attendance and theater-going returned, if cautiously and with plenty of new protocols – the ability to see films beyond the big screen has only continued apace. And while many might bemoan the degradation of the “movie-going experience,” no matter how you saw the best of this year’s beefy batch, it was worth it."

Still, there’s a reason why the conversation around cinema in 2021 is still heavily dominated by how we watch movies. The reopening of theaters has certainly brought many great films, Richard Brody writes at The New Yorker, “but fewer people to see them.”

"The biggest successes, as usual, have been superhero and franchise films. “The French Dispatch” has done respectably in wide release, and “Licorice Pizza” is doing superbly on four screens in New York and Los Angeles, but few, if any, of the year’s best films are likely to reach high on the box-office charts. The shift toward streaming was already under way when the pandemic struck, and as the trend has accelerated it’s had a paradoxical effect on movies. On the one hand, a streaming release is a wide release, happily accessible to all (or to all subscribers). On the other, an online release usually registers as a nonevent, and many of the great movies hardly make a blip on the mediascape despite being more accessible than ever." 

Hence why the return of festivals as in-person gatherings was, movie-wise, arguably the most significant event of the year. Not only do festivals form a “vital wider supportive ecosystem for smaller films with little to no marketing muscle,” Isabel Stevens astutely notes at Sight and Sound, they’re also crucial in fostering a diversity in the films we watch and praise.

"Looking over the films gathered in our poll, the ability of festivals to bring a broader selection of risk-happy films to wider attention is stark. In a year when festivals fired up again, from Cannes in July onwards, foreign-language films are far more prominent in our list—six of the top ten films compared to just one last year."

The trend is not confined to Sight and Sound alone. Though non-English-language titles remain a minority across year-end polls, their numbers have increased elsewhere too: four out of ten at TIME (compared to just one last year), 16 out of 36 at The New Yorker, and 8 out of 25 at IndieWire (about twice as many compared to the outlets’ polls in 2020). This makes for some eclectic menus: sitting next to the likes of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Rebecca Hall’s Passing, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, or Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter one finds gems like Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (often in tandem with another glorious film of his released earlier this year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy), Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, or Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. It bears noting that these are titles that enjoyed prosperous and award-studded festival runs before hitting the silver screen and/or streaming platforms, which begs the timeless question: would they be talked about as widely if they hadn’t?

Above: Summer of Soul

Year-end lists are inescapably capricious exercises, but they can, at their best, also reveal something about the way the medium intersects with our zeitgeist, sponging up collective fears and hopes. So what exactly made a film great in a year like 2021? For A.O. Scott, over at The New York Times, “every good movie was also an argument for why movies matter.” In a year riddled with all kinds of worries, pandemic-related and otherwise, it’s somewhat fitting that the number one spot in his top-ten should be given to Questlove’s ode to the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul, a film that “is more than a time capsule: it’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters—and what it can do—in times of conflict and anxiety.” Reflecting on her picks at Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién argues for a thought-provoking criterion: “which films could only be films? Which films—in terms of craft (visual and sonic) and performance—are so stunning that they say something about the beauty of this specific medium?” Fitting the bill, and number one in her top ten, was Jessica Beshir’s impressionistic Faya Dayi, a film whose sensorial riches—as for so many other titles across these roundups—can only be thoroughly appreciated in a theater.

That’s perhaps the ultimate, if sadly anachronistic criterion. Echoing Manohla Dargis’s thoughts over at the New York Times, the best films of the year were those watched in a cinema. If defending the sanctity of the theatrical experience may strike as utterly out of touch with the reality we’ve been adjusting to over the past few months, so much of our appreciation of a film depends on “the depth of our experiences,” on how it felt “as the images flowed off the screen and into our bodies and memories.” That’s something we critics may seldom write about, but it amounts to a “quasi-religious posture,” to borrow from the L.A. TimesJustin Chang and his encounter with Memoria, a wholehearted surrender that can only truly happen inside a movie theater, a capsule where one can fend off all distractions from the outside world and truly commune with the artwork itself. To be sure, moviegoing isn’t dead (yet), and if the pandemic has decimated countless venues, 2021 also saw a resurgence of revival screenings, as noted byBilge Ebiri at Vulture. It’s not just new releases people are returning to cinemas for, but old classics too:

"I actually talked to some programmers and theater managers about this, and it’s definitely a trend. Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum calls them “audience pictures.” John Vanco of IFC Center calls them “art-house comfort food.” There’s been a notable uptick, in New York, of people going to see these familiar or older titles, even though so many of them are widely available via streaming or home video. There’s a Wong Kar-wai retro at IFC Center that’s been going on for over 20 weeks! Starting in the summer, Film Forum screened La Piscine, a sexy 1969 thriller starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and the damn thing played for four months, often to sold-out houses."

But what about those living far away from big cities, or theaters playing some of the most daring, artful offerings? It’s easy to empathize with Slant’s Chuck Bowen when he argues that multiplexes can double as “bloated stadiums playing mega-act dinosaurs,” while the best films are usually hidden on a streamer’s menu. Which is another way to say that...

"…good movies require the effort of personal vigilance, and the films below merit the expansion of purview. In troubled times, these daring, highly disparate productions show that a cherished medium isn’t only not dying but may, in fact, just be beginning to get its sea legs. Cinema could be evolving into a form that’s more personal and eccentric than ever, in accordance with the newfound intimacy that arrives from learning that theaters can be lovely but are also essentially beside the point."

I’m not entirely convinced theaters will ever be beside the point, but the plea to stay curious, hungry, and vigilant is one we can all rally behind. It was the same conclusion we reached while reviewinglast year’s roundups; twelve months later, it is now more urgent than ever. If we are to rescue some of our most audacious gems from digital oblivion, the onus is upon us to make sure they are discussed, championed, and shared as widely and as passionately as we can. 

The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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