Hope and Gratitude

Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Toko Miura on the set of Drive My Car (2021)

How are moviemaking and moviegoing faring at the top of 2022? Answers vary. As 2021 was drawing to a close, the Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters checked in with what she calls the “legacy” studios and found “more than the usual amount of anxiety.” One young executive told her that before the pandemic turned the world upside down the “worst thing that would happen is a tentpole that bombed. Now you have an industry imploding. The infrastructure is starting to crumble. What this business looks like in five years is terrifying . . . Are we all going to be a version of Netflix eventually?” Masters has her doubts. “Even becoming a faint imitation of that may be beyond the grasp of most legacy companies,” she writes, “though they seem to have no choice but to die trying.”

Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, though, is “more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time.” Ticket sales in 2021 may have been down 61 percent from 2019, but they were up 91 percent over 2020. While Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have, to put it gently, underperformed, Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: No Way Home has been packing them in since chalking up the second biggest opening weekend ever in the U.S. Globally, it was the third biggest opening, and the twenty-seventh film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the first movie to pull in more than a billion dollars since the coronavirus outbreak nearly two years ago.

For some, this is the future we’ve been dreading. Opening this year’s Movie Club at Slate, a weeklong discussion of the musicals, overlooked titles, great performances, outstanding scenes, and the dire state of comedy in 2021, host Dana Stevens noted that she fears “for the continued existence of mid-budget, non-comic-book-based movies for adults in a market that treats ticket buyers like the pod-bound human bodies of the Matrix universe, suspended in vats of clear gel with exactly one choice about which experience they’ll get to consume once they’re ‘jacked in.’”

Ebiri sees things differently. In New York at least, even matinee screenings of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car have been drawing crowds, and so, too, have repertory theaters. “When screenings of Casablanca are selling out,” writes Ebiri, “it’s about more than people wanting to see Casablanca; it’s about people wanting to be around other people as they watch Casablanca together. Believe it or not, this is somewhat analogous to the phenomenon of people coming out in droves to see Spider-Man and a nostalgic assortment of old, recognizable villains. In troubled times, we’re all drawn to the comforts of the familiar . . . No Way Home’s success is not the bloody climax of a battle between different types of movies. It’s an important victory in the continuing battle to save all movies.”

Best of 2021

If 2022 turns out to be at least as solid a year for cinema as 2021 was, we’ll have scored another victory. “How,” wonders Ty Burr, “do you account for the fact that with everything going down right now—a global pandemic that taunts us with endless mutations, barbarians at the gates of the capital, America divided and in some quarters delusional, climate Armageddon at the door, an entertainment industry in corporate and technological upheaval, and audiences squirreled away at home with a remote and a list of bingeable TV shows—with all of that, it was a still a very good year for the movies?”

At the top of Burr’s list of the best films of 2021 are Drive My Car and Hamaguchi’s other film of the year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. “Hamaguchi has the knack of illuminating his characters’ inner lives with a simplicity and depth that begs comparison with his acknowledged master, the great Yasujiro Ozu,” writes Burr. Drive My Car has won the best film and screenplay awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and it tops lists from the Film Stage,Justin Chang (Los Angeles Times), and Philip Concannon, who also writes about forty of his favorite repertory discoveries.

Contributors to In Review Online have voted What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? to the top of their list, and Michael J. Anderson, president and CEO of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and Glenn Heath Jr., who calls Alexandre Koberidze’s second feature “one of the most original and alive films to come around in years,” concur. The Guardian film team considers Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog to be the best film released in both the U.S. and the UK, and critic and programmer Geoff Andrew agrees.

As if in testament to the sheer variety of what the year had to offer, further recent #1s include Licorice Pizza (Time Out), Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (A.V. Club), Julia Ducournau’s Titane (Little White Lies), Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (Film of the Week), Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Cineuropa), David Lowery’s The Green Knight (Paste), and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (ScreenAnarchy). Topping lists put together by individual critics are Soi Cheang’s Limbo (Filipe Furtado), Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (Nick Schager, Esquire), Bruno Dumont’s France (Srikanth Srinivasan), Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman (Mark Kermode, Observer), Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features (Carlos Aguilar), Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (K. Austin Collins, Rolling Stone), and Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? (Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman).

For the past several years, Roger Koza has invited fellow critics and programmers such as Nicole Brenez, Andréa Picard, and Cristina Nord, as well as filmmakers like Miguel Gomes, Alain Guiraudie, and João Pedro Rodrigues, to send in their lists. The film mentioned most often in this year’s must-scan poll, La Internacional Cinéfila, is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria—which is also critic and filmmaker Blake Williams’s #1. Another fine annual tradition is Fantasy Double Features, in which Notebook contributors pair a new film with an older one they saw in 2021. And for the fifteenth year running, Kristin Thompson looks back ninety years. Among the ten best films of 1931 are Fritz Lang’s M, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus.

Returning to 2021, further clusters of lists come from MUBI’s programmers, the critics and editors at Screen, the staff at NPR, and contributors to the Toronto Film Review. For unranked lists and general thoughts on the year in cinema, see novelist Dennis Cooper,Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Roderick Heath,Adrian Martin (ScreenHub), and Girish Shambu, who, like Jonathan Marlow at Hammer to Nail, singles out Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s thriller Rose Plays Julie. “At every revenge-worthy turn, the expectations of the viewer are conveniently misdirected, generating truly shocking and unexpected developments throughout its disconcerting duration,” writes Marlow. “Arguably one of the finest films of this peculiarly well-worn genre ever made.”

Daniel Benneworth-Gray (Creative Review), Adrian Curry (Notebook), and Brandon Schaefer have put together galleries of the best posters of 2021, and you’ll find more eye candy at the Film Stage,Posteritati, and ScreenAnarchy. Finally for now, Sasha Frere-Jones has posted a lovely collection of seventy-one reflections on 2021. “Every day,” he writes in his introduction, “I am deflated by how many choose to be gig economy snipers. Across the spectrum, people dedicate real time to finding the fatal flaw in someone they don’t know. The collective will not survive this impulse. Against all of this, I’m filled with gratitude.”

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