The Current Debate: The Best Films of 2021

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

By Leonardo Goi

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?

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