What made a movie great in 2021?

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos courtesy of the studios

Year-end lists are fun and controversial writing, but most of the fun happens outside of the list itself. The process of making lists is a strange act of trying to balance personal responses with imaginary objective measurement, and while lists are about the year in culture, they are also portraits of the people who wrote them. This year we are not only publishing our lists but also a conversation between critics Alison Willmore, Bilge Ebiri, and Angelica Jade Bastién about how we made them, what this year was like in the movies, and what we’re furious to have to leave out.

Alison Willmore: It has been an overwhelming year in cinema. There have been so many movies – some carried over from last year, others new – that I never felt less like I was in control. I could have played catch-up forever and still didn’t feel like I had seen enough. But at some point you have to call it. The Top Ten lists are always a personal snapshot of someone’s movie year, but this year it felt particularly personal.

Ebiri hold: I really think a top 20 list often makes more sense these days. Movie critics tend to see more work than a lot of other people. I saw 145 new movies last year, and it’s been a slow year. (I saw 292 in 2015.) I’m not sure if the average book reviewer reads so many new books in a year, or if the average theater reviewer sees that many shows. It’s just the nature of that specific beast. It’s sadistic to have to choose from such a massive host of titles.

Angelique Jade Bastien: Honestly, I just go with the Goddess, ride the wave and pick a top ten based on my current mood. I already want to change my order because I’m not a big fan of ranked lists. This year, I added a new criterion: which films could alone be movies? Which films, in terms of craftsmanship (visual and sound) and performance, are so breathtaking that they say something about the beauty of that specific medium? These questions led me to choose the Impressionist symphonic poem from a documentary Faya Dayi like my # 1.

AW: I knew as soon as I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The lost girl that it was my favorite movie of the year. It made me lose my footing. I go with my gut when it comes to picking a “best” of the year. Which film have I come out of the most dizzy, shaken or transported? I’m generally pretty sure about my top three, and then after that I’m still aware that there are at least 20 more titles that could appear on my list and the remaining picks seem pretty arbitrary. Could El Planet was I in my top ten? Easily. Even with Azor, Test model, Where The suicide squad, which I love the highlight and have seen at least a dozen times. I’m trying to think of my list as a whole and shed some light on some unexpected choices and potentially direct people to movies they might not have seen or may not have. thought the same as me.

TO BE: The biggest surprise (for me, at least) is my # 1: Leos Carax’s Annette, it’s a movie I wasn’t even sure I had love the first time I saw it. I knew, however, that certain parts (especially the end) moved me enormously, and I immediately wanted to see him again. Seven times later, I find it hard to claim that this is not the film that has enchanted me the most this year. I guess that’s a way of saying that our opinions on these movies are constantly changing, and sometimes it’s hard to make big statements about the individual movies or the year in general.

One of the darkest secrets in our profession is that our individual years in the movies are so often driven by the images we had to write about. Those of us who can pick and choose the titles we’re interested in to some degree, and often have the freedom to search for smaller, interesting movies, are lucky that way. It can turn into a scramble in November and December as you try to catch up with things you didn’t have to think about.

AW: And an unfortunate recent trend is that so many movies are now unceremoniously dumped on Netflix. the disciple is one of those movies for me, a movie about one of my favorite depressing subjects: giving up on dreams, or at least settling on a more realistic version of those big goals. Audiences naturally love character movies that do, against all odds, but the truth is, most of us don’t turn out to be astronauts, or celebrities, or even our first choice for careers. Chaitanya Tamhane’s film about a young man trying to become an Indian classical musician is beautifully watched, so intelligent and human about the impossible pursuit of artistic purity and the indignities of trying to make a living doing what you love. I hope it has gradually attracted some kind of audience.

TO BE: We’ve had a lot of musicals this year (In the heights, West Side Story, Tic, Tic… Boom!), as well as a number of dance films (both documentary and fictional), but I wish Tom Hurwitz and Rosalynde LeBlanc Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters had erupted in a big way. (I’m willing to admit that the bulky title probably didn’t help; I have to search for it on IMDB every time I type it in.) The way he woven Jones’ story and the creation of his dance piece monumental from 1989 while interspersed with a modern production by a group of students, the whole thing left me a wreck. Of course, I didn’t really help matters by not reviewing it when it came out; I was sent a screener (a real DVD! Hallelujah!) And I was too busy with bigger titles (of course) to watch it on time.

AJB: As for the regrettable trends, for me, it was the flattening of the black experience in mainstream cinema, a byproduct of the two Hollywood studios that haggled black and black creators honoring radical ideas everything. by making the kinds of mistakes we criticize for white. designers for, in particular in terms of colourism. It has been frustrating to see people argue that we are in a renaissance for black art – in film and on television – when politics still seem so ideologically confused. (Judas and the Black Messiah, I’m looking at you.) There were a few notable exceptions, and one, that of Barry Jenkins The look—A one-hour film related to his masterpiece The Underground Railroad– ended up on my list. Candyman, However, ranks as one of (if not the) worst movies I’ve seen this year. It was such a disappointment after a trailer and over a year late. I was amazed that a movie with so much potential could overlook the appeal of the original. And how to make Yahya Abdul-Mateen II without an ounce of his natural charisma?

TO BE: I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies this year, but there’s a difference between something you probably always knew was going to be terrible, like, say, Louise Linton’s. me you madness– and something that seemed like it had a chance to be good once – like, say, Guy Ritchie’s Anger of man.

AW: It may be a recency bias, but I keep thinking about Red Notice, a film starring three of the biggest alleged stars working today (Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds) that was so devoid of charm, vitality and glamor it could have been a secret campaign to devalue cinematic stardom . I also saw so much covid movies now, and only two have been good. Meanwhile, fears over covid have made people reluctant to return to the movies, and it’s totally reasonable – and yet this year has shown me very clearly just how much better the viewing experience is when I see something in a theater.

TO BE: I saw more new stuff in theaters this year, and in New York, I felt pretty safe, thanks to the vaccine checks and the fact that some studios tested us as well. When i looked A quiet place II– which was my first press screening in theaters in about a year – that opening streak seemed to me, at that point, like the greatest thing I had ever seen. I never wanna watch anything on my couch again I remember thinking. I felt like Uncle Josh on the Moving Picture Show.

That said, most of the movies I’ve seen in theaters this year have actually been revival screenings of classics like Do the right thing, Good guys, From north to north-west, The Red Shoes, The Thing of John Carpenter, etc. — all the movies I have seen multiple times that I own on Blu-ray and DVD. And yet I went out and paid to see them again in the movies, on the big screen, with other people around me. I’ve actually spoken to programmers and theater directors about it, and it’s definitely a trend. Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum calls them “audience images”. John Vanco of IFC Center calls them “comfort food of arthouse”. There has been a noticeable increase in New York City in the number of people going to see these familiar or older titles, although many of them are widely available via streaming or home video. There’s a retro Wong Kar-wai at IFC Center that’s been going on for over 20 weeks! Starting in the summer, Film Forum screened The swimming pool, a sexy 1969 thriller starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and that damn thing was played for four months, often sold out.

AJB: There is something sacred and common in a theatrical experience: being in the dark, subsumed by craftsmanship and storytelling, emotionally connecting to the work and to the audience. This forces me to take care with different care than at home. But because of the covid, I’m hypernervous in the movies, which can actually diminish the experience. It is complicated.

AW: It is also a balm for my poor attention span shattered by the pandemic. I’m bad at home watching. If going to the movies is a luxury, it’s one I’m willing to pay.

Want more stories like this? Subscribe now to support our journalism and gain unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the December 20, 2021 issue of New York Magazine.

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