Best Movies of 2021
From an artistic perspective, 2021 has been an excellent cinematic vintage, yet the bounty is shadowed by an air of doom. The reopening of theatres has brought many great movies—some of which were postponed from last year—to the big screen, 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 pandemicstruck, 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.
When tracking the fortunes of ambitious movies, it’s important to keep an eye on the spread—not, as in sports betting, the handicap of numbers but the aesthetic spread that separates the most original films of the day from prevailing commercial norms. The past two decades have been a time of peaceful revolution in the movies. Established auteurs, from Spike Lee to Martin Scorsese, have found liberation through the rise of independent producers, and ultra-low-budget outsider independents—including Greta Gerwig, Barry Jenkins, the Safdie brothers, Joe Swanberg, the late Lynn Shelton, and others in their orbits —have broken through to the mainstream and shifted the very core of commercial cinema. (Among the marks of the narrowed spread are the overwhelming success of such distinctive movies as “Moonlight,” “Us,” and “Little Women,” and the franchise stardom of Adam Driver.) But these shifts have led to an industry snapback—a reconquest and occupation of studio terrain. The hiring of Terence Nance to direct “Space Jam 2” was a welcome sign of progress; his departure from the project, in July of 2019 (reportedly because of creative differences), was a sign that the winds of Hollywood were pushing back to familiar shores. (The movie, titled “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” came out in July; it isn’t good, but it’s high on the year’s box-office chart.) The double whammy of overproduced mega-spectacles in theatres and audiovisual snackables at home is a sign that, even if theatrical viewing bounces back, movies’ place in the market is likely to be even more tenuous.
In one sense, this pattern is as old as the movies themselves: for every advance, there’s a reaction. In the earliest years of Hollywood, a century ago, a star-driven system gave way to a director-driven one, which studio executives then quickly clamped down on. What emerged was a top-down system that, ever since, has seemed, absurdly, like a natural and ineluctable state of the art. More recently, in the seventies, filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came along to devise a new pop conservatism, rooted in television and nostalgia, that quickly pushed the most forward-looking of their New Hollywood peers toward the industry’s margins. The lesson is that there is nothing natural, inevitable, or immutable about the Hollywood way of doing things—neither the methods of production nor the dictates of style and form that result. (The absence of a unified and centralized documentary system is why nonfiction, as reflected in this year’s list, has continued its aesthetic expansion uninhibitedly.)
Even before the pandemic, it was becoming tougher for artistically ambitious, low-budget features to get any theatrical release, let alone achieve commercial viability. (Several of the best independent films that I’ve seen in recent years remain unreleased to this day.) But the economics of streaming services present their own peculiar challenges. With theatrical releases, viewers don’t pay for a ticket unless they want to see a movie. Streaming subscriptions, in effect, amount to paying in advance for movies before they are available, which means that platforms have an incentive to deliver the familiar—whether narrowly formatted star-and-genre movies or films by name-brand auteurs, who can easily draw interest. And the widening spread between the most profitable movies and the most original filmmakers risks putting pressure on directors to soften or suppress their most original inspirations, or to filter them into formats, genres, or systems that resist or counteract them.
There’s a danger worse than the studios and their overproduced, over-budgeted methods: a debilitated Hollywood that would relinquish its filmmaking dominance to an even smaller number of giant streaming services. Netflix and Amazon (and, to a lesser extent, Apple TV+) have done respectable jobs of producing and releasing artistically worthy movies, including some that are high on my list. They do it so that they can compete, as players rather than disrupters, with studios and major independent producers for prestigious artists and projects. But if theatrical viewing continues to shrink, taking with it the studios’ preëminence and turning independent producers and distributors into dependent husks, the big streaming services will have much less incentive to finance movies of any significant artistic ambition.
The economics of any individual movie are irrelevant to the progress of the art form; the pantheon of classics has no connection to the industry’s treasury. Yet the careers of filmmakers are inseparable from their ability to secure access to financing, and the history of cinema is a graveyard of unrealized projects that should serve as a cautionary tale against the squandering of worthy talent. Young filmmakers working outside the system and with scant expectations of getting in are the future of the cinema, which is an art form that doesn’t know what it needs until it gets it. The art advances through a generational takeover—which can happen only when movies seem worth taking over at all. As an avid moviegoer wary of the threat of contagion, I go to theatres cautiously, with careful attention to screenings where there are large numbers of empty seats around me. Yet each empty seat bodes ominously for the future of feature filmmaking over all. The cinema has weathered crises of many sorts, economic and political, but if movies themselves hold any lesson, a rebirth is as likely to resemble a zombie as a phoenix.