Rewinding 2021: The Year in Film (Including the Top 10)

December 31, 2021
A thought by James Berardinelli

It goes without saying that 2021 has been a strange year. Overshadowed by the surges and valleys of COVID-19, it has been a rocky time for most movie theaters. Although many were open from January 1 through December 31, it was possible to wander a megaplex corridor from one end to another in May without seeing another soul. Although the rousing success of Spider-Man: No Way Home has reassured some that theaters remain viable even as streaming services flex their muscles, it’s still an open question of how companionably these two can co-exist. (Synergistic opportunities are generally being ignored.)

The complexion of multiplexes will change. No longer will a larger complex cater to all tastes. The Blockbuster-only approach will be in ascension as anything not deemed to be a “destination film” will go directly to streaming. Even for bigger movies released by major studios, the exclusivity window has been shortened to 45 days. Anyone with a little patience need never go to a theater again and still not feel too far behind. Notably, Disney has promised nothing to the exhibitors. With an empire that includes full control over Disney+ in addition to Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm, they can pivot in an instant. Some might argue that the 2021 Disney+ slate of MCU-related streaming programs has been more rewarding than the three Disney-distributed superhero films dropped into theaters. And The Mandalorian is perceived by a core group of fans as the true extension of Star Wars. How long until Disney+ is driving these franchises rather than merely providing supporting details?

When 2021 started, I was in an all-at-home mode, catching up on supposed 2020 films that were available. My January roster: Cherry, The Dissident, The Father, Malcolm & Marie, The Little Things, Minari, Bliss, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, and Land. I received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine on March 2 and the second on March 30. By mid-April, I felt confident enough to brave a return to theaters, although I didn’t do that for another month, because there was nothing I wanted to see. I had spent most of 2020 sequestered inside my house. Between March 10, 2020, when I saw Bloodshot and December 31, 2020, I went to a theater exactly once: on August 26 for Tenet. My return to “regular” in-person attendance at press screenings happened on May 17, 2021 for A Quiet Place Part II. Excepting Tenet, I had gone 14 months without sitting in a movie theater. It felt both weird and familiar.

I didn’t jump right back into the saddle. In fact, after A Quiet Place Part II, it was another month before The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard brought me back. F9 represented my first attendance of a “regular” movie. Still, between May 1 and August 1 – the normal three-month height of the summer movie season, I saw only four movies theatrically (the fourth being The Green Knight). After that, things started to normalize, at least insofar as anything in 2021 could be considered “normal.” By the time the year drew to a close, I had visited theaters 20 times. But the vast majority of my output had been via streaming.

Going back to theaters also allowed me to remember why I have been such a long-time proponent of streaming. Aside from the convenience aspects (schedule your own start time, pause as necessary, watch in multiple installments if desired, have a comfortable seat), it eliminates the biggest problem with communal viewing: the other people. The theatrical movie I enjoyed the most in 2021 was The Last Duel. Why? Because I was the only one there. It was great. But with more people came the annoyances: cell phones, talking, and a general lack of consideration for others. And in COVID-19 times, there are other issues like respecting reserved seats and mask-wearing. (One reason I opted to watch an at-home screener rather than attend an in-person showing of West Side Story is because I didn’t have to wear a mask for the former. It was more comfortable. Plus, I could pause for bathroom breaks rather than miss scenes.)

The 2021 roster was weak, although a little stronger than its 2020 counterpart. In some cases, distributors held back prime titles, uncertain about depleted box office returns. (Deferrals included sequels to Top Gun and Jurassic World.) If we have learned one thing about 2021, it’s that we haven’t learned as much as we hoped we would. Spider-Man: No Way Home argues that the pandemic is no longer a barrier to movie-going. And trend-lines have long argued that low and mid-budget movies are increasingly poor matches for multiplexes. But what about the borderline-blockbusters? Is there room for growth in the audiences of a Fall Guy or a No Time to Die or a West Side Story? The future of theatrical releases is more about these movies than the destination films. Because there aren’t enough of those. A 24-plex is like Audrey II – it needs constant feeding. And if the only thing left to feed it are GARGANTUAN tent-poles, there’s a problem. The 8-plexes and 10-plexes are probably in good shape but if viewers don’t turn out for something other than the sturdiest tent-poles, then there’s no business case for a 16-plex, 20-plex, or 24-plex. (Two of the most prominent local theater closings have been megaplexes, including a clean, spacious, well-maintained AMC 24-plex whose shuttering saddens me a year after it shut its doors. I drove by it not long ago and it nearly broke my heart to see the disrepair and weeds. It’s a monumental ghost structure. If I went inside, I wonder whether I’d hear distant echoes of the thousands of movies that played there over the years. Razing it would be better than leaving it there to slowly deteriorate.)

As for the MCU, it almost feels like the Disney half of Marvel (as opposed to the Sony-owned portion) has taken the year off. Post-Thanos, there’s a lack of direction. Sure, the post-Infinity War Spider-Man films have found their audiences, but the pure Marvel movies have foundered. Black Widow, Shang-Chi, and Eternals have failed to ignite much excitement. And there’s nothing on the announced roster that points to the assemblage of another juggernaut. Marvel has yet to figure out what to do with reacquired properties like The Fantastic Four and X-Men. Instead of being key players in the new scheme, they have been left by the side of the road. One reason that the MCU succeeded while the DCEU imploded was momentum. Marvel escalated it from movie-to-movie, with each film building on the previous one – a separate entity yet part of a bigger whole. The DCEU, on the other hand, had no obvious masterplan. In 2021, putting aside Spider-Man, there’s a lack of cohesion in the MCU films.

In many ways, I feel like 2021 was a lost year. The studios gave us just enough to maintain a moderate level of energy but it felt like something was lacking. Perhaps it was the absence of a true summer season. Or maybe it was that most of the real quality was held back until the end of the year (not unusual, but it was more extreme in 2021). Nine of my eleven ***1/2 movies were released after October 1. Of the other two, one was deemed by the Academy to be a 2020 film and the other was exclusive to HBOMax (didn’t play in theaters at all). I feel like a hungry man who has recently been given enough nourishment to stay alive but wants more. Unfortunately, winter is here and, for the movie industry, that means good productions are in hibernation.

My Top 10 list this year (Top 11, actually) is stronger than last year’s but weaker than any other year’s. Although there’s a temptation to blame that on COVID-19, and the pandemic likely played a part, it’s also a reflection of shifts in the industry with bigger films becoming more generic and crowd-pleasing (at the expense of well-crafted plots and interesting characters) and indies becoming more political, pretentious, and just-plain weird. The middle tier of films that used to spawn many ***1/2 and **** productions is dying. No studio, it seems, wants to spend $60M on a film that might net a “mere” $10M profit. Here’s hoping streaming rectifies the situation in the near future.

The list comes with some caveats. There are eleven titles; that’s how many 2021 films I gave ***1/2 to. There were no **** films in the year and nothing with *** (or lower) made it to the list. There are no “honorable mentions.” I could have shifted either Passing or Encanto into such a category but I’m not sure which one it would have been. They’re about equal in my estimation. In fact, all the films lower than #4 are very close to the point of being position-interchangeable. (Score one for the argument not to number films, at least outside of #1, on an end-of-the-year Top 10 list.) The #1 film, The Father, is “technically” a 2020 movie, at least insofar as the Academy is concerned. I didn’t see it, however, until early 2021. Although it had a very limited run in December, it didn’t officially “open” in North America until February 26, 2021. For me, that’s a 2021 movie. My #6 title, No Sudden Move, didn’t have a U.S. theatrical release at all. It opened exclusively on HBOMax. Nevertheless, it’s every bit a “movie” as anything else on this list.

This year, since I won’t be providing commentary for each individual film, I’m providing the Top 10 in “normal” order rather than “reverse” order. Here they are (with links to the reviews):

1. The Father
2. Licorice Pizza
3. Belfast
4. Dune
5. West Side Story

6. No Sudden Move
7. No Time to Die
8. The Novice

9. Nightmare Alley
10t. Passing
10t. Encanto

In an “ordinary” year – not that such a thing exists anymore – the top four films on the list would have made the Top 10, although not necessarily in the same positions. The only real “dark horse” on the list is The Novice. That’s partially because it has received limited exposure (its distributor is IFC, which lacks the funds to mount a major publicity campaign). It took me by surprise; initially, I wasn’t going to watch it but, because I had some spare time, I gave it a shot and was surprised at how big an impact it had. Philadelphia-based critic Rich Heimlich described it as “Whiplash where the protagonist and antagonist are the same person.” That’s a damn good description. Wish I’d come up with it. Credit where it’s due, however.

To wrap up the year, I thought I’d make mention of a few of the worst films I saw. I didn’t make a list because I actively avoided most of the titles that looked suspicious. I wasn’t perfect, however. Two movies to avoid at all costs as you surf the streaming sites are Liam Neeson’s godawful The Ice Road and the Melissa McCarthy/Olivia Spencer dud, Thunder Force (McCarthy has become a regular in my annual Bottom 10 columns). As bad as those two are however, they are outdone by the latest Cinderella (starring Camila Cabello, “whose vocal stylings are grating and who can neither lip-synch nor act”). That came oh-so-close to getting the rarest of all my ratings, a perfect zero, but I ended up relenting and giving it a (generous) half-star.

It’s hard for a glass-half-empty person like me to proffer an optimistic refrain but I’ll try. If we can get COVID under control, maybe 2022 could end up with a brightening movie horizon, both at home and in theaters. Until then, keep your head down, wear your mask, and stay safe.