2021 Recap – Introduction

by - December 31st, 2021 - Features


2021 Recap
The ten best films of the year, the continued rise of streaming, and the future of the theatrical experience

The craziest thing about watching new films in 2021 was how much it resembled 2020. While theaters slowly reopened, thanks to COVID, they never did spring back to life completely. Yes, this month’s release of Spider-Man: No Way Home showed that a billion-dollars in worldwide receipts was still possible (in a little under two weeks, no less), but that sort of success was the exception, not the rule. While there were other hits, those were few and far between, and almost all came from a single studio (Disney) or were massive franchise entries with large, mostly young fan bases.

Cruella (2021) | PHOTO: Walt Disney Pictures

But mostly we all watched new releases from the comfort of our own homes. Warner Bros. took the unprecedented step of releasing their slate of films in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time. Disney did the same for much of the year, shuffling some titles like Luca to Disney+ exclusively, while others like Marvel’s Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, and Cruella could be viewed theatrically or watched on the streaming service for an extra $30. Universal and Paramount did the same with a few of their titles, the former utilizing its Peacock platform while the latter finally opened the curtain on Paramount+.

It was a banner year for Netflix and Amazon Prime, as the two stalwarts in the streaming game went to town with a variety of self-financed releases, while also paying top dollar for pictures from the traditional Hollywood studios that they could debut on their platforms instead. Other, smaller outlets, like Shudder and Mubi, also increased their new-release output significantly in 2021, the former particularly gung-ho about debuting three or four new features each month.

Not that theaters are throwing in the towel. AMC and Regal went all-out trying to lure back patrons. AMC went so far as to offer up full theater rentals during the first half of the year for a relatively meager $99. That’s gone up significantly since (it’s now $469 at most venues, and the selection is limited to new releases), but it is still a slick way to drum up business while also creating a feeling of relative safety.

Still, as mentioned and with rare exception, the films that did the best theatrically were giant franchise tentpoles like Godzilla vs. Kong, F9: The Fast Saga, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Halloween Kills, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The only original title to massively breakthrough commercially was Free Guy, a holdover from Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios), which also happened to have direct tie-ins to the studio’s Marvel and LucasFilm properties.

Another somewhat surprising success story was an adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert’s Dune by Warner Bros. The film was a hugely expensive gamble directed by Denis Villeneuve, sold on the promise that it would deliver sights and sounds that could only be fully enjoyed on the biggest screen available. The gamble paid off and a sequel was quickly greenlit.

West Side Story (2021) | PHOTO: 20th Century Studios

Otherwise, everything skewing to an even moderately older viewership failed rather miserably, including a string of high-profile musicals (In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, West Side Story) that in pre-COVID times likely would have done gangbuster business no matter the critical reception. More films that failed to make a significant dent at the box office included Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, James Wan’s Malignant, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, all of which I suspect would have been minor to significant hits pre-2020.

How will things change in the future? I can’t say I know. Streaming is here to stay, I think we all agree, but I’m equally terrified to imagine a world where only giant tentpoles like the next films featuring Spider-Man or Batman are the only titles playing at the local multiplex. There has to be a way to maintain variety, a method for venues to successfully showcase a broad selection of titles and not just the latest $200-million-budgeted entry in a long-running franchise.

All that depressing stuff aside, there was plenty I still managed to get excited about in 2021. I dropped my 1,001 Great Films series this year, a painstaking 10-month journey through over a century of film that was arguably the most exhaustively personal set of features I’ve ever written. I’m understandably very proud of it.

As for this year’s new releases, there were numerous pleasures to be had, with so many filmmakers taking me on journeys I’d never have thought to venture on had they not confidently led the way.

A few notes on my top ten: I’ve purposefully kept a couple of notable titles that were technically 2020 releases — Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Harry Macqueen’s Supernova, Josh Greenbaum’s Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar — out of consideration. They were released in January and February to try and take advantage of an elongated eligibility period to qualify for last year’s Academy Awards. I’ve also once again separated out my favorite documentaries, mainly because I want to showcase each title in hopes that more people might take the time to give them a look.

Finally, I’ve also included a list of ten new-to-me discoveries I made during the past year. Cinema isn’t just about the here and now. It is also about investigating where we’ve come from and seeing how the medium has continued to evolve over the past 120 years, so I can’t help but wish that at least a few people will be curious enough to seek out some of those titles for themselves.

Without further ado, on to my picks for the best films, performances, moments, and more of 2021. Enjoy!

– Portions of this feature reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

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