From an artistic point of view, 2021 was an excellent film year, but the award is overshadowed by a touch of doom. The reopening of the cinemas has brought a lot of great films – some of which have been postponed from last year – to the big screen, but fewer people are watching them. As always, the greatest successes were superhero and franchise films. “The French Dispatch” has made a big hit, and “Licorice Pizza” is doing great on four screens in New York and Los Angeles, but few, if any, of the best films of the year will hit theaters. Office charts. The transition to streaming was already underway when the pandemic broke out, and as the trend has accelerated, it has had a paradoxical impact on movies. On the one hand, a streaming release is a broad release that is happily available to all (or all subscribers). On the flip side, an online release is usually registered as a non-event, and many of the great films barely make a blow to the media landscape, despite being more accessible than ever.
In following the fate of ambitious films, it is important to keep an eye on diffusion – not the handicap of numbers, as in sports betting, but the aesthetic diffusion that separates the most original films of the time from prevailing commercial norms. The last two decades have been a time of peaceful revolution in film. Established writers, from Spike Lee to Martin Scorsese, have found liberation through the rise of independent producers and extremely low-budget outsiders – including Greta Gerwig, Barry Jenkins, the Safdie brothers, Joe Swanberg, the late Lynn Shelton, and others in their own Orbit – breached mainstream and shifted the core of commercial cinema. (Signs of narrowed circulation include the overwhelming success of such distinctive films as “Moonlight,” “Us,” and “Little Women,” as well as the Adam Driver franchise star.) But those changes have resulted in an industry decline – a retake and Occupation of the studio area. The hiring of Terence Nance to direct Space Jam 2 was a welcome sign of progress; his departure from the project in July 2019 (allegedly due to creative differences) was a sign that the Hollywood winds were pushing back to familiar shores. (The movie called “Space Jam: A New Legacy” came out in July; it’s not good, but it tops the box office charts for the year.) The double hit of over-produced mega-spectacles in cinemas and audiovisuals Home snacks is a sign that even with a return to cinema, the space of films in the market is likely to be even weaker.
In a way, this pattern is as old as the films themselves: there is a reaction to every advance. In Hollywood’s earliest years, a century ago, a star-driven system gave way to a director-driven system that studio managers were quick to crack down on. The result is a top-down system, which since then seems absurdly like a natural and inevitable state of the art. More recently, in the 1970s, filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came to the fore a new pop conservatism, rooted in television and nostalgia, and the most forward-thinking of their New Hollywood counterparts quickly to the brink of Industry pushed. The lesson is that there is nothing natural, inevitable, or immutable about Hollywood’s approach – neither the production methods nor the resulting dictates of style and form. (The lack of a unified and centralized documentary system is the reason why the non-fiction books, as reflected in this year’s list, continue their aesthetic expansion unchecked.)
Even before the pandemic, it was becoming more difficult for artistically ambitious low-budget features to get a theatrical release, let alone achieve commercial profitability. (Some of the best independent films I’ve seen in the past few years are still unreleased.) But the economics of streaming services have their own particular challenges. At theatrical releases, viewers do not pay a ticket unless they want to see a film. Streaming subscriptions effectively mean upfront payment for movies before they’re available, which means platforms have an incentive to deliver the familiar – whether tightly formatted star and genre movies, or branded films that can easily generate interest. And widening the gap between the most profitable films and the most original filmmakers risks putting directors under pressure to soften or suppress their most original inspirations, or to filter them into formats, genres or systems that oppose or counteract them .
There is a worse danger than the studios and their over-produced, over-budgeted methods: a weakened Hollywood that would give up its dominance in filmmaking to an even smaller number of huge streaming services. Netflix and Amazon (and to a lesser extent Apple TV +) have done a respectable job producing and releasing artistically valuable films, including some that top my list. They do this in order to be able to compete as actors and not as disruptors with studios and large independent producers for renowned artists and projects. But as admissions continue to shrink, studio supremacy, and independent producers and distributors turned into dependent shells, the major streaming services will have far less incentive to fund films with significant artistic aspirations.
The economy of any single film is irrelevant to the progress of the art form; The pantheon of classics has no connection with the treasury of the industry. But filmmakers’ careers are inextricably linked to their ability to secure access to funding, and the history of cinema is a graveyard of unrealized projects that should serve as a warning against the waste of worthy talent. Young filmmakers who work outside the system and have few expectations of getting started are the future of cinema, an art form that doesn’t know what it takes until it gets it. Art advances through a generation takeover – which can only happen if films seem worth taking over at all. As an avid cinema-goer who is aware of the risk of contagion, I go carefully into the cinemas and pay close attention to screenings where there are many free seats around me. But every empty seat promises ominous omens for the future of the feature film as a whole. Cinema has weathered many crises, economic and political, but when films contain a lesson themselves, rebirth is as likely as a zombie or a phoenix.
A note on this list, for the selection of last year when releases were in flux due to the pandemic, I included films that could be streamed at festivals and special series. Several of these films were officially released in 2021, and I re-recorded them to keep (or restore) keeping to the traditional calendar.
Wes Anderson’s wildly comedic, yet grimly serious adaptation of stories and personalities from the classic New York era unleashes a towering stream of dramatic and decorative complexity, philosophical power and physical intensity. It is an extraordinary film about the life of the mind-body connection, about history in the present tense.
What Paul Thomas Anderson interprets as a combative, romantic coming-of-age story for a teenage actor and a hectic journey of self-discovery for a dreamer in his twenties, takes place in the San Fernando Valley of the early seventies, becomes wondrous and happy in his version of “There was once. . . in Hollywood ”- far superior due to the range of his tenderness, skepticism, humor and insight.