In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Alison Willmore, and Odie Henderson—about the year in cinema. Below is Entry 5.
Dear Bilge, Odie, and Alison,
So many things are undecided as I write: What we all ought to be doing in regard to our holiday travel and plans for early 2022. In what form, if at all, the theatrical projection of anything other than megabudget franchise pictures will survive. Whether Odie has COVID. That last question will be answered one way or another by the time his turn comes back around, but since the other two can’t be resolved via nasal swab, let’s leave them in suspension and get back to what we came here for: the movies.
There was a firehose of new movies trained on us this year, after that year-plus when the pipelines of both production and distribution had clogged up. Some big releases had been sitting on a studio shelf since 2020, a time-travel effect that could give them a burnished glow, like In the Heights (all those sweaty, maskless mass gatherings!) or make them seem clumsily off-key, like Eternals (you want us to meet a whole new lineup of superheroes? In this economy?). Dune was the held-over title from 2020 that landed with the biggest splash, at least to judge by the hold it kept on the public imagination for six weeks or so last summer. It became the big, loud, meme-able movie you see so you can talk about it with your friends at a time when, for lots of reasons, few new films were clearing that bar. I didn’t love Dune, or even like it much; I found the dialogue bombastic and the characters mostly unengaging (except for Jason Momoa’s cuddly warrior Duncan Idaho, whom I would lay down my life for). If I had watched Dune on a home screen, I would likely have had to keep pinching myself awake. But witnessed on IMAX, the sheer spectacle of it—those building-size spice worms! That eerie Hans Zimmer score!—had a visual and sonic grandeur that felt pleasurably crushing. Getting Dune’d is an experience, and I’m glad I had it. But I feel no need to get Dune’d again (though I will be, if not first in line, certainly somewhere in line for the sequel).
Really, the highlight of 2021 movie-wise was how dispersed and wide-open the field felt to a critic deciding where to alight first. Because what was in essence two years’ worth of releases from all over the world were coming at us on all kinds of platforms at once, you could equally well, like Alison, wonder where all the great documentaries were this year or, like Odie, be trapped beneath a pile of brilliant documentaries. I enjoyed the freedom of blithely ignoring some of the big domestic releases (No Time to Die, A Quiet Place Part 2, Spider-Man: No Way Home) to make time to cram in all the foreign films I could, even if some of the best-received international titles, like Julia Ducournau’s Titane and (bless me, Father, for I have sinned) Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, didn’t ring my bells quite as hard as they did some critics’. There was a profusion of what I want to call biodiversity on the world art house circuit this year, with beautiful, original, deeply mysterious work from some of the world’s best living filmmakers: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Memoria), Leos Carax (Annette), Pedro Almodóvar (The Human Voice and Parallel Mothers), Céline Sciamma (Petite Maman). My biggest personal discovery was the prodigious young Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane, whose second feature, the brooding character study The Disciple, had a lock on a spot in my Top 10 from the moment I first saw it back in the spring. His debut film, a 2014 legal drama called Court, turns out to be even more sensational. The Disciple was shamefully buried at the time of its Netflix release—to find it, you had to search it out specifically by title and differentiate it from several other badly marketed films by the same name. If there is an international film distributor reading this, please snap up the next Chaitanya Tamhane joint so it can find one of the small but passionate niche audiences that keep such movies going.
Alison, you wrote that you responded to West Side Story “ecstatically.” I had a similar sensation of transport watching Licorice Pizza on 35 mm in a theater beside my partner, with whom I had not watched a movie in that way for at least two years. Though we’re younger than the characters in the movie would be now—we were tiny kids in 1973, not even as old as the cool-cat preteen brother of Cooper Hoffman’s character—we both agreed, walking out, that the film’s slightly sordid and, by modern standards, alarmingly underparented world felt familiar from our own 1970s suburban childhoods. Yet the movie is not a nostalgia trip; if anything, it mounts a case against romanticization of the past by repeatedly lifting the veil on the era’s small daily cruelties toward women, gay men, and, yes, people of color. The running joke many viewers have objected to, with a white restaurant owner addressing two consecutive Japanese wives in an exaggerated “Asian” accent, may not be funny or land as it was intended (I say as much in my review). But the butt of the joke is the racist husband, not the exasperated women by his side, both of whom, it’s implied, eventually leave him. Anderson has spoken in interviews about how the restaurateur character was inspired by people who to this day speak to his Japanese mother-in-law in such a voice. The gag is a broad-brush attempt at satire that I wish had been left out of the script, but if some audiences responded to the discomfort it purposely evokes by bursting into applause, that is to those audiences’ shame, not the movie’s.
As to the Licorice Pizza age gap debate, will I be cast out of polite society, or worse, invited to speak by a conservative campus alliance, if I confess that I don’t see quite why this discussion about this particular film has held so many people’s attention for so long? The central couple, if you can call them that, have an all but entirely chaste relationship; one climactic scene involves a 15-year-old boy almost but not quite daring to touch a 25-year-old girl’s hand, and much later they share a single kiss. Sure, at one point she lifts her shirt up to flash her boobs at him, but the movie takes place in an era when mooning people from cars and “streaking” at football games was a national pastime. Odie’s robust list of complaints about Licorice Pizza even includes the objection that it was too sexless. And the film as a whole neither approves of nor condemns the pair’s muddled flirtation/rivalry/business partnership. As with most of the sprawling cast of characters, Hoffman’s Gary and Alana Haim’s Alana (one of the breakthrough performances and most indelible female characters of the year) are presented as messed up but not irredeemable, worthy of both mockery and love.
Ultimately Licorice Pizza is not focused on sex or romance; it’s a coming-of-age comedy about the mostly bad choices made by two confused young people at a time when confusion was the reigning state, and a precisely drawn portrait of their extended social milieu. This loose-limbed hangout movie does sometimes have a yet-unformed feeling (as did, for me, Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another film made up of small moments and encounters rather than a clear narrative throughline). But that organic, always-unfolding quality was exactly what I dug about Licorice Pizza, so I guess I’m letting my PTA freak flag fly on this one.
Odie, how canceled am I on a scale of 1 to 10? And if I may still ask a movie-themed question, where did you fall on the House of Gucci audience reception continuum, with campy delight at one end and irritated tedium at the other? Before you respond to anything else, though, can you please reveal whether or not you have COVID, and whether you’re feeling OK?
Yours in bell-bottoms and a middle part,