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 2.
Greetings, fellow inmates:
Dana, you ask: “Was 2021 a fantastic year for musicals, or a fantastic year for ambitious filmmakers to learn the hard way that most audiences remain deeply uninterested in musicals?” I suppose the best way to start answering that question is by coming right out and saying this: West Side Story was never going to be a big hit. I know the disappointing box office for that picture shocked many critics and observers, but I just don’t think the basic appeal of that particular show extends all that far beyond nostalgic film buffs and recovering theater kids.
I admit it, I’m a little biased. I enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s film a great deal, and I was moved by a number of the changes he and Tony Kushner made to it (some of which I delineated in my review) … but it’s still West Side Story, and I just have a mental block with this material. I really do not like the 1961 movie. I don’t buy the love story, the storyline keeps turning on unconvincing caricatures, and every time the Jets start snapping and jazz-skipping their way down the street while acting like tough guys, I’m taken right out of the whole thing. (This probably makes me a bad person.) Would Spielberg’s film have done better in a nonpandemic world? Of course. I know of plenty older moviegoers who wanted to see it but simply didn’t go, out of COVID-related concerns; that it opened right as a new variant was hitting surely didn’t help matters. But I’m not convinced we were ever looking at The Greatest Showman or La La Land–style box-office numbers here.
That said, it was a fantastic year for musicals, in that I saw a number of them that I loved dearly: Annette and In the Heights, obviously, both of which Dana has already mentioned, and also Cyrano, which is on my Top 20 list and goes up a notch every time I rewatch it. (Elsewhere: I didn’t see Dear Evan Hansen, which I heard was terrible; I didn’t love Tick, Tick, Boom, but it had some wonderful moments, and Lin-Manuel Miranda might actually prove to be a great filmmaker someday.)
Of the three musicals that made my list, each is a very different beast, and it’d be hard for me to draw any general assumptions about the health or general state of that genre from their reception. Annette is an ostentatiously strange movie that embraces artificiality. This is a movie that asks you to accept Adam Driver as a great and popular stand-up comedian even as it presents you with extended scenes of his terrible, obnoxious stand-up comedy act. One of the reasons why I love Annette is because of how compelling Leos Carax manages to make such fundamentally alienating material. I know Odie hated Annette, and honestly, I didn’t even know if I myself liked it all that much when I first saw it. I just knew that it had parts that moved me greatly, that it was clearly a deeply personal work from a filmmaker who had lost his own partner and muse years ago (the film is dedicated to both her and their daughter), and that I wanted to see it again immediately. I fell in love with Annette upon subsequent viewings, and it’s still impossible for me to watch the last 20 or so minutes—and particularly that ending—without turning into a whimpering, shivering, crying wreck.
Meanwhile, the delightfully ramshackle and lived-in In the Heights does feel like the kind of movie that might have been a decent hit in a pre-pandemic world. But then again, it has no stars and it’s a title familiar primarily to theater aficionados, so maybe it too was always bound for a West Side Story–like fate. (Did the colorism debate hurt it? I don’t think so, but maybe I’m naïve.) Cyrano … well, it’s not actually in theaters yet, so we’ll have to see how it does. It’s romantic, it’s epic, it’s nutty, the songs are great, and it’s very much a Joe Wright film, which—as far as I’m concerned—is a wonderful thing. (I know not everyone agrees.)
I feel that film critics should be given the leeway to make Top 20 lists instead of Top 10s, as is regularly asked of them. For a variety of reasons, we simply wind up seeing way more stuff than most of our colleagues who cover other art forms. Even so, every year when I make my Top 20, I’m faced with those titles that narrowly missed out. And there are always a couple of smaller films (or at least non-usual-suspect films) that I wish I could have snuck in there. In my case, maybe I should have made room for the terrifically tense and melancholy Australian thriller The Dry, which reminded me all over again what a captivating actor Eric Bana could be. I could have included elegiac archeological period drama The Dig, which somehow managed to get me emotional over a revelation about the sixth-century economy of East Anglia. Or perhaps Alex Camilleri’s Sundance-anointed Luzzu, which was the drama about labor relations among Maltese fishermen that I didn’t know I needed, should be on my list. I’m glad Alison was able to make room on her list for the hilarious Eric Andre hidden-camera stunt comedy Bad Trip, which isn’t exactly a small movie but has a generosity of spirit that makes it feel life-size and deeply human.
So maybe I should ask you guys: What were those smaller, lesser-known titles that you wish you could have fit onto your year-end lists but weren’t able to?
Yours in virality,
P.S. Speaking of my Top 20, I should probably share the full list here. (Write-ups for my Top 10, along with Alison’s, can be found on Vulture.)
2. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
3. The Power of the Dog
4. Drive My Car
7. Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters
9. The Worst Person in the World
10. In the Heights
11. Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn
12. The Hand of God
13. The Last Duel
14. Acasa, My Home
17. Red Rocket
18. Becoming Cousteau
19. Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story
20. The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52