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 1.
Dear much-missed colleagues,
It’s the second year in a row that Slate Movie Club is convening in the midst of a pandemic, with the art form we’ve all spent our professional lives thinking, learning and writing about seeming once again to teeter on the verge of extinction. Or wait, are movies undergoing an unprecedented efflorescence? I guess it depends on how you define “movies.” During its opening weekend, Spider-Man: No Way Home, a franchise entry Bilge’s review called “aggressively mediocre,” made a smash-and-grab killing at the box office—$260 million, the biggest theatrical opening of any release since March 2020 and the third-biggest in the history of the medium.
Reading that news, one might cheerfully aver, like the CEO of Sony Pictures, that those results “reaffirm the unmatched cultural impact that exclusive theatrical films can have when they are made and marketed with vision and resolve.” Or, if one were depressed by the grotesque disproportion between that box-office haul and the $3 million or so brought in by the fifth top-grosser of the same weekend, Guillermo Del Toro’s slinky, movie-star-stuffed noir pastiche Nightmare Alley, one might lament the state of our soul-sucking cinematic monoculture. You don’t have to be crazy for Nightmare Alley—or West Side Story, another box-office also-ran at around $3.4 million on its second weekend in wide release—to fear for the continued existence of mid-budget, non-comic-book-based movies for adults in a market that treats ticket buyers like the pod-bound human bodies of the Matrix universe, suspended in vats of clear gel with exactly one choice about which experience they’ll get to consume once they’re “jacked in.”
[Read more: Dana Stevens’ Top 10 Movies of 2021]
As I type these words I am feeling inclined toward that second view about the movies’ future: Pump in the gel and pass the popcorn. That’s very 2021 of me, though: All year long the way we felt about movies danced in step with the way we felt about COVID, and right now, facing the prospect of another winter spent in anxiety and isolation, it’s hard to muster the plucky we’ll-get-through-this spirit that has animated so much of my movie-watching and, occasionally, moviegoing over the past two years. I wrote a bit in the runup to my Top 10 list about how everyone I know remembers the movie that brought them back into the theater post-March 2020. For me, this happened in late spring, during those touchingly naïve six weeks when we thought the vaccine was bringing us out of the pandemic era for good. The movie, more or less by happenstance but very pleasurably, was Jon Chu’s sundrenched adaptation of In the Heights. Some of you may have gone back much earlier, masked to the gills, to see movies released with a theatrical-only window back before there was a shot. Or maybe some of you, like plenty of film fans out there, have still not set foot in a movie theater since all this began. How much that experience matters, what kind of public space movie theaters represent and what their reduced role in our lives might mean in the broader context of a public life that often seems to be collapsing around us, are questions I hope to get into with you all this week. This isn’t (just) an invitation to wax nostalgic about the sticky-floored multiplexes of our youth. It’s an inquiry into how the two-year-old experiment of making laptops and home screens into our de facto movie theaters has changed the way you watch and think about watching.
Speaking of Top 10s, here’s mine, in alphabetical order:
Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar
The Green Knight
The Power of the Dog
Summer of Soul
The Velvet Underground
West Side Story
Bilge, since you’re up next, here’s a more narrowly framed question to take on in this first round: 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? You have two very different examples of the form on your Top 10 list this year: In the Heights and, at your #1 spot, Léos Carax’s brilliantly bizarre Annette, with an original score by the pop duo Sparks (also the subject of one of this year’s many first-rate documentaries about musicians, Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers). Odie, on the other hand, put Annette on his ten worst of the year list, while both Alison and I placed Spielberg’s West Side Story on our ten best. Since these movies were conceived at different times, some years before the pandemic and some since it began, it’s hard to generalize about why filmmakers would be drawn to making musicals at this particular moment in history (though you’re welcome to try!). But I’m curious what you think about why so few filmgoers have responded to the genre during a time when, as Spider-Man’s box-office triumph testifies, we are looking to movies for escape and pleasure. Speaking for myself, right now I feel like every movie should be a sung-through musical. Haven’t we earned that?
And to make up for that gloomy “Are movies doomed?” kickoff, let me welcome you all with a warm thanks for agreeing to join me this week around the Slate Movie Club roundtable. The fact that the movie-release spigot got turned back on in 2021 after over a year on hold means there is a superabundance of truly great films to talk about, and I for one have been waiting all year for a chance to chop them up with the likes of you. To quote Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of many film legends who left us this year: Allons-y, Alonso!
Yours in aggressive mediocrity,