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 4.
Hello from Iowa City, where I’m sitting in my sister’s place in the dark early morning of one of the shortest days of the year, trying to keep my dog from barking at my brother-in-law’s pre-dawn Skype kung fu lesson while the rest of the household sleeps. I did a lot of dithering about whether I should cancel this trip after omicron exploded seemingly overnight in New York, but after conversations with my family and managing to score a COVID test appointment (negative, thank the gods) at the urgent care up the street, I decided to go for it. I feel for you, Odie, to be left lingering in that awful limbo while you await your result, and I hope you’re doing OK.
I spent the past few days reevaluating the choices I made over the past week, mostly movie-related, in light of the impossibly high bar of whether they were worth getting COVID for. Trekking uptown for a sparsely populated press screening of The King’s Man? It sure was a soul-crushingly pointless motion picture, but at least that was for work. Spider-Man: No Way Home I saw entirely out of a sense of professional obligation, sitting in a crowded Brooklyn theater next to a pair of teenage boys, whose masks were around their necks for the whole two-and-a-half-hour show as they happily munched on popcorn, sipped massive sodas, and muttered commentary to one another.
No experience this year has summed up the conflicted conversation about theaters more for me than this one. On one hand, it’s direct evidence of the irreplaceable delights of communal viewing on the big screen. On the other, there are constant reminders of the risks involved in large-scale gatherings, especially in the time of a new and highly contagious variant. On the other other hand, Spider-Man is record-setting proof that people are still interested in seeing things in theaters. On the other other other hand (call me Goro), what’s getting those people to come out in droves during this particularly perilous time is not just a superhero movie, but a superhero movie whose chief pleasures rest in reminding its audiences about other superhero movies.
I hear you, Odie, with regard to the mustiness of the source material for West Side Story—which I loved, ecstatically, and without any preexisting attachment to the original musical or its first adaptation, which I couldn’t give a damn about. But I also chuckled when I read that, because how often did we get anything genuinely new when it comes to studio fare? After all, the biggest film of the year, which has far outpaced Steven Spielberg’s latest, is about a character whose first comic book appearance was in 1962, just a year after the Jerome Robbins–Robert Wise West Side Story premiered in theaters.
Toward the end of No Way Home, Jamie Foxx’s character makes a crack—one that, speaking of nostalgia, reminded me of an almost identical one in 1995’s Hackers—to Andrew Garfield (aka the Amazing Spider-Man’s Spider-Man) about how he always assumed Spider-Man would be Black. It’s a nod to Miles Morales, who’s been brought to screen in the animated, and infinitely richer, Into the Spider-Verse. But it’s also an acknowledgment, intentional or otherwise, that we’ve had three live-action variants on this character in less than two decades, and the differences between them have been relatively minor and comfortably within the boundaries of the agreement revealed during the Sony hack: Peter Parker must be male, Caucasian, and heterosexual. He must not swear, smoke, abuse alcohol, fuck while underage, or “needlessly kill.” If there’s no space for revisionism and updates, don’t we just get the same thing over and over again? Because we’re sure not getting much by way of fresh material.
Box office cheerleading really isn’t territory for critics, but cinema’s as much commerce as art, in terms of how and what gets made, and I find it impossible to disregard the business side, especially when so many of these giant franchises are more interesting from that perspective than they are as works on their own. Who is it for has always been part of that math, but these days it’s a question that’s tightening around the neck of the industry like one of The Counselor’s bolitos, thanks to a constantly escalating competition for attention and the pressures of algorithm-driven recommendations. I didn’t think West Side Story was a sure-fire hit either, but as annoying as the ongoing streaming versus theaters and auteurs versus corporate enterprises can get, I don’t derive any pleasure from its failure. I don’t think it’s a good thing for anyone to only ever consume what they think they want, based on the closed-bordered kingdom of what they already know.
I’m guilty of repeating the past as well, given that I’m pretty sure I’ve already said this in a previous edition of Movie Club, but: What feels incontestable to me is that streaming is more convenient, accessible (presuming you have the broadband access to support it), and also received as a signal by the general public that something is less valuable. You can sense it in all the calculations Disney has been making with regard to what goes to theaters, what’s PVOD, and what goes directly to Disney+. It was heartening to see the genuinely weird Dune, which made my Top 10 list despite my tumultuous relationship with Denis Villeneuve’s work, do well enough to get a commitment that its second half would actually be produced, though it’s also based on decades-old source material that’s been adapted before. But Dune’s success felt like it came in spite of that simultaneous HBO Max release rather than because of it. For all that In the Heights, which I found great to look at and emotionally empty, was made instantly viewable to such a wide audience in the comfort of their homes, it doesn’t feel like it has any more of a cultural footprint than West Side Story revisited.
To answer your question, Bilge, a lesser-known title I’d like to call out is Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern, a movie that illuminates, in such a quietly devastating fashion, the fractures in the relationship between Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), who’s Black, and Evan (Will Brill), who’s white, by way of their expectations from law enforcement and from the hospital system after Renesha is sexually assaulted. And to answer your question, Odie, I have no good thoughts on my year of bad docs! I saw documentaries that were beautifully constructed, and ones that featured incredible archival footage, and ones that did some cool things with form, but little that I actually connected deeply with. And now that I’ve rambled on for ages, let me throw to you, Dana, with a question about Film Twitter’s most problematic fave this year — one that is, appropriately, also about looking backward. I believe you’re the only one of us who has Licorice Pizza on your list, so … DEFEND YOURSELF! By which I mean, what is your take on the ending, which I found downright maddening?
Yours in peanut butter sandwiches,
P.S. My top 10:
The Lost Daughter
Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn
The Worst Person in the World
West Side Story
Drive My Car