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 3.
My esteemed Movie Club Faaaaammm-ly,
When we last left in-person critics’ screenings back in March 2020, Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot bid me adieu from the AMC Bedbug 25. So it was only fitting that Diesel would bring about my Joe’s Apartment–style reunion with those pesky critters on 42nd Street: The first movie I saw after I was fully vaxxed was actually the extremely entertaining cringe comedy Shiva Baby, but my first professional movie watch was F9: The Fast Saga. The ninth entry in the superpowered-car series that will not die was so ridiculous that it wore down my resistance. By the time director Justin Lin literally put homeboys in outer space, I was fully on board and had a wonderful time at the theater. Finally, I thought, we’re turning a corner on this ’rona thing!
As I write this, I’m sick as a dog and awaiting the results of a rapid COVID test. Yes, I’m vaccinated and boosted, but I’m far from invincible. Every notification from my Gmail fills me with the kind of escalating dread that Danielle (Rachel Sennott) feels as Shiva Baby writer-director Emma Seligman torments her.* Seligman never loses her grip as she tightens the screws on her protagonist, using the setting and the characters as fodder for maximum discomfort. The result is a horror comedy that’s as funny as it is Jewish. And it is very Jewish: I saw it at the Quad, and my only company was a bunch of elderly Jewish women, one of whom vociferously lambasted the movie as the credits rolled. “This movie is bad for the Jews!” she yelled. “And I would know! I’m a Jewish woman from Canarsie!” Her unmistakable Brooklyn accent made that last statement hilariously redundant.
I have three documentaries in my Top 10 list—you can see all my picks at the bottom of this entry—so I’d like to ask Alison to expand on something she said during our preliminary discussions. Alison, you mentioned that you did not think this was a good year for docs. I reviewed quite a few of them, and outside of the absolutely dismal Mayor Pete and the Spago ad that was Wolfgang, my assignments fell on the positive side of the scale for me. What say you about your experiences on the nonfiction side of the fence?
Bilge and I had In the Heights on our Top 10 lists, a movie that marked my first post-March 2020 IMAX screening. We had a good crowd, despite it being the early days of vaxxing and chillaxing. I saw the musical on Broadway, so I was familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton triumph. Is it just me, or was Miranda everywhere this year? There was the superb Encanto, the very bad Vivo, his directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom!—and hell, he even turned up as an interview subject in Summer of Soul! But the most fun I had with him was his cameo on the streets of Washington Heights. I don’t think the colorism issue (a legitimate argument, I may add) hurt the film’s box office; I do think its simultaneous appearance on HBO Max gave people an alternate, cheaper avenue to see it. I think West Side Story would have fared better with this release model, but Lord help us if the creator of Amazing Stories and the director of Duel had his work premiere on TV!
But really, we’re critics, and we’re not supposed to care about box office. Or so I thought! Spielberg’s Folly brought out a whole slew of our colleagues on Twitter rending their garments, crying white tears, and doing their best Bosley Crowther impressions while trying to make this particular fetch happen. Crowther, you may recall, was considered “out of touch” after his numerous pans of Bonnie and Clyde. Unlike West Side Story, Bonnie and Clyde still feels fresh and new, 54 years after its release. When Spielberg announced he was remaking the 1961 Oscar-winning musical, my first and consistent reaction was “WHO IS THIS FOR?” It’s a dusty, outdated, racist musical that hit the Great White Way when my mother was in grammar school. Sure, it has some great songs, but so does Porgy and Bess, the even more racist opera that also keeps getting restaged. At least the Gershwins had the wherewithal to ensure their work wasn’t going to be cast with a bunch of white people in blackface.
Who was this remake of West Side Story for? Perhaps it’s for Steven Spielberg. More power to a man who’s done enough classics where he can command this type of vanity project. But he should have known that the Latinos of today don’t want to see themselves portrayed this way any more than I want to keep seeing slavery movies. I think Kushner’s changes made the material worse, because no matter what he did, the plot remained the same. Same bullshit, now with more brown people. But I nonetheless gave it two and a half stars, the exact rating I gave the original that, in my youth, I was forcibly subjected to 50 million times on WPIX. Ariana DeBose was just too good to ignore, and Rachel Zegler mopped the floor with the black hole of charisma that is Ansel Elgort.
Thank heavens for Richard Brody, who cut through all the nonsense with his fantastic review. Richard and I rarely agree on anything, but he articulated everything I felt about this remake. He also answered the burning question of who the audience is for this movie. Brody tweeted of Spielberg, “He has found his true audience: critics who want Old Hollywood to live again, zombie-like, and he’s doing his best to make it do so.”
My final word on this soapbox: For several critics to be on Twitter acting as if Spielberg was being disrespected by the minuscule box office was embarrassing at best, infuriating at worst. It drew attention away from the critics of color who had something to say about this movie, and it made me wonder why I was still doing this job. Critics complain that the audience doesn’t make the right choices, then attempt to shred them when they actually do. The schadenfreude I feel is delicious.
Tell us about the bad docs, Alison!
P.S. Here’s my list; I will see Mr. Ebiri’s Top 20, and raise him mine:
1. Summer of Soul
3. In the Heights
4. The Harder They Fall
7. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
9. Parallel Mothers
11. The Outside Story
12. Drive My Car
14. Three Billboards Outside Dunsinane, Scotland, I mean Macbeth X, no, wait, The Tragedy of Macbeth!
15. Operation Hyacinth
17. The Velvet Underground
18. Shiva Baby
19. The Worst Person in the World
20. Nightmare Alley
Correction, Dec. 28, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Rachel Sennott’s last name.