2021 Wrap-Up: The Year in Theater-Going
For me, the year in movies was defined primarily by one thing: the fact that for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, theater-going once again felt (depending on one’s own risk and comfort level) like a regular part of the movie-watching routine. Just as Nicole Kidman points out in her relentless AMC advertisements, the movie theater feels like home to me — somewhere I go to cry, to laugh, to be thrilled, and to relieve stress. I count it, genuinely, among the most important balms for my personal mental health. As such, I wanted to highlight how much the year in movie-going has meant to me. These aren’t necessarily my favorite films of the past year: in fact, the films below only represent movies that aren’t in contention for my forthcoming Top Ten (though I should note that list will probably be longer than ten). But even if I didn’t particularly care for some of these, this year they all felt just a little more special because they meant I was back in the darkness of the theater yet again.
The Father (March)
Other than one (perhaps questionable) excursion to catch Tenet the previous summer, I hadn’t seen a movie in the theater since the beginning of the pandemic, and had started to grow used to seeing new releases at home. But the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021 meant — among other things — that many of us would soon feel comfortable going back to the movies. There’s plenty to like about The Father (particularly the performances), but for me I’ll always remember it mostly as my first post-vaccine theatrical experience.
Just as The Father was my first post-vaccine theatrical experience, Nobody was my last new release drive-in experience to date. As a stickler for sound and visual quality, I sometimes found that the drive-in caused me more stress than enjoyment, but as a temporary replacement for the big-screen outing I so greatly missed, it provided some semblance of the immersion and community only a theater can truly provide.
Those Who Wish Me Dead (May)
This Angelina Jolie vehicle was hailed as a throwback of sorts, mostly to the pre-internet days of “let’s go to the multiplex and see what’s playing,” a niche that I often don’t realize I’m missing until I’m sitting in the theater. No awards buzz, no multiverses, no pre-existing IP, just a totally sturdy thriller anchored by a movie star — a pure, no-strings-attached popcorn movie of the sort I hope we continue to see grace the big screen.
In the Heights (June)
For me, the first real “Movies Are Back!” experience of the pandemic. Full theater, legitimate excitement from the crowd that belied the film’s relatively disappointing opening weekend box office, a palpable sense of joy emanating from the screen — not the best movie musical I saw this year (more on that in an upcoming piece), but perhaps the one that in the moment had the most exterior meaning.
Black Widow (July)
Overall, the most forgettable of the five (!) Marvel properties that hit theaters this year, but — fittingly — Black Widow is the one I associate with family. I grew up in a home that loved the movies, and going to the theater remains a significant tradition for myself, my parents, and my siblings. Summer 2021 was the first time I’d been able to travel and see my family in about 18 months, and sharing a theatrical experience helped make it all feel somewhat close to normal, with the promise that (hopefully) we wouldn’t have to be separated for so long anytime soon.
Sometimes, the best movies to see in a theater aren’t necessarily the big action spectacles — with a decent enough television and sound system, you can at least approximate the blockbuster feeling — it’s the smaller films whose rhythms are so unique that the viewing experience benefits exponentially from immersion and minimizing distractions. I saw Zola right before the end of its run, in a near-empty screening, but in this case it wasn’t about the crowd: it was about falling under the film’s hypnotic, sometimes alienating, but always fascinating spell.
Snake Eyes (July)
OK, but sometimes it is about seeing the big action spectacle. You see, the thing about Snake Eyes is that it’s incredibly dumb, and had I watched it at home there’s a good chance I would have just completely lost interest halfway through. But instead I saw it at a sold out, opening night screening after an enjoyable date night dinner — that didn’t make it any less dumb, but the energy and experience led me to be a lot more forgiving of its flaws.
Leos Carax’s strange musical melodrama quickly became a divisive, love it or hate it piece of art, with increased exposure stemming from its release on Amazon Prime Video. I, boringly, found myself mostly in the middle, appreciating the ambition while feeling worn down in the execution. However, similar to Zola above, it’s a film that truly benefits from being seen in a theater precisely because of its oddities: I was gleefully reminded of my experience seeing mother! a few years back, where I similarly spent a good chunk of the runtime laughing at a film that I understood to be comedic — a feeling in both cases clearly not shared by my fellow audience members.
I ultimately walked away underwhelmed and slightly disappointed from the Nia DaCosta-helmed reimagining of the ‘90s horror classic — unfortunate, as it had been one of my most-anticipated of the year. Nevertheless, the magic of horror in particular sometimes comes from being able to enjoy the journey even if the destination doesn’t pan out; more than any other genre, you can never quite be sure what’s going to happen moment to moment, whether any character is safe, when the next scare is going to come. All this comes together to create a baseline level of enjoyment, which just increases when you’re in the dark of the theater.
Wife of a Spy (September)
I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of an audience from a small advance screening of a limited-run international film without much in the way of name recognition outside arthouse circles. But when I showed up at the historic Roxie theater in San Francisco on a Tuesday night, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bustling crowd of fellow cinephiles, all eagerly anticipating the latest from Kiyoshi Kurosawa — a nice reminder of the strength and resilience of the film community in all its forms.
The Black Phone (October)
My least favorite film on this list by a wide margin, the rare movie I not only disliked while watching but wound up liking even less after the post-show Q&A, and somewhat of a cheat to boot because it won’t release until next summer. But all that said, I have to give it credit for providing me with one of the most energized screenings I experienced all year — the audience at LA’s Beyond Fest, on the whole, seemed to love watching this movie. Cheers, gasps, and breathless admiration were all on full display, and while I wish I could have been on that page, my heart warms anytime I see folks this ecstatic in a movie theater.
The Mill Valley Film Festival was my first in-person return to a major fest since Sundance 2020, and while I don’t think I can say it felt like everything was completely back to normal, it was close enough to make me think maybe we’d have a full, regular, festival slate in 2022 (a feeling I maintained until, oh, about a week ago). Belfast wasn’t my favorite film at Mill Valley — far from it — but it was clearly the biggest crowd-pleaser, the movie that most left me with a feeling of shared connection with the masked strangers around me.
This felt like the big one, the “you gotta see it as big and loud as you possibly can” movie of 2021. Of course, that’s all relative: it premiered simultaneously on HBO Max, after all, and given the ongoing uncertainty I absolutely understand wanting to take advantage of any opportunity to see a new movie from the comfort of one’s own home (I’ve done that plenty of times this year myself). Dune was one of the experiences I wanted to maximize, however, and I don’t regret it — though I was a little more mixed on it than many (my main problem being that it’s really only half a movie), it really was something to have my teeth rattled and my vision filled with the sounds and images from some inventive future.
Licorice Pizza (December)
Similar to Wife of a Spy, I wasn’t sure what the attendance at my local Silicon Valley screening of Licorice Pizza would be like. Sure, there was more commercial appeal for this film, and the marketing campaign was much more relentless, but still: were there enough folks around and invested to justify the novelty “one night only” pop-up showing? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes — a large auditorium at our local multiplex was completely full, with clear anticipatory energy and enthusiasm. The new Paul Thomas Anderson was a big deal, it seemed, even outside of the venues where the film would more obviously be an event unto itself. Though box office returns may not show it, there was just as much excitement in that theater as there was when I went to see Spider-Man the next week — we may complain about the death of cinema on a macro level (and those complaints may be valid), but there were plenty of reminders this year that on a screening by screening level at least, the joy of the movies is still alive and well.