A mere four weeks ago, much of the world welcomed the annual calendar flip. Or did we?
A 0 morphed to a 1, certainly. But did anything change? Did we swap devastation for relief? Despite millions greeting the new year with the open arms of a parent welcoming a child back from their first year of college, normal life walked straight by most of us, heading directly upstairs to its bedroom to brood silently, far away from our warm embrace.
The arbitrary start of a new year has never felt more meaningless. A futile way of measuring time in normal circumstances, it has become completely irrelevant as time itself has taken on new forms. In the film industry, the constant changes in release dates have turned into punch-lines, nothing more than the desperate grasping for some semblance of control by those who once had power, but have lost it.
As a critic, avowed awards fan, and avid list-maker, the shifting film calendar has left me rudderless. The Golden Globe nominations in December, along with the subsequent early morning Oscar announcement in January, have always helped me track time, marking the passage of another movie year. Those are gone. The garbage January releases - always one bad horror, one decent horror, one horrific lifetime movie with an absurd twist, and one dumb comedy starring Kevin Hart - usually come at just the right time after months of prestige fair. They’re not here either. Locking in my yearly list of best films on Letterboxd is often the exclamation point, and creating a new list the beginning of the next sentence, a gorgeously empty one, full of nothing but potential for the year ahead. I can still do that...but when?
I’ve lost my anchor. The Oscars shifted their window of eligibility from the end of December to the end of February. Is Judas and the Black Messiah a 2020 movie because it qualifies for the upcoming Oscars, or is it a 2021 movie because, well, it comes out in 2021? What about The Father, which despite coming out in February, has been on the festival circuit for a full year, giving thousands of people the chance to see it? Do I treat Minari and Promising Young Woman, which have not come out but which I saw at a festival last year, any different from The Father, which I did not see? Which list do I put them on? When do I finalize my Best of 2020 list?
And then I asked myself the most important question.
Who gives a shit?
I will always love lists. I will always care too much about the procedural nuances of list-making, the magical balance of art and science, intuition and logic, that seems to shift slightly with each new ranking. But the loss of my anchor - the reliability of the film calendar - has afforded me the freedom to find a new one: the movies themselves. In the last month, I have spent significantly less time pondering where on my list a film slots in, whether any of its performances might make my year-end list, or even which year’s other movies to compare it to. Was 2020 a better film year than 2019 or 2018? If there are no clear lines around the last year, how can we even ask that question, nevermind attempt to answer it?
To be clear: this was my own intellectual flaw, remedied by external forces after years of failure to rectify it through internal fortitude. Nonetheless, I’m grateful. I have stumbled into more thorough, engaging conversations about recent films than I’ve had in a long time. The first film I watched after this newfound mental freedom was Pieces of a Woman, the 2021 Netflix release (or was it a 2020 festival release?) about what it means to endure, I mean really endure, an unthinkable tragedy. On this one movie, my wife and I dove deeper into what worked, what didn’t, what we took from it, and what it meant to us and for us than I had for the entire list of last year’s movies that I binged over the course of December in my mad rush to get to everything.
If there’s no calendar, there are no deadlines. If there are no deadlines, there’s no urgency. If there’s no urgency...well, you get the picture. I find myself watching films because I want to watch them - what a novelty! Not because I need to “get to them,” or because they are “important to catch.” And here’s the thing: I don’t just enjoy them more this way. My appreciation grows as well. They’re no longer an item to check-off a list (2020 to watch) just to add to another (2020 watched), but a film to watch, consider, roll around in my mind and in my heart.
Lists will remain, because I have not undergone a fundamental change in personality. But I even after things go back to normal, I don’t plan on lifting this newfound anchor out of the stormy seas of cinema. The movies should tether me to that world. Nothing else.