Top Ten Movies of 2021 — An Introduction

Another year passes with the movies simultaneously feeling more distant and yet more accessible than ever before. When I tapped out a similar introductory missive just about a year ago, a whole calendar had been flipped through and tossed in the recycling bin without a visit to an actual movie theater, an unprecedented drought in my adult life. Following a couple shots in the arm (and a third later), a darkened auditorium full of strangers felt safe-ish again, but only so much for our household. As the Delta variant gave way to the unwelcome sequel the Omicron variant, we scouted theater options like we were on the verge of a heist. Certain titles remained out of reach to us if they only played at establishments where we had some level of skepticism, about the space, the staff, or our fellow clientele.

Then again, we managed to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the first time ever in 2021, lounging on our comfortable couch, no strangers coughs to be heard. We similarly paid our way into remote attendance at the Chicago International Film Festival and felt fine about paying a premium price for relatively early digital access for major releases, figuring the twenty bucks or so it cost, at the peak of pricing, was comparable to the expense of a theater trip. Dismaying as it can be to lose the communal pleasure of being with fellow film fans in a crowded (but maybe not too crowded) theater and the enhanced experience of a big screen and a booming sound system, great films transcend the limitations of the delivery mechanism. I saw only one of the films in my personal top ten in a theater. I’m glad I saw it there, but it’s no better or worse because of it.

I suspect we are upon a permanent change, that the the exhibition experience will be dominated by films that are more clearly product than art. Other cinematic endeavors will get only the briefest of flashes on large screens, mostly as promotional endeavors to remind people that, hey, the company that makes your favorite smartphone has a portal where you can see what directors Sofia Coppola and Joel Coen have been up to lately. Purists can lament it all they like, but that’s not that far off what the moviegoing experience has been like for huge swaths of the country that are removed from major metropolitan centers. The main difference for them is that the works of these more adventurous filmmakers are now accessible. Thirty years ago, when I was cohosting a movie review radio show in a small Wisconsin college town, it would have been a blessing to get quick-click access to a new Jane Campion film just a couple weeks after it opened in New York City. To that kid’s eyes, this supposedly disintegrating cinema culture looks instead like a new golden age.

As usual at this time of year, I have ten movies to celebrate in the coming weeks, dispersed one by one as the Academy Awards approach. It starts tomorrow, with one of those films I likely couldn’t have seen at all by this point if not for all the virtual delivery methods that prosper in our evolving film culture.

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