Top Ten Movies of 2021 — Number Eight

The defining achievement of Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story is that it is inadequate to the point of flat-out inaccuracy to term the film an adaptation or a remake. Yes, the work is taken directly from the enduring musical, first staged in 1957 and remounted countless times in a myriad of venues since, and it has much in common, visually and dynamically, with the canonical 1961 film version. This new West Side Story is so much more than another pass at the material. Spielberg and his whole team, most vitally screenwriter Tony Kushner, are in active dialogue with the landmarks that came before, exploring the songs, the characters, the drama, and the politics of the piece with interpretations that engage and illuminate the text. Every choice is powered by purpose, and it is often the simplest — and often most logical — creative statements that provide the greatest impact: the locations where musical numbers are staged, little tweaks of who sings what song and when the songs arrive, letting spoken Spanish stand without the translation of subtitles conferring a foreignness to the words. Spielberg gets such tremendous performances from his cast, most notably Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose, and Rachel Zegler, that his West Side Story could have coasted on charisma. Instead, it alive with intellect, enraptured with all the possibilities embedded within art itself.

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