Movie-viewing in theaters has served as a source of entertainment since the turn of the twentieth century, but the world momentarily hit pause on this beloved pastime following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Theaters shuttered while production houses halted work mid-project or stopped greenlighting new scripts. Which is why reviewing some of the best films of 2021 feels more momentous than in past years. Perhaps it takes temporarily losing movies on the big screen to help us remember why we love them so much in the first place. Here’s a small sample of noteworthy cinematic offerings.

Stories Worth Retelling
Everyone knows the story of Diana, Princess of Wales—née Diana Frances Spencer. Her sad ending on a road in Paris in 1997 hangs like a melancholic shroud over director Pablo Larrain’s biopic, Spencer. Yet rather than feeling burdensome, the effect is captivating, inviting viewers into the complex, troubled inner life of Princess Diana. Events in this film unfold over a charged Christmas weekend with the royal family, and actress Kristen Stewart is already generating Oscar buzz for her brutally honest turn in the titular role.

From brooding Brits to singing gangs, Steven Spielberg’s reboot of West Side Story stays true to the original Tony Kushner screenplay while simultaneously reviving it with modern themes that feel both urgent and timely. A variety of Latinx actors star in the roles of Sharks, which were written to be played by Puerto Rican people, and undercurrents in the 1961 original film tap into today’s profound societal divisions. With big emotions and even bigger songs, most critics agree that it’s easy to see why Spielberg felt compelled to reimagine West Side Story as his musical directorial debut.

Stories from Foreign Talent
The opening instantly draws you in: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn starts with the story of a history teacher at a prestigious school in Bucharest whose livelihood is jeopardized when a sex tape she made with her husband gets leaked and goes viral. Romanian director Radu Jude then zooms out from this couple, touching on broader elements of Romania’s communist history interspersed with scenes of covid-frantic masked characters captured during the pandemic. The result is two different and seemingly irreconcilable movies blended together into a satire that somehow ends up making sense, and which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Drive My Car is an equally original creation, based on a novella by bestselling Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi weaves a lyrical three-hour story about a man named Mr. Kafuku who can’t get over his wife’s mysterious passing and the fact that she cheated on him right before dying. Hoping for distraction, he accepts a job directing an experimental version of Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vanya, in Hiroshima. There, he’s assigned a young woman driver who’s battling her own inner demons. The film is lengthy but doesn’t feel long—rather, viewers are afforded time to probe into the characters’ minds and appreciate moments of quiet beauty.

Stories with Stunning Visuals
Set on a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925, The Power of the Dog (based on an eponymous novel by writer Thomas Savage) could be described as a character study between four people: a rancher named Phil (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems intent on tormenting his new sister-in-law, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), before eventually befriending her frail teenage son. Phil’s kind-hearted brother, George, rounds out the quartet. Director Jane Campion’s first feature film in 12 years delivers sweeping shots of an arid, lonely land (shot mainly in New Zealand), plus stunning close-ups of the people and possessions that inhabit that space. “It looks beautiful no matter the size of the screen,” said film critic Manohla Dargis, noting that she could “…fully experience the monumentality of its images…[and] feel on a profound, visceral level both the claustrophobia of its shadowy interiors and the liberating, heart-clutching boundlessness of its open landscapes.”

Meanwhile, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movies have been described as “dreamlike,” and Memoria is no exception. Set in Colombia—and marking Weerasethakul’s first film to take place outside his native country—it follows Jessica, an expat from Scotland (played by Tilda Swinton), who’s in Bogota visiting her sister, Karen. One night, Jessica is awoken by a strange sound, like a bang or sonic boom. The fantasy that next unfolds speaks on a larger scale to “the rush of modern times and the collective amnesia it creates.”

From biopics to musicals to foreign films and fantastical creations, this year’s silver-screen offerings encompassed a wide range of talent, ideas and innovation. Here’s to many hours of happy viewing!

Caitlin Armstrong
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