2021 Retrospective: The Story of a Year In Film

I always enjoy using this time of year to look back on the year that was and take stock of where I’ve developed and grown. I love locating a narative within that in order to help formulate it into a story I can live occupy and live in to as I look towards the new year. This includes looking through what I have been reading, listening, and watching in 2021.

I’ve already been using this space to examine my top 10 most important reads of the year, which you can search here if you are interested. What I’ve been looking at the last few days is my year in film, taking stock of which stories stood out for me and how they fit together. Along with the return to theaters the emotional process that refelcts, and acheiving a record in terms of stats (I logged more than 1270 first time watches with over 250 of those being 2021 releases), I noted a real difference between the uniform nature of my top picks in 2020, which nearly all fit within a similar theme of childhood innocence lost set against the recovering of that childhood innocence in the face of our adult cynicism, and the sheer diversity of the titles contending for my favorites of 2021. This has been one of the hardest years to whittle down that I can remember in a good while. For the most part my picks tend darker, more introspective, and are largely interested in uncovering the internal process as opposed to evoking imediate wonder for the larger story that we are a part of. In truth, taken as a collective these films admit that the larger story feels a bit cloudy at the moment.

These stories have tended to veer more intimate and smaller in scale, raising more questions about the present than runimating in the possibilities of the future. The occupying of this present space, perhaps as a kind of acceptance of where we are today as opposed to the hopeful positioning and optimism that the turn of the calender year seemed to reflect closing out 2020, seems to represent the exhuastion of it all that I hear many lamenting. I can’t help but think about how fiting the most recent Netflix release Don’t Look Up actually is given how it has sparked such vigorous division between an already divided left and right, convincing the masses regardless of affiliation that they are the smartest person in the room while everyone else are the ignorant fools and the cause of all the problems. The phrase “don’t look up” has quickly become ammunition for Trumpists and Leftists alike. Its no wonder its one of my least favorite films of the year. The laborious and dire depiction of toxic masculinity and cycical depavity in the Power of the Dog is close behind in one of my least favorite viewing experiences of the year.

That’s not to say that the films that have been informing my own experience in 2021 have been hopeless and dire. It’s simply that they see the present state of the journey in process and with a more narrowed perspective that the desperate grasping for hope that was 2020. I think about the complicated persona of Diana captured in the creative and imaginative exercise of Spencer, a film that dares to wonder about who this person was and how she might have processed the weight of her own struggles over the course of what was an important 3 days in her history. Here we get a picture of someone both burdened and driven to respond to lifes expectations of who we must be and what life must be like in order to be seen as worthwhile. Similarly the portrait we get in Cmon Cmon of a storied and isolated persona who finds his perspective on life challenged by an unexpected relationship with a child emboldens us to see the world as bigger than our limited point of view and as something that is in process, beckoning us to learn in real time often in the midst of less than ideal circumstances. The French Dispatch faces the present binaries of this world; life and death, dark and light, good and evil, and dares to imagine community as the healing force that emerges from their inevitable collision. Films like Notturno, Identifying Features, and About Endlessness narrow in on the points of our journey that feel impossible and embrace the sorts of questions that emerge from this uncertainty, pushing us forward down a path with limited view of whats ahead. In a different sense, films like The Card Counter, Cage’s surprising turn in Pig, Riders of Justice, and the single setting of The Humans narrow in even further on the emotional journey each narrative imaginines as they move towards wrestling with failures, sin, personal restitution, redemption and forgiveness as necessary for making sense of the larger story of this world and the spaces we occupy in it.

At the same time we got films that looked towards those larger and forming narratives, be it the metaphorical and allegorical interest of the Green Knight, steeped as it is in the old Aurthurian legends, the deeply felt cultural and socio-political commentary of Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto, stories of real hope in the midst of the collective struggle using traditional narratives to point us towards larger spiritual truths and a broadened view of humanity as “family”, This is similar as well to the way Spiderman: No Way Home tackles the question of how it is we live with the seeming irreconcilable dichotomies that define our lives and this world. Knowing what it means to be both Spiderman and Peter, or to be both hopeful and despairing at the same time is, the movie insists, part of the process of learning to live in the world we occupy in the present. Marvels Eternals asks the same question on a bigger scale, looking to locate an orgins story to help make sense of the moral tension of Thanos’ snap, examining the uncertainty of living in a post snap world. We also got the simple and hope filled stories of Licorice Pizza, Belfast and Coda, each of which offer real stories of hope from slightly different vantage points, be it the internal process of Locorice Pizza, the social and societal reality of Coda, or the collective experience of Belfast. Even the latest installment of Matrix: Resurrections seemed to reach for the hope filled possibilities that our questions might reveal, daring to ask about the nature of living in a post resurrection reality. If Neo as “The One” was supposed to bring liberty and make what is wrong in this world right, why are things still wrong? Does this mean that the resurrection failed to deliver what it promised, that Neo’s death is now more real than the promise of new life? Working through this question becomes a measure for how it is that we locate hope in the present, especially where we feel caught in the despairing cycles.

All of this has led me towards one, singular phrase- the reminder that we are “in process”. In process feels less hopeful a sentiment than the forced proclamation of a new year that was the end of 2020. It also feels more intentional and opportunistic, as though to say, if this is still our reality, and if things have even in fact appeared to have gotten worse and more divided, the simple statement that we are in process forms an invitation to step into that story and participate in it precisely where we find ourselves in this present moment. Calling us to trust in the promise that healing will come and that a new world will arise out of the rubble. What is interesting about looking back at last years reflection in this space from my personal resolutions challenge called Rosebud, is that the word I chose to inform the year was “story”. This word was birthed by my 3 “buds”, those three things that I hoped to form into roses. In some ways the story of this year has felt illusive, if not problematic and anti-climatic. In other ways perhaps learning what it means to find ourselves within the pages of that story, in those forming sentences that seem to promise a turn of the page and the forming of an ufolding plot, is a way to invite the unexpected rather than demanding the conclusion. Rather than assuming as many of us did that the end of 2020 reflected the necessary climax of a tumultuous year, perhaps this year can rest in the plot twist, the intracacies of those smaller scripted moments that make a story exciting and worthwhile.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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