A guest post by Jonathan Dorst
This past December, many of us watched a rare occurrence in the night sky- the ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn that some called the Christmas Star. As I look ahead to this year in movies, coming on the heels of Netflix’s announcement of their planned weekly movie release, I am wondering if there will be a great conjunction of films. With the many films that were held over from their original 2020 release dates combined with the normal slate of 2021 releases, will 2021 become the greatest year in movie history? To answer that question, we first need to ask three other questions.
The obvious first question is, When will people go back to theaters? Many people might not return in mass until the fall, or even into 2022 (and some people, having spent thousands of dollars on home theaters during quarantine, may never return to a traditional theater at all). But, with the news of Warner Brothers pictures now being released on HBO Max the same day as they premiere in theaters, it would seem that the streamers are winning the release war and will pick up the slack of theater revenue. Nevertheless, it’s possible that some of the big releases this year might get pushed back to 2022 by nervous studio executives, like Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Brad Pitt/Margot Robbie-starring film Babylon has already been.
The second question: What is coming up this year, and why should we expect a great year? To start with, let’s talk about the directors who have films slated to come out this year (how spoiled are we?): Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Soderbergh, Taika Waititi, Paul Schrader, Kenneth Branagh, Peter Jackson, Denis Villeneuve, Ridley Scott, Sam Levinson, Cary Fukunaga, Adam McKay, Jane Campion, Tom McCarthy, Ramin Bahrani, and more.
You’ve got lots of potential blockbusters: Top Gun: Maverick, Black Widow, No Time to Die (the new Bond film), Dune, Sherlock Holmes 3, The Matrix 4, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, F9, Cruella, Mortal Combat, A Quiet Place II, Godzilla Vs. Kong, Uncharted, Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad (not to be confused with 2016’s Suicide Squad), and Death On the Nile.
You’ve got auteur-driven films: The Card Counter (Schrader), Last Night in SoHo (Wright), The Northman (Eggars), The White Tiger (Bahrani), No Sudden Moves (Soderbergh), Next Goal Wins (Waititi), Pinocchio (del Toro), and possibly Killers of the Flower Moon (Scorsese).
You’ve got your musicals and musical biopics: In the Heights, Respect, and The Beatles: Get Back. You’ve got Tom Hanks in Bios and the Untitled Elvis Presley Project. You’ve got Pixar (Luca), Disney (lots of stuff, including many of the aforementioned blockbusters), DC (Morbius), Marvel (Black Widow and a new Spider-Man), and a long-awaited Space Jam sequel. Get your popcorn ready, there’s a lot coming this year.
The third question is, What’s the competition? Which years in movie history are the best up to this point? This, of course, is a matter of great debate, and is probably hopelessly subjective (unless you just go by box office receipts, in which case 2018 would be the champ). But, it seems that there are three years that are regularly considered by critics and film buffs as the greatest year in movie history: 1939, 1962, and 1999.
1939 has the distinction of having the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation: Gone With the Wind (which also won Best Picture). It was a time when the studio system was at its height, with great directors, stars, and producers cranking out movies for an audience hungry for entertainment. It also saw this murderer’s row of classics and very good films: The Wizard of Oz, John Ford’s Stagecoach (some believe to be the greatest Western of all time), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Gunga Din, George Cukor’s The Women, William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Destry Rides Again, Love Affair, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game.
1962 benefited from a historical oddity: many international films that were released in 1960 and 1961 were released in 1962 when distributors realized they could make money on these films. As the book Cinema ’62 notes, 1962 was a time when the studio system was changing greatly, a slew of great international directors- including Kurosawa (Sanjuro), Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon), Bergman (Through a Glass Darkly), Truffaut (Jules and Jim), Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad), Antonioni (La Notte and L’eclisse), Bunuel (Viridiana), Tarkovsky (My Name Is Ivan)– were at their prime, and subject matter began to evolve to include more of the human experience. The slate of American and English-language films released in ’62 is pretty good, too: Lawrence of Arabia (that year’s Best Picture and box office champ), To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. No, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Manchurian Candidate, The Miracle Worker, The Music Man, The Longest Day, Gypsy, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cape Fear, Lolita (Kubrick), The Trial (Welles), How the West Was Won, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Days of Wine and Roses.
Economics played a part in 1999 being a great year: DVD sales were booming, which meant that studios could take a chance on films that could recoup box office losses in DVD revenue, and it was not yet the golden age of TV. ‘99’s box office champ and Best Picture winner are not very good: Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace and American Beauty, respectively. The best films of that year, though, were made by a who’s who of the-newly-arrived great directors: Memento (Christopher Nolan’s best), Fight Club (David Fincher’s best), Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson), Election (Alexander Payne), Titus (Julie Taymor), Three Kings (David O’Russell), and The Insider (Michael Mann), along with great and very good films like The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, Run Lola Run, Brokedown Palace, The Sixth Sense, Topsy-Turvy, 10 Things I Hate About You, Office Space, The Green Mile, The Hurricane, Man on the Moon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Boys Don’t Cry, Eyes Wide Shut, The Straight Story, Bringing Out the Dead, Any Given Sunday, All About My Mother, Notting Hill, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
A couple of runner-up years: 1946 saw a number of great films get released on the heels of WWII, including It’s a Wonderful Life, Notorious (Hitchcock), The Best Years Of Our Lives, Shoeshine (de Sica), Great Expectations (Lean), My Darling Clementine (Ford), The Big Sleep, Gilda, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Stranger, Henry V (Olivier), A Matter of Life and Death, Paisan (Rosselini), Children of Paradise, and Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau). 1974 is a strong representative of ‘70’s cinema (which some see as the highest film genre yet invented!): The Godfather II, The Conversation, Chinatown, Scenes From a Marriage, Amarcord, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Murder on the Orient Express, The Front Page, The Great Gatsby, Lenny, The Parallax View, Sugarland Express, and A Woman Under the Influence. 1994 was influential in many ways: The Shawshank Redemption (the highest rated IMDb movie ever), The Lion King (maybe the greatest animated movie ever), Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Hoops Dreams, Ed Wood, Quiz Show, Crooklyn, Reality Bites, Natural Born Killers, Dumb and Dumber, Speed, Little Women, and Legends of the Fall.
One could make an argument for 2007 as the greatest year of this century so far (There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, The Lives of Others, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Counterfeiters, The Departed, The Queen, Dreamgirls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 3 Days, Gone Baby Gone, La Vie en Rose, Away From Her, Juno, Into the Wild, Zodiac, Once, Ratatouille, Babel, I Am Legend, Michael Clayton, and Atonement). As to whether 2021 will become the greatest year in movies, if I were going by the one and only 2021 release I’ve seen so far, I would say: “Yes!” Amazon Studio’s Herself is an excellent indie from Ireland. Ultimately, however, my guess is that 2021 will not be the greatest movie year ever for the simple fact that so many productions were shut down in 2020 due to COVID. But, it’s easier now than ever to make a movie, and many productions have improvised and proceeded. We’ll just have to wait and see where the chips fall, and then argue about the merits of 2021 versus all the other great movie years for the next decade or so. Happy viewing!
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