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The best movie of 2021 was any you got to see in a theater

Movie Theaters in 2021

The end of the year often comes with a deluge of rankings, detailing the best movies of the year. Generally, this makes sense — an end-of-year list invites us to catch what we’ve missed, celebrate what we’ve loved, and crystalize a year as an accumulation of experiences and moments, ranked from 10 to 1. This past year didn’t seem so simple. 2021 began with glimmers of hope, but we were still in the midst of a pandemic. The predominant movie experience for the past eight months had been one of watching at home, and for those of us looking to stay safe, the theaters would not be accessible until we could be fully vaccinated. The biggest crowds we could safely accumulate were those who already lived in our homes or had been welcomed into our bubbles. Screen sizes were limited by our finances and distractions were limited by what little willpower we had left.

If you cared about it, you truly felt the absence of the movie theater, an elevation of the movie-watching experience full of minor inconveniences and defined by the messiness of strangers. Theaters are ridiculous. Going to them is ritualistic. In early 2021, I went back for the first time in what felt too long a time. I made my pilgrimages. And they made every movie better.

The best movie of 2021 was Godzilla v. Kong. I watched it for the second time two weeks and five days after getting my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a RiteAid. It was playing at the AMC 84th Street theater and I dragged my vaccinated friend Jacques, who was visiting from Israel. Before he moved there, I used to drag Jacques to a lot of movies. We saw mother! at Radio City Music Hall (he used the urinal next to Jim Gaffigan’s), Pilgrimage at the Cinépolis Chelsea theater (it was the Tribeca Film Festival; a fight broke out in our row during the most boring scene), and You Shall Not Sleep at the Regal Battery Park theater (it was the same festival, and despite the title, I dozed off the whole way), among others. I wanted Jacques to be with me for my return to the big screen.

I ran to the restroom in between major fight scenes. Jacques had to go, too, but I tried to convince him to stay for the last half hour. He said that wouldn’t work. I said, “Okay, if you have to go, go now.” I’m sure he ran the same way I did, leaving the theater to come into the shock of light, the beat of hearts as we each tried to find the bathroom a floor above us, passing the sole escalator there to help everybody but us, descending toward screens and away from relief. Every second counts. Every choice matters. Our internal clocks try to place how much sacrifice we can make. It’s okay to miss human emotions. It’s not okay to miss Mecha-Godzilla. Then we ran back, trying to find our seats in the dark. The aisles are lit, but the row letters aren’t. And we whisper to each other, catching up on 4 minutes and change in a few seconds because the movie’s too loud to try more.

I wanted to applaud at the end. The crowd seemed a bit too chill for that sort of thing.

The best movie of 2021 was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It was originally released 10 years earlier, but it also came out in a new restoration last year, so it counts. I saw Scott Pilgrim at the AMC Garden State theater, where I’d saved money a couple of years earlier, watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood with friends and ordering two drinks with four straws. This time, I wore a mask. The restoration was supposed to be great in Dolby Digital, but that probably didn’t account for blurry projection, which I ran out to tell an attendant about. He said he’d asked somebody in the theater and they’d said it was fine. I said it wasn’t fine. He said thanks and got it fixed. I said thanks and went to my seat to eat the bagel I’d brought from work.

I wanted to sing along to the songs. I did it quietly. Then I got out of the movie and found out about the tragedy in Meron, where at least 45 people were killed. My phone had been on Do Not Disturb until then. For the minute or two beforehand, my insides were elevated, my heart soared. I’d been feeling uplifted by the sensations of image and color and sound, by purely giving myself over to a movie, asking its screen, many times larger than me, to subsume me, to swallow me up into the hyperkinetic action video game of a movie experience. For that very brief time, I was breathing easy.

The best movie of 2021 was Wrath of Man. I got to the AMC Lincoln Square early and went downstairs to the floor where indie movies go to be forgotten. The snack counter was closed down there. I sat on the floor and read my book. After a few minutes, an attendant told me the theater was open, so I went in and tried to read my book with a flashlight. Instead, I ended up watching the Maria Menounos pre-show. I hadn’t seen her in a while. I was glad to catch up. I had no idea who she was outside of her role in pre-movie content (still don’t). But if I ever got to the theater before the trailers started, there she was, giving quick interstitial introductions to featurettes and previews I didn’t have any interest in watching. Her presence was as ubiquitous as the guy in the AMC pre-show who spilled popcorn all over himself until he didn’t anymore. She talked, the lights came up, the previews played, the lights went down again, and we all watched an odd, cynical, posturing movie that probably plays well on cable. Chris Benstead’s haunting, droning score thrummed loudly. I was all in.

The best movie of 2021 was Synecdoche, New York. Also a re-release, part of a Charlie Kaufman series at the Paris Theatre. I got there late, coming out of the rain. The theater was dark, and I tried to find my seat, stepping over legs and knees and coats and bags as I squeezed into the row. On 35mm, the images flickered and flashed. On my fabric chair, I tried to take my coat off without making too much noise or blocking the people watching behind me. The movie is about misery and death. We all laughed together. I might have projected my voice more because there were other people around me. I might have enjoyed the movie more because there were other people enjoying it with me. My jeans stayed damp for the first half hour or so. I sat through all the credits, holding onto every bit of emotional resonance I could. The bathroom was downstairs, next to a closed concession stand.

The last movie I’d seen in theaters was Deerskin in the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center. I’d gotten a press ticket to try to write for the annual Emerging Critics contest at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival. Some people were talking behind me about whether we’d need to start wearing masks. It was my eighth film in theaters for 2020. The year before, I’d seen 53. It would be 413 days before I’d go to the theater again.

The best movie of 2021 was In the Heights. I saw it on my favorite screen, the AMC Lincoln Square’s IMAX. The screen is four flights up and two stories high. I once saw someone say it was the largest screen in North America, but I never found out if that was true. It’s the same theater where I’d waited in line for three hours to attend the premiere of The Revenant (I really only needed two hours) and accidentally dropped my Three Musketeers bar into the row in front of me. It’s where I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi after finishing finals and throwing up earlier that day (I’d waited until the feelings subsided; I really didn’t like missing my showtime). On opening weekend, I went with Reuven and my wife to see In the Heights. I sang along, quietly. I made jokes to my wife, then repeated them to Reuven, also. The screen was really big. The music was really loud.

The best movie of 2021 was The Suicide Squad. I watched it near my hometown, at the AMC Fantasy. I’d seen a lot of movies there when I was younger, because we didn’t have a lot of options of other places to go. Parking near that theater during the day is awful because it’s a municipal area and the parking meters have a 2-hour limit. The movie was longer than that. I ran out just as the big CGI fight scene was about to start. I burst into the sunlight, in that weird sort of adjustment where I wonder what reality I’m in, dazed from the sudden departure from darkness, from the story, the movie still playing behind me. I got to my car and thought of driving away, but leaving a movie unfinished is bad. So, I didn’t. I filled the meter and ran back to the theater, taking my seat out of breath, just as the climactic battle ended. I caught my breath after a couple of minutes. I caught up on the movie later on HBO Max.

The best movie of 2021 was Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (I’m surprised, too). And Nine Days and The Green Knight and Old and No Time to Die. I saw them at the AMC Palisades. I got to most of them late, because I always figure I have 20 minutes of trailers and then it turns out I’m wrong or still late. Sometimes I bought popcorn. Sometimes I got snacks at the 7-Eleven downstairs (it’s in a big mall), and either way, I felt terrible when the lights came up, sugary aftertaste in my throat or fingers coated with oil and popcorn crumbs. It was perfect. I got to Snake Eyes during a conventional dead parent origin scene, so I figured I didn’t miss anything important. My mid-day screening of Old was completely empty (haunting). Somebody popped into The Green Knight to shout to nobody in particular, asking if we were watching The Suicide Squad. He left and called someone a bitch because they weren’t answering nicely enough, I guess.

On February 7, 2016, I joined the Movies By Yourself Club. At Regal Union Square I saw Hail, Caesar!, my first-ever Coen Brothers movie in theaters. My first movie in theaters without a friend or family. I didn’t have anyone to ask. And I wasn’t sure how to react. Laughing is a reaction, but it’s also a performance. There’s some degree of choice in volume, pitch, force. How else could we react to the same thing in company with a guffaw and by ourselves with a nose exhale? It took practice watching movies by myself with other people. The more I fell in love with movies, the more I learned how to do it. I loved to share a story with a friend about falling asleep during the movie or having to leave for a fire alarm during Blade Runner 2049 (the sudden, piercing chirp seemed at first like it could’ve been part of the film) or watching the entirety of the Jungle Book remake in blurry 3D (we couldn’t get a refund because it was a free screening). But more so, I loved to disappear into a movie, to be overwhelmed. I needed to go to a theater to do that, whether someone would come with me or not.

The best movie of 2021 was France. I saw it at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, as part of the 59th New York Film Festival. I won tickets to a giveaway and invited Jose. We sat on the big steps outside of the theater, waiting for the ushers to open the door up. We chatted about the movie we’d just seen and I half-listened to see if anybody was having interesting or terrible conversations around us. I fidgeted and waited, and then we stood and waited, and then I showed proof of vaccination and we went inside. I offered some leftover M&Ms to Jose when the lights went down. We watched a movie neither of us would’ve likely finished without pausing at least once at home. Long pauses, stares, and shots of Léa Seydoux crying. I felt the ripples of confusion through the audience, our singular body of disparate parts laughing in disbelief together. Was it a black comedy of intentionally over-extended moments, meant to engage us in subversive storytelling? It felt too overwrought to be done so by accident, but still, there was no way of knowing. All we could do was sigh together, laugh together, experience many, many moments of silence in our large theater. Together.

The best movie of 2021 was Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Dune, too (AMC Lincoln Square, IMAX). The best movie of 2021 was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and so was Raya and the Last Dragon (AMC Lincoln Square, non-IMAX). Before Rogue One, Jose walked into the theater and his phone was playing NENA’s “99 Red Balloons.” The guy in front of us laughed when he recognized the tune. I reacted along with him to the rest of the movie. I knew the jokes that were coming, and I laughed louder because I was with friends and strangers.

The best movie of 2021 was ParaNorman (AMC Garden State). The ticket machine gave me a ticket that said the screening had been canceled. I waited for 5-10 minutes to be told that my ticket lied to me. I ran into the movie late. I ran back out to tell a theater associate that the lights were still on. I finally settled in my seat, panting. I walked out of the theater an hour and forty-five minutes later, breathing easy and feeling light.

The best movie of 2021 was The Matrix (Lincoln Square IMAX), 22 years after its original release. It’s hard to argue it’s not the best movie of every year, if the best movie of the year could be defined by which movies are available to watch at all. I had a nervous excitement — I knew it was going to be great, and my legs were shaking in anticipation. I was alone. I was surrounded. We went back to this world together.

My favorite movie of 2021 was Shiva Baby. A tight 78 minutes of panic, anxiety, and the Jewish horror of being asked invasively personal questions by your old neighbors. I was blown away by the magic of Luca and the surprisingly resonant The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Inside might be a worthy contender for a great film — assuming you’re willing to call it one — and Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Bad Trip certainly deserve to be part of the conversation before we forget about them, but I cannot in good faith call any of them the best movie of the year because I didn’t see them where I needed to.

Movie theaters are expensive and often inaccessible. A lot of them don’t show the best movies available and create situations where anybody living outside of a handful of major cities has to drive a couple of hours just to see a good, small movie not distributed by Disney. They don’t always project the movie well or remember that the room should be dark. You can’t pause to go to the bathroom, which means many movie experiences are defined by bathrooms, as we try to sit in a single seat for around two hours without relief.

Even so, I love the theater. I missed it so much. The energy, the sound, the size. An AMC promotional ad made the rounds online last year, a video where Nicole Kidman waxes poetic about the movies and wanders around an AMC, ostensibly watching La La Land, Wonder Woman, Jurassic World. She stands or sits in different parts of the theater, talking about magic and emotions, and she’s completely alone, in a sparkly suit. “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” It’s detached from reality and its supposed emotional depth falls flat.

For me, the movie experience is more like another popular video from last year, the more purposely ridiculous SNL sketch where Vin Diesel (as played by Beck Bennet) talks about the MOVIES. “The carpets. The cupholders. The armrests. The napkins. When the movie’s not loud enough. When the movie’s a little too loud.” For me, the theater experience is in the little things: “The straws. The sticky floor. The $8 bottle of water.” It’s a bizarre world we enter to escape or dream or “[take] a picture with [a cardboard cutout of] Garfield, to remember you saw Garfield.” It’s a ritual of minutiae in a house of worship for cinema. Where we can fret and fidget and struggle with the oddities that never change so much, all so we can be swallowed up by a screen and by a crowd, and experience a movie as anything outside of the single person’s experience. And as much as theaters create magic and maximize the movies, it’s the little things that keep me enchanted.

The best movie of 2021 was Spider-Man: No Way Home (AMC Roosevelt Field and Lincoln Square IMAX). I saw it on opening weekend and again with my wife after she’d finished finals. It was an opening weekend kind of a movie. A clip of a huge audience reaction to the mega-hit Avengers: Endgame went viral (to the point where it was included in official Marvel marketing), and any Marvel movie opening will be chasing that high. My wife and I saw Endgame twice in 24 hours when it first came out — not because it was so great, but because our first screening didn’t have the kind of excitement we’d been looking for. No Way Home is a movie full of surprise reveals (huge cheer!) and is designed for a big audience. And in the opening weekend screening, when one Spider-Man dove, trying to save one person and forgive himself for losing another, there was a “Yes!” and a “Yes!” and another “YES!” shouted out, maybe inadvertently. We were one body, one crowd, together in a moment of exhilaration.

The best movie of 2021 was The Matrix: Resurrections (Lincoln Square IMAX), with Jose. It was also an opening weekend. The crowd wasn’t as loud, but the movie wasn’t asking for it to be. We were watching a work about love, and finding connection in the humans around us. It wasn’t a film about finding “the One,” it was about finding the power of us. The movie was good. Very good. Probably the best.

A note: No movie is worth sustaining significant medical harm, putting others in danger, or losing your life. As we witness significant spikes from the omicron variant of COVID-19, we ask that you be safe and responsible with your movie-viewing choices.

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B.C. Wallin

B.C. Wallin is a writer and avid theatergoer (when it’s safe to do so). He has been featured on Bright Wall/Dark Room, Polygon, and Alma. He likes the movie Speed Racer (2008) and thinks you might, too.