In 2020, after two decades of writing regularly about movies, I took a semi-sabbatical (coinciding, of course, with the coronavirus pandemic and the shuttering of movie theaters) and focused on other things. While I saw a lot of films last year (and voted in a number of year-end awards) — and I hope to see, and review, more films this year — I’m still somewhat focused on other things, and I haven’t yet decided when, or whether, to do my traditional year-end best-of list. Instead, for now at least, I find myself looking back on my two decades of film writing and thinking about the films and the filmmakers that have come to mean the most to me over the last 21 years.
Not necessarily the “best,” most impressive, or most important films, or even necessarily the ones I recommend most strongly to others. The films that have most stayed with me in some particular way — that have haunted, challenged and changed me, or simply beckoned me irresistibly to revisit them time and again. The films that have in some way become a part of me, of my imaginative DNA. Looking back at my viewing preferences over the years, obvious patterns emerge.
I’ve always had an affinity, naturally, for films with religious and moral themes. The religiously oriented films I find most moving, though, are seldom so-called faith-based films — that is, movies made by believers primarily for believers. Why is that? In a nutshell, I think it’s because those films tend to tell their intended audience things they and the filmmakers already know and agree on. There’s an element of challenge to any really interesting art and, for art to be challenging to the audience, usually the artists have to be challenging themselves in some way. Moving treatments of religious themes can come from believers or nonbelievers, but I think believers exploring ambiguity and difficulty and doubt, or nonbelievers grappling with the possibilities of faith, make the best religious art. Films like that can be moving to viewers regardless of their own belief or nonbelief.I’ve also found myself increasingly drawn to what I’ve come to call “antidote films.” Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, starring Adam Driver, is an antidote film, intentionally and even explicitly so, since the filmmakers described it as “an antidote” to the “heavy action, heavy drama, heavy crisis” of other films. The year before I had similarly written of Brooklyn that “it isn’t just one of the best films of 2015, it’s also in a way the antidote to all the rest.”
I’ve also found myself increasingly drawn to what I’ve come to call “antidote films.” Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, starring Adam Driver, is an antidote film, intentionally and even explicitly so, since the filmmakers described it as “an antidote” to the “heavy action, heavy drama, heavy crisis” of other films. The year before I had similarly written of Brooklyn that “it isn’t just one of the best films of 2015, it’s also in a way the antidote to all the rest.” Films about “heavy action, heavy drama, heavy crisis” can be great, challenging, even important. Indeed, great and important films are usually more or less “heavy.” But I also want great films that are relatively light — about relatively ordinary, healthy, even uneventful lives. These are harder to come by, making them even more precious.
Finally, I have a big family, and family films — particularly animation — are a big part of our family culture. Our kids have grown up with a relatively wide exposure to film culture, from silent comedies and swashbucklers to musicals and Westerns. Among recent fare, our tastes are pretty typical. (A lot of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, and a bit of the best of everything else. We never got into Harry Potter.)
Two questions I had to resolve for this project were whether to start in 2000 (when I actually started reviewing films) or 2001 (technically the start of the 21st century) and how many films to allow myself. Ten is traditional, but it hardly seems adequate for two decades. By a happy coincidence, I remembered hearing from a critic friend that 21 is for some reason a kind of “magic” number for internet lists. So that settled it: I would pick 21 films for 21 years; not, of course, my one “top” film from each year. (I took two films from some years, none from others, and three from one, 2016.) To maximize the range of the list, I decided to restrict myself to no more than one film from any director (though, of course, I made a point of mentioning other films in the comments). And, of course, since I can’t commit to a single list, I added 21 runners-up. And then, just to make extra mad at me anyone whose favorite film of the last 21 years I didn’t list (or possibly even see), I threw in 21 honorable mentions, so that I would be without excuse. (As always, the thresholds are somewhat arbitrary; many of the films in the middle list could be in the first or the third, and vice versa.)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.