My best moviegoing experiences of 2021

I don’t write a list of the year’s best ten movies. Instead, I list the best ten moviegoing experiences (sometimes I list more than ten). I couldn’t do that last year, but this time I could.

What do I mean by moviegoing experiences? The movies can be old or new. The experience must happen in a movie theater with a paying audience. I consider the enthusiasm of that audience, the quality of the projection and sound, comfortable chairs, introductions and Q&As, and live musical accompaniment. I also, of course, consider the quality of the movie.

So here are my ten best moviegoing experiences of 2021.

10: My Grandmother (1929), BAMPFA, 35mm

This wild, surreal, silent satire on Communist bureaucracy is often hilarious and occasionally redundant. It’s also a miracle that the film even exists. People sleep at their desks, flirt, fly paper airplanes, and try to get a more prestigious job. People slide down and up banisters, a naked statue comes to life, and, unfortunately, one comic setup fails to provide the needed slapstick punchline. Jazz duet Gabe and Miles provided live musical accompaniment. They sounded just the way this movie should sound.

9: No Time to Die (2021), Regal UA Berkeley, DCP

The gritty Daniel Craig era of the James Bond franchise ended with a bang…several of them, actually. The movie runs almost three hours, but it never feels long. This time, Bond’s retired, tired, frightened, living with his romantic lead from the end of the last movie. But when he gets a call from his friend in the CIA (Jeffrey Wright), he must go out to save the world again. One of the best of the series. This was in one of the better theaters in the UA, but that doesn’t say much.

8: Don’t Look Up (2021), Shattuck, DCP

A large comet will smash into Earth in six months, destroying all life on the planet…unless we can change the comet’s course. But no one seems to take that seriously in Adam McKay’s very dark comedy. The two scientists who discovered the comet (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) can’t make people take this problem seriously. The President is no help; she’s a skinnier, female Donald Trump (Meryl Streep). The cast also includes Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, and Timothée Chalamet. Stay through the credits and you’ll get a treat.

7: Nightmare Alley (1947 version), BAMPFA, 4K DCP

A carnival makes a frightening backdrop for a film noir, especially if it stars Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. No one can trust anyone else, whether they’re playing with magic tricks, money, or sex (“My heart is like an artichoke; there’s a leaf for everyone.”) Power plays a mentalist supposedly reading minds, but his real talents are those of the carney – tricks and fakeries. With the help of his wife (Blondell), he becomes famous; but as he rises, he’s just digging a bigger hole to fall into. I haven’t yet seen Guillermo del Toro’s remake yet.

6: In the Heights (2021), Cerrito, soon after both the theater and the movie opened.

What makes this movie worth watching is the music, the singing, and the spectacular dancing! There’s a big production number in a swimming pool that outdoes Busby Berkeley, and a duet on the side of a building. The thin story shows us life in NYC’s Washington Heights neighborhood…or at least the filmmakers’ view of it. A couple don’t realize they love each other. A father’s hopes for his daughter doesn’t match with the daughter’s hopes. You should watch the complete closing credits; there’s a special treat at the end. I saw this film before the Delta variant made everyone scared again and everyone in the audience felt free. Only three or four patrons wore masks.

5: National Silent Movie Day: The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), BAMPFA, 35mm, musical accompaniment with by Judith Rosenberg.

The Man with a Movie Camera uses strange and comical double exposures, visual effects, and maddeningly fast editing to keep things lively. Or is it a mockumentary? The movie often follows a cameraman making a documentary of people at work and play. The result is exhilarating, entertaining, and, of course, it’s Communist propaganda. September 29
was the first National Silent Movie Day. It was also the first time I watched a silent film with live accompaniment in well over a year.

4: Babe (1995), Cerrito, DCP, Cerrito Classics Festival

Thanks to the Cerrito’s classic festival, I finally saw Babe on the big screen; and boy, what a difference! The relatively normal farm suddenly becomes something out of a fairy tale (which Babe actually is). Along with being cinema’s greatest work of vegetarian propaganda, it’s also a sweet and funny charming myth about a pig who wants to be a sheep dog. This was the film that made everyone appreciate character actor James Cromwell. It also broke considerable ground in live-action talking-animal movies. Warning: If you show this G-rated movie to your young children, you may have trouble getting them to eat bacon.

3: Cyrano (2021), Rafael, Mill Valley Film Festival, opening night!

This film hasn’t opened yet in the Bay Area. This is easily the most tragic version of Cyrano I’ve ever seen. Peter Dinklage plays the title character as a man certain to know he will never find love. The too-short Cyrano desperately loves Roxanne (Haley Bennet), who loves the handsome but not too smart Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). This celibate triangle can only end in disaster. The songs will never hit top 40, but they fit the story so perfectly you might not even notice that the characters are singing. I have written more about Cyrano.

After the film, festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin interviewed director Joe Wright over a simulcast.

2: West Side Story (2021), Grand Lake theatre 1

I’ve seen the 1961 version maybe seven times, but I never cried at the end. This time, I cried. Just about everything, even the dancing, is improved. As the star-crossed lovers, Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort run rings around Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Thanks to Tony Kushner’s screenplay, the characters are filled in and believable. The Puerto Rican characters don’t look like white people dipped in mud anymore. Leonard Bernstein’s score is still fantastic. And, of course, there’s Rita Moreno – still magnetic.

I watched the movie at The Grand Lake‘s gorgeous Theatre 1. For the first time in two years, I saw a picture in a giant and gorgeous movie palace. But the theater was very cold; I needed to keep my coat on.

1: Nomadland, Shattuck, DCP

My wife and I had already seen and fell in love with Chloé Zhao’s road movie, but only on the small screen. The theatrical experience was entirely different. The big screen pulls us into the story and into the landscape – and this film is very much about the landscape. When Fern (Frances McDormand) walks into a fallen redwood tree, you feel like you’re entering into it. An intimate epic about an American subculture.

But what was so special about the experience? Simple. The Shattuck had just opened. This was the first time we saw any movie theatrically in about a year. That, in itself, was something to celebrate.