December is fast winding down, and here at The A.V. Club, that means one thing: We’re looking back on the pop-culture we loved these past 12 months. The site’s big staff list on the best films of 2021 goes up early next week. Before we unveil that, however, two of our contributing critics have sat down to discuss their own personal favorite films of this rapidly elapsing year. On the final, extra-long episode of Film Club before we all break for the holidays, A.A. Dowd and Katie Rife run down their respective top-10 lists, seeing where they align and where they diverge, and waxing rhapsodic on the 18 different movies represented across both.
You can hear the entire conversation in the episode above, or read a lightly edited excerpt about Dowd’s number three pick, West Side Story, down below.
A.A. Dowd: Spielberg just throws himself into staging this as a musical. The musical numbers are just beautifully, brilliantly staged. He uses some of his signature tracking shots. He also uses wide takes. He doesn’t do the thing where he holds on the dancers for too long. I think one philosophy about modern musicals is that we should be given a good look at the dancing. Spielberg cuts a little bit, but he also doesn’t cut it into ribbons. We can always tell what’s going on.
Katie Rife: I like the “watching the choreo” approach. In The Heights did that a little more. They lingered on the choreo longer.
A.A. Dowd: But you still do get a sense of it in this. It’s not like you’re never seeing the choreography. He just also keeps it moving with editing as well.
Katie Rife: I thought the costume design in this film was fabulous.
A.A. Dowd: Yeah, for sure. And he rethinks how he can stage a few of the numbers as well. “Cool,” which I think is generally considered one of the lesser songs in this amazing songbook, is reinvented as this game of keep away with a gun that’s urgent, and I think a really successful reimagining of that number. “Tonight,” we get Tony and Maria, singing it to each other through the gates of a fire escape, sort of emphasizing their barriers.
Katie Rife: Yeah, they’re like jail bars.
A.A. Dowd: Yeah, exactly. You know, I love West Side Story. I think it’s one of the great musicals. I’ve loved it since I was young. I think these songs are timeless and enduring, and I think that what Spielberg has made here is a really reverent version. It’s not one that, despite its updates, really changes West Side Story. It mostly keeps the essence of West Side Story.