2021 would seem like the strangest year for moviegoing in all of our respective lifetimes were it not for 2020. Things didn’t exactly return to normal over the last 12 months; we’re still very much in a pandemic, and in fact are facing the very real possibility of a return to strict lockdown conditions, if those Omicron numbers are any indication. But thanks to the rollout of vaccines (and subsequent booster shots), movie theaters did scrape out some wins, welcoming audiences again with all the blockbusters delayed over the previous year. Those looking for symbolic evidence that #MoviesAreBack could find it in the triumphant return of James Bond, suiting up for a climactic adventure on the big screen, 18 months after the dramatic announcement that No Time To Die would not be coming soon to a theater near anyone.
Movies never left, of course. Not really. We got plenty of fine ones last year, when theaters were mostly dormant or sparsely occupied, and plenty more over the course of 2021, regardless of fluctuating attendance numbers. As in any other year, most of the films on The A.V. Club’s best-of list were not the kind of major-studio productions mounting some measure of comeback right now; only one of the 25 films in our ranked rundown had a giant budget, and its spectacle was more song-and-dance than cape-and-cowl. You want superheroes? Look for them on the box office charts, not here.
So what did our 10 ballot-filing contributors gravitate towards instead? Westerns and musicals. Anthology projects and stage adaptations. A joyous concert film and a melancholy animated documentary. If these movies had anything in common beyond their general excellence, it was the opportunity to see each of them on the big screen—a once-normal privilege that became an abnormal (and sometimes stressful) treat in 2021, and which we hope won’t become a total pleasure of the past, again, in 2022.