The biggest surprise cinema held for me in 2021 came at the Telluride Film Festival with the U.S. premiere of The Power of the Dog, the latest from New Zealand director Jane Campion. The movie is magnificent, the best I saw all year, but the surprise came not in the form and content of the narrative but from the pre-screening conversation between Campion and fellow filmmaker Kimberly Peirce about making a movie during the COVID-19 pandemic. Campion was two months inwhen New Zealand went into lockdown, halting production and casting a shadow over completion. Campion was distraught: Was it even worth moving forward? Thankfully, the cast and crew felt otherwise. They remained in New Zealand, waited three months until restrictions were lifted, and were allowed to go back to work. The results speak for themselves.
But there is nothing in The Power of the Dog that bears the mark of COVID. Nothing smacks of a communicable disease that has claimed millions, of vaccinations and rapid testing, of social distancing and facial coverings. The movie doesn’t even feel marred by outside forces. Doesn’t that make it kind of odd to name a relatively straightforward adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1925-set western novel as the movie of 2021? Shouldn’t something like In the Same Breath—Nanfu Wang’s scathing documentary about how the Chinese and American governments first suppressed then politicized the COVID-19 outbreak—or the omnibus narrative, The Year of the Everlasting Storm, top the list? Maybe. Then again, what draws us to the movies: Reflections of our present or echoes from our past? Hollywood sure made plenty of socially conscious dramas during the depths of the Great Depression. Yet, it is the sleek tuxedos and the shimmering gowns of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek that beckon viewers back to the 1930s year after year.
There’s nothing unusual about the making of The Power of the Dog. All movies produced these past two years had to navigate similar straits. Some, like Cyrano, a musical version of Edmond Rostand’s 19th-century play starring Peter Dinklage in the title role with music by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, had enough capital to soldier forth and was shot on a sequester portion of Sicily. Others, like Language Lessons, found ways to use the limitation of Zoom screens to improve, not hinder, narratives. And then there were the documentaries, too numerous to count, culled almost exclusively from archival footage.
But the real story of cinema in the time of pandemic might not be the movies made, but the movies released. Some were written and conceived before the shutdown but took on new resonance in our current climate: Brazil’s The Pink Cloud and Britain’s Silent Night. Others were repeatedly delayed in hopes of maximizing box office receipts—The French Dispatch, No Time to Die, Last Night in Soho, and on. In most years, reflecting on the year in cinema encapsulates 12 months of artistic endeavor and cultural resonance. But in 2021, reflecting on these past 12 months means reconciling 2021, 2020, and 2019 simultaneously. What a confusing time to be alive.
And what an exciting time too. It’ll be a while before the effects of COVID dissipate, and cinema will shift to accommodate. What will movies look like in a post-COVID world? What stories will filmmakers tell, and what shape and size will they take? Some of the strongest advancements in cinema have come in the aftermath of era-altering events. Take the noir cycle of the 1940s and ’50s. When filmmakers fled Fascism in Europe, they landed in Hollywood with a jaundiced view of humanity and the high style of expressionism and poetic realism. Bolstered by a plethora of American crime writers and journalists, these filmmakers drummed up all sorts of sordid tales from the dark side of the street—just the sorts of tales returning vets identified with. Even found comfort in. Two decades later, the 1970s saw a rise of paranoid thrillers with roots in conspiracy and government intervention, perfect for audiences disenchanted by the Watergate scandal. And then came 9/11 and the threat of carnage on U.S. soil. Who better to quell our fears of outside forces than vigilante billionaires, space gods, and genetically modified humans in spandex fighting for truth, justice, and the American way? Hollywood is still locked into the superhero cycle, but it’s starting to feel like it’s running on fumes. It’s easy for Iron Man to target terrorists from afar, less so when targeting contagion.
Does that mean the future of cinema will be screen calls and people walking around in masks not touching each other? Hardly. Though it’s impossible to predict what cinema will look like, it’s a good bet that the future of the medium will not be shaped in spite of COVID but because of it. The Power of the Dog might be the best movie of the year, but it also is a carryover—a message beamed from before. Set in 1925, published as a novel in 1967, conceived as a film in 2018, produced in 2020, and seen in 2021. It’s on Netflix, which is where many great movies now live, but it was first seen on a big screen in a theater filled with strangers, all breathing the same air, sharing the same artistic expression. There’s a moment in The Power of the Dog when George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) starts to weep and his new bride, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), asks what’s wrong. “I just want to say,” George says, lifting his head to show her not tears of sadness, but joy, “how nice it is not to be alone.”
Michael J’s Top Ten Movies of 2021:
The Power of the Dog
The Worst Person in the World
The Green Knight