A lot can change in a year, I believe it’s safe to say. At this point last December, I was thinking about the end of a decade of movies, in terms both celebratory and vaguely elegiac. The future seemed uncertain, with the business and technology of entertainment beginning a shift away from feature-length theatrical releases and into a streaming service smorgasbord. The seventh art and its bastard children were all suddenly lumped together under the unsightly category of “content.” The best of us were tired, the worst of us were greedy — the same old song. Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic further threatened the world of cinema as it threatened everything else, accelerating those preexisting trends. As of this writing, a postdiluvian world is finally on the horizon, though what shape it will take is completely up in the air. The Walt Disney Company and WarnerMedia have captured plenty of attention recently due to their streaming service plans, but what of the multiplex, to say nothing of smaller theaters? For all the disputes this year about closures and other safety measures, going to the movies is one of the few activities that the country as a whole was apparently content to give up. The future is even murkier than before. In other words, putting together a list of movies to look forward to in the coming year has never felt more like a shot in the dark, with all the uncertainty and urgency that metaphor contains. I, for one, really need some things to be excited about, and fortunately, I think I’ve found some.
First, though, I need to point out a surprising fact about the last version of this list. (It even surprised me, due to the fact that every time I make these lists, I immediately forget about them until the time comes to make another one.) Despite countless stories of marquee titles getting pushed back from their original release dates, I was able to see seven of the ten movies I was most looking forward to in 2020. The other three — Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story — have all been moved to 2021, but everything else became available to me, one way or another. Even (especially?) Tenet. In constructing these lists, I’ve been gravitating away from the biggest blockbusters, and several of my picks were already planned to go to places like Netflix long before theaters shut their doors. So it makes sense, but it’s still amusing that, in this one area at least, 2020 went just as well as 2019 did for me. To top it all off, there was yet another movie that would have surely made my list for 2020 had I known it was coming at the time: Tsai Ming-liang’s Days. Ironically enough, during more “precedented” times, I would have had to wait to see that Taiwanese film, but because of the pandemic, the New York Film Festival went “virtual” this year, so I paid an unusually large sum to rent the film in September. It was a true privilege. So, again, the events of the year 2020 created a crisis on multiple fronts, but a lack of Marvel movies wasn’t part of it.
Now I turn to 2021. I’ll posit that it’s grossly unfair to pin the hopes of the medium on a revival of a sixty-year-old musical. Nevertheless, I feel a crackle of excitement at the thought that if anyone can do it, Spielberg can. Maybe the umpteenth iteration of that twenty-first century holiday tradition, the prestige musical, will be the bellwether moment. Maybe it will help make next Christmas better than this one, at the very least. West Side Story is my most anticipated film of 2021. However, I’ve decided it’s against the rules to put the same movie on more than one “most anticipated” list, so each of those three movies in the previous paragraph are disqualified. So is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, a movie I’ve been excited about for two years now. In the introduction to last year’s list, I cited four directors who had a new film in at least the preproduction phase, none of which I felt confident in predicting for a 2020 release. Sure enough, they haven’t arrived yet, and I still don’t think I’ll be seeing a new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Glazer or George Miller in 2021. The same now goes for the next Martin Scorsese movie and the next Celine Sciamma movie as well. If I’m wrong about any of these, I’ll recover. Naturally, any of the ten movies I did settle on could also end up debuting in 2022 or later. Nothing could surprise me less at this point. But the slate below is a reason to be hopeful — a more robust kind of hope than I might have expected even a few months ago.
- Apollo 10 ½
- Release: Not set (Netflix)
- With Zachary Levi, Jack Black, Glen Powell, Josh Wiggins, Lee Eddy
- Director: Richard Linklater
Linklater didn’t make a bad movie in the 2010s, and a return to animation is an intriguing move for him. As the title implies, the story is set in the late 60s and…uh…will have something to do with boyhood, perhaps? Principal photography on this one wrapped just before COVID-19 started shutting things down.
- Release: Not set
- With Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips
- Director: Terence Davies
Davies had an even more impressive decade than Linklater, in terms of batting average: I loved all three of his movies. Here he returns to the territory of his two most recent films, with a biopic of a poet set at least partially during World War I. Production was postponed in March, but the film was shot in September and October, apparently without incident.
- Release: November 5
- With Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Yola, Luke Bracey
- Director: Baz Luhrmann
This is the movie that Tom Hanks was in Australia to film when he contracted COVID-19 in March. Since recovering, he’s been able to film all of his scenes, and the movie as a whole has only been pushed back a month from its original expected opening. It’ll be Luhrmann’s first movie in eight years, on a suitably flamboyant subject.
- The French Dispatch
- Release: May (?)
- With Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Benicio del Toro
- Director: Wes Anderson
Here we come to a loophole in my “don’t put the same movie on two lists” rule. This movie simply didn’t make my top ten most anticipated for 2020, but I’m more excited to see it now than I was a year ago. The trailer, which came out in February, is the main reason why. But I always love Wes Anderson trailers, so the ultimate outcome is unknown. The French Dispatch was shot in 2019 but has been put on ice for a full year, with an eye, apparently, toward premiering at the Cannes Film Festival when such a thing exists again.
- The Matrix 4
- Release: December 22 (HBO Max)
- With Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lambert Wilson, Daniel Bernhardt
- Director: Lana Wachowski
I decided to put one franchise sequel on this list because the possibilities are just too intriguing. There hasn’t been a bad Matrix movie yet. Principal photography began in February, was postponed in March because of you-know-what, and wrapped up in the fall. The Matrix 4 (I’d be surprised if that’s the final title, but who knows?) will also be part of Warner’s experiment in putting a movie in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. I’ll see it in a theater if I can.
- Nightmare Alley
- Release: December
- With Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins
- Director: Guillermo del Toro
A remake of one of my favorite films noir, by a director whom I’m beginning to consider a disappointment, with a script co-written by the critic Kim Morgan, and with an absolutely terrific cast: it’ll all add up to something or other. This film was shot between January and December of this year, with a long hiatus from March to September. (Are we beginning to sense a theme?)
- Red Rocket
- Release: Not set
- With Simon Rex
- Director: Sean Baker
This might be the 2021 movie with the most riding on it, as its young director has so far gone three-for-three as far as I’m concerned. Almost nothing is known about it besides the fact that it was shot on the sly in Texas this fall.
- The Tragedy of Macbeth
- Release: Not set
- With Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Moses Ingram
- Director: Joel Coen
Like The Matrix 4, this will be a solo directorial effort from half of a sibling team. Shakespeare is almost always going to be interesting, and even though Macbeth has been done by the best, a Coen take is, at the very least, a novelty. This shoot was also delayed by COVID-19, though apparently only eight extra days in July were needed before moving to post-production.
- The Velvet Underground
- Release: Not set (Apple TV+)
- With archival footage of and interviews with the band and associates
- Director: Todd Haynes
It’s always exciting when a great filmmaker tries something new. And so we have Haynes, who has already made a couple great films about rock and roll and is now working on a documentary on one of the most celebrated of all bands. The talking head interviews were apparently all done in 2018, so the work to be completed now is to chisel out a feature film from tons of archival footage.
- The Way of the Wind
- Release: Not set
- With Géza Röhrig, Mark Rylance, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Kingsley, Joseph Fiennes
- Director: Terrence Malick
I’ve been burned by Malick with these lists before. It seems that shooting has wrapped up, but there could be a lot of editing left to do. At any rate, this is the big one of these ten, no question. Just as there have been plenty of Shakespeare movies, there have been plenty of cinematic takes on the life of Christ. But this one has the potential to be truly special, confounding and awe-inspiring. There may also be a donkey wearing a hat. I can’t wait.