• James Kunovski

Best Theatrical Experiences of 2021

In a period where we wonder about cinemas’ longevity, we often forget the deeply personal experiences that brew between those walls. So while I’m not going to rave on about the lukewarm take that “film is best in a theatre”, I will trumpet some of my most memorable shared film experiences of 2021.

By early January, Nomadland was already knee-deep in Oscar fanfare. It turns out it wasn’t just a phase. I was sure the social distancing at my pre-noon showing was safe enough. Four people were checking out the Best Picture frontrunner. Bleak or comfy? Not the IMAX meditative experience that some North American viewers revelled in, but a cathartic moment where a film unravels in front of a quietly expressive audience. Also, the first time Sia’s Music trailer cursed me. I remember the collective shock over the Globes’ nominations. Most people hadn’t heard of it, while my sinking feeling felt wildly familiar. Both films would share space at the Golden Globes like they did at my session. The spectrum is far and wide between the two.

Oscar buzz can oft turn into a viewers curse as expectations trump praise. So it was a joy to catch Minari when it was in an era of light reception amongst awards pundits. Experiencing thousands of people getting behind the marvel of Youn Yuh-jung’s turn was more than memorable. Like our own discovery. Sydney’s State Theatre will always welcome you back with warmness, and although there’s something broodingly cool about its grandiosity, it has become a bubble synonymous with rich memories.

We have a habit of describing everything from indies to blockbusters and all the tent-poles in between as pandemic films. 2021 truly defined that on two fronts. In the Heights and Candyman bookended a three-month lockdown littered with mediocre home viewing. The former brought out the fans, and even though there was a resounding silence after every musical number, there was an energy that carried that film through its duller moments. Someone clapped when Usnavi and Vanessa kissed. Another turned around and wondered aloud, “someone clapped.” There was not much to say on Candyman. It was great to be back (in theory). I slept through some of the final act, hence the theory.

The shared experience of Titane felt like a gimmick in itself (and a modest boost to a flat film) even if the reactions of groans, tuts and (especially) laughter were weirdly disarming. I knew catching a late evening screening of Dune meant playing a dangerous game of fatigue, but I stayed awake, assured the extreme vibrations would somehow keep me conscious. And they did. The emptiness on-screen was testing me, though.

Memoria is perfectly tailored for cinemas. A release model that I can strangely get behind. It dually captivated me and held my attention. Walking outside into blinding daylight and a bustling city gave me whiplash. And props to my Parallel Mothers audience, who rightly applauded the screen entrance of Rossy DePalma as if we were watching a veteran on Broadway.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza was my last time at the movies for the year. And to end on such a filmgoers’ “movie” felt only fitting. I was paralysed by praise at the end, so I stayed glued to my seat until the cliff end of credits. An usher half-stared at me to leave. It was a feeling replicated years ago with Phantom Thread, inside the very same cinema, a few seats to the left. It’s the type of molecular experience we strive for with movies and the buildings that house them.

While I’m sure 2022 will provide similar experiences (mind you, there’s only so much chaos that can ensue with an elderly matinee crowd), I also remember the times I momentarily snuck into other films on the way out. Like the three seconds I spent with Spider-Man: No Way Home and the one *uber confusing* scene of Matrix Resurrections — was it a movie thing or a context thing? Then there was the time I linked up the ending of Judas and the Black Messiah with Another Round so I could experience the final dance once more. And how could I forget Kristen Stewart’s Diana speaking about soufflé with so much passion that the open door reverberated it through the hallways. But, honestly, I would do that way more. It’d just be more special, you know. Moral of the story? Watch movies for free…?

Wait a minute.