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Wrapping up 2021 with a sense of cinematic possibility

Seven of “Tone Madison’s” film crew reflect on changes to their viewing habits, thrills, and anxieties of the pandemic year(s).

Seven of “Tone Madison’s” film crew reflect on changes to their viewing habits, thrills, and anxieties of the pandemic year(s). | By Alisyn Amant, Maxwell Courtright, Jason Fuhrman, Edwanike Harbour, Hanna Kohn, Lewis Peterson, and Grant Phipps

A collage of various movie-going, home-viewing, and conversation settings in 2021. Clockwise from top left: Roger Beebe beginning his 16mm multi-projector performance at Arts + Literature Laboratory in November; Agnès Varda amusingly commenting on the creation of her 2003 short film, “The Vanishing Lion,” on the Blu-ray introduction; notes, drinks, DVDs, and laptops on a table at Four Star Video Rental prior to the recording of the first podcast of the year in August; a marquee poster for “Annette” outside the theater at Marcus Point Cinema. (Beebe photo by James Kreul. All others by Grant Phipps.)

While top-10 lists can be a helpful sort of baseline guide for what to watch (for), our film team at Tone Madison wanted to take a more personal approach to wrapping up the year. While a few of us were able to get together for a podcast in January 2020, we haven’t officially done a written collaborative reflection for a few years.

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Earlier this month, several of our film writers joined in an email dialogue about the 2021 year in movies from their own perspectives of watching them. By any measure, it’s been a strange one that began in virtual quarantine without any new theatrical releases. They were instead stranded on streaming services or available for VOD rental. Now, or in the last five months anyway, it would seem that everything studios had held during March 2020 through June 2021 has seen a release, and then some. (However, it now unfortunately seems like we may be headed back to habits of the first half of 2020 as we approach 2022.)

Lewis Peterson, Grant Phipps, Alisyn Amant, Hanna Kohn, Maxwell Courtright, Jason Fuhrman, and Edwanike Harbour all meditate on changes to personal habits since mid-2020, what the pandemic years have taught them to value in terms of movie-going and beyond, comforts and anxieties about returning to theaters, and other fun film miscellany.

How has the pandemic changed your viewing habits? What has been the most memorable or worst change? Feel free to comment on social media or write to [email protected].

Lewis Peterson: I’m probably an anomaly because I still watch the majority of what I watch on physical media, but I actually have been making a more of an effort to go see movies in the theater, especially ones that seem like they could use a financial boost. For a while I thought Portrait Of A Lady On Fire in March of 2020 might be my last theatrical experience ever, but my roommate convinced me to go see Promising Young Woman in January of 2021. Even before being vaccinated, just seeing how empty the theaters were was kind of reassuring, in terms of safety. I don’t think I went to a screening with more than 10 people until The Green Knight at the end of July.

Since getting fully vaccinated and then getting a booster shot recently, I’ve become pretty cavalier about going to theaters. I’ve even gone to a few Milwaukee screenings of movies that didn’t get booked in Madison (Prisoners Of The Ghostland and Benedetta). In terms of things I saw theatrically [in the area], my highlights from the last year or so would be Pig, Annette, Malignant, Dune (I ended up seeing it in IMAX after the 3D projector for the opening night screening I was at was finally declared to be not working after an hour of waiting), and Possession (finally getting to see it on the big screen).

I’ve also gotten into the habit of watching movies virtually with friends over Discord or Zoom, which is something I don’t think I would have ever considered doing prior to the pandemic. I’m part of a bi-weekly bad movie-watching group hosted by a friend of mine from college. It has been a great way to catch up with friends who live across the country and have some semblance of a social outlet while not leaving the house that much. Seeing how easy it was to organize inspired me to do some of my own screenings as well, both of bad movies that are fun to watch and some more artistically inclined movies as well. Son Of The White Mare was a highlight in the latter category.

In terms of things I watched at home by myself, newer movies that have stuck with me are The Father and Riders Of Justice. A slightly older release that really blew me away was Speed Racer. I finally got into Terence Davies and have been working my way through his filmography. 

Grant Phipps: I feel like my attention span has unfortunately dwindled further in the last couple years with my implacable anxiety. While I still have intense interest in cinema, I’ve definitely gravitated toward streaming shorts more often so I don’t have the urge to hit pause 25-30 minutes into a feature to check some push notification or jot something down that’s unrelated. They’ve also just helped me feel like I’m being proactive and trying to keep up with new directors and newly available films. Many of them have been available to stream on Le Cinéma Club and other free platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, but I’ve also viewed some on Criterion Channel and MUBI. I ended up buying The Complete Films Of Agnès Varda box set, too, and I discovered several of her shorts from Ô Saisons, Ô Châteaux (1958) to The Vanishing Lion (2003). Some highlights from new short films include the local films I wrote about for our festival coverage this year, Diddly Squat (dir. Frank Lebon), Four Roads (dir. Alice Rohrwacher), Shangri-La (dir. Isabel Sandoval), Still Processing (dir. Sophy Romvari), The Unseen River (dir. Phạm Ngọc Lân), Alejandro & Miguel (dir. Joie Estrella Horwitz), The Devil’s Harmony (dir. Dylan Holmes Williams), Kiss Of The Rabbit God (dir. Andrew Huang), and Please Speak Continuously… (dir. Brandon Cronenberg). So, really, a vast variety of voices.

The one public short film screening that I’m so glad I attended this year was the “Films for One to Eight Projectors: Roger Beebe in person,” which Jim Kreul helped put together as a soft reboot for Mills Folly Microcinema. Since 2019, I’ve been on a programming committee for that series, but I didn’t have any say in this one (as we haven’t had a meeting for like 18 months now). Kudos to Kreul for bringing Beebe in for some old-fashioned avant-garde and short documentary films on reels! Even on a Monday night, ha. I know at least one other person in this thread attended, and I hope they cherished it as much as me. It captured the “magic” of film as an event that I had been missing, further reinforcing that aforementioned appreciation for the short film format. I couldn’t possibly have replicated Beebe’s acrobatic, multi-tasking projection in my home or his introduction specific to that audience (and it was very well-attended). I would use it as an example as to why we need to keep the theatrical experience alive, or at least the public viewing of films around (in a gallery such as Arts + Literature Laboratory). It’s a space for interaction and inspiration.

All that said about me recognizing my own inability to stay focused for even standard feature films, I feel like I regained something by routinely showing up for the MMoCA Spotlight Cinema series this fall. Mike King did a great job curating, and the three longest films that screened (all in November) held my interest for their entire durations. Tsai Ming-liang’s Days is definitely not for everyone, but it’s a film that allowed me to just patiently observe the nuance of behavior and movement, study the frame, and not be overly concerned about narrative. It was almost therapeutic. The following week’s Fabian: Going To The Dogs was nearly the polar opposite in its rhythm, but its presentation was so brilliant and kept me steadily engaged for almost three hours. Did not even have the urge to check my phone once, ha. The audiences for those films were also just lovely and respectful. And I could say the same for the most memorable of UW Cinematheque screenings over the summer for The Fourth Man, a Paul Verhoeven film from the ’80s that had escaped me. Not a subtle work by any means, but an incredibly entertaining surrealistic erotic thriller, and with a nearly full theater at the time when capacity was capped by social distancing. Lastly, Kill It And Leave This Town was one of the best films I saw this year. It’s one that may have flown under the radar as part of the Polish Film Festival, which resumed at the Union South Marquee last month. Attendance wasn’t dire or anything, but I would have missed out on it myself if my friend JoAnne hadn’t said something a few days prior.

I will elaborate on my other questions/prompts at a later date, but I did want to first respond to Lewis‘ comments. I just watched a recent video by Chris Stuckmann about the lack of mid-budget films these days, and he was emphasizing the necessity of supporting non-franchise films / new IPs by going to see them in the theater or by buying their physical releases (well, if they happen to get them). I don’t know if Chris did his research (lol), but I will agree with that on the whole. I’m definitely not buying or renting as many discs as I had through the first half of the 2010s, but I’m still conscious of supporting offbeat stuff if it happens to turn up here and or on streaming services. And that’s a great habit to practice in general, so follow Lewis’ example. 😀

I guess I was concerned about safety and crowds in theaters, but since Marcus and AMC chains weren’t even showing new features for months on end, I didn’t bother going until Pig (with Nic Cage) this past July. That’s generally around the time studios began releasing new features again, if they hadn’t thrown them onto VOD or a subscription-based streaming service in the first half of the year. Lewis and I saw Annette together; while I don’t hold it in the highest regard, it was a great viewing experience in the theater. There’s just something about seeing a strange new film like that on the big screen with an audience, however large or small, that can’t be recreated by inviting friends over or scheduling a Discord watch party. I am curious to know more about how you organized the virtual screenings and how the experience was, Lewis, if you have time to mention. I have avoided all that (somehow), but I know people usually type in a chat channel during them. Any thoughts on how that dramatically changes the experience? Definitely wouldn’t be permissible in a theater right now, but maybe in the future it will just be the usual, ha.

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The Market Square / Silver Cinemas lobby on the day of their reopening on Friday, September 17. To the left is the theater showing The Green Knight. Photo by Grant Phipps

Alisyn Amant: Throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen a drastic shift in my viewing habits. I’ve found that, even with some films getting theatrical releases, I still wait until I’m simply able to watch them at home, largely because of anxieties formed around and because of COVID-19. I miss the communal feeling of going to a theater regularly, but there are also upsides to watching in one’s own space. I’ve connected with and grown to understand some films in unexpected ways because of an isolated viewing experience. For example, Spencer’s haunting loneliness landed quite differently for me, sitting in the darkness of my childhood home, than it might have in the theater, popcorn and empty candy boxes littered about. I’ve come to value the sensation of sitting with a piece of art alone more than I ever have.

However, I’ll always value getting to sit down in a theater with others, people I’ll never speak to, and viscerally react to a film together. I returned to Market Square Theatre in Madison for the first time earlier this year to watch The Green Knight. I can’t imagine seeing the expansive, rolling landscape shots that David Lowery pulls together on anything other than the big screen. I hope theaters make it. I genuinely do. And I’ll be in the audience to contribute to their success as often as I can. But, like others note, a potential shift is definitely on the horizon and change is always a bit unsettling, especially so when a global pandemic is the catalyst.

Hanna Kohn: On August 28 of this year, I had a yard sale where I had a selection of my VHS tapes and DVDs laid out on top of crates and blankets for purchase. They were the ones I didn’t want or couldn’t keep anymore due to practical spatial constraints. Heaven Or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins was playing from my tiny bluetooth speaker as a man in his mid-to-late forties scooped up my copy of Run Lola Run and David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly, among other things. He was the only person I encountered that day who was excited about my movies. He saw the possibility. He complimented my taste and asked what he owed. I was charging 25 cents for VHS tapes and 50 cents for DVDs and he ended up owing something under two bucks. As he drove off I thought about The Fly. I thought about how I had come to the conclusion that I had watched it too many times and needed to rid myself of the VHS copy so that I couldn’t indulge in playing it on loop ever again like I did in the early months of 2018.

Right now there is a VHS copy of The Fly flopped in the passenger seat of my car. I put it there last night. I ordered it from a seller on eBay on November 22, and it arrived at my home one week later on November 29. Shipping cost and tax included, I paid $10.75 for this copy with a slightly different cover than the version that I had once had. I haven’t yet watched it because it’s not just for me. It’s for Nate and Madeline (they’ve never seen it) and Megan (who’s seen it before but really wants to watch it again). I am excited to watch The Fly with them and have talked about it often because:

1) I love David Cronenberg (we have the same birthday), and I feel like The Fly is a good film to start with for people interested in watching his movies

2) Jeff Goldblum in a leather jacket with no shirt on underneath yelling: “You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t ya? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t ya? I’ll bet you think you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, grave fear of the flesh. Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring. Y’see what I’m sayin’? And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh. A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool.”

3) Reference to Albert Einstein’s practice of wearing the same outfit every day to maximize thought potential

4) I relate to Veronica’s character and her steadfastness 

We don’t have a set date to watch, but it’s in my car for when the time feels right. I’m excited that they are excited to watch it with me. Lately, Nate and I have been putting on VHS tapes of movies to play on mute while we play music in his studio with Megan, so I’ve been watching tiny segments of movies I love like Videodrome, The Seventh Seal, Mary Kate & Ashley’s Our Lips Are Sealed, and movies I’ve never seen before like Les Blank’s music documentaries.

What’s changed the most for me over the pandemic is that I’ve acknowledged that watching a movie for me includes a pre- and post-viewing time frame. A theater experience can be a three- to seven-day cycle: usually one-to-three days in advance planning a date for viewing and researching context for the film (or not) and then three-to-four days (maybe a lot more) following of quiet introspection paired with emphatic discussion, research and a wave of new thoughts. A few notable theater experiences for me were: Annette and the new Candyman movie at Marcus Point Cinema, Possession at UW Cinematheque, and La Piscine at Film Forum in NYC.

LP: In response to Grant’s question about the logistics of watching movies virtually, usually participants have audio and video turned on, so everyone can see and hear each other in addition to the movie. Toggling between the chat and the movie is possible but cumbersome, so I usually try to avoid it unless someone is having issues getting audio and video to work. The screenings themselves run the gamut from MST3K-style riffing to total silence.

As for being a supporter of physical media, it’s a little easier for me than most people, as I can write it off as a business expense… so here’s my shameless plug for Four Star Video. We’ve got thousands of movies, and you can have both a small social interaction and watch a movie alone in your own home. The best of both worlds, really. I do end up buying stuff for my personal collection that inevitably makes its way to the shelves there.

As long as I’m putting another word in, I also wanted to highlight two titles that I enjoyed specifically because they replicated the feeling of seeing live music that wasn’t possible for a good portion of the last two years—On-Gaku: Our Sound and Lovers Rock, especially the scene where “Kunta Kinte Dub” by The Revolutionaries gets played repeatedly [in the latter].

Finally, I’ll throw in some stuff I’m looking forward to before the end of the year: both The Matrix Resurrections and Licorice Pizza are releasing in theaters the week of Christmas, and Arrow Video’s Shawscope Volume One box set should be out by the end of the year.


The storefront of Four Star Video Rental with neon “OPEN” sign and overnight drop box. Photo by Lewis Peterson

Maxwell Courtright: Probably the main thing that’s changed in my viewing habits over the last couple years is how I’ve expanded my horizons of film and video. It feels like there used to be a pretty clear line for me between the sort of “intentional”/”artistic” nature of movies and even TV and things like YouTube videos, gifs, etc. That’s a distinction that’s sometimes useful and sometimes sort of fake, and I’ve appreciated the way that festivals and criticism have changed to both program and cover material that may have been outside of traditional release channels before. To name a couple, Le Cinéma Club and Sentient.Art.Film have hosted some crucial and amazing shorts on their sites during this time (with the former also curating a program for the Criterion Channel).

It was a blessing to be able to see festivals like New Directors/New Films and Prismatic Ground online, which wouldn’t have existed that way otherwise and wouldn’t have shown me probably my favorite short from this year, Ufuoma Essi’s Bodies in Dissent. I’ve also enjoyed the expanded criticism that came out of the original lack of theatrical screenings, like Screen Slate’s ongoing coverage of ephemera and unofficial versions of films available online. How else would I have known that the original cut of the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie had a lot more swearing and sex workers in it? Thanks, Internet!

When theaters opened back up, I tried to maintain the same interest in the Vimeo bootlegs and UbuWeb links I accumulated, but obviously there’s nothing quite like seeing art blown up to a size that’s literally larger than life. After a year-and-change of reducing and distorting cinema into something I could watch on a computer, it felt especially grounding to see typically internet-dwelling material blown up on the big screen in Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere, my favorite feature of the year. The film’s reliance on material from body cameras and surveillance planes makes it so it exists in a more “real” context than lots of cinema verite, showing casual horrors of the world the way we often see them now (see also: Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, seen during the aforementioned ND/NF). It’s easy to feel like even the most viral images are seen in a vacuum when we find them online, and bearing witness to such a politically potent act of filmmaking in a public space felt like a necessary way to experience it. I also can’t think of a better way to really ~feel~ all the bone-crunching in Malignant.

GP: Alisyn makes an interesting point about how an environment can change your experience with and reaction to a film, especially one with a certain cinematographic scope. At least, it’s more integral than the circumstances of listening to an album for the first time—whether that’s during a commute on wireless earbuds or in your living at home through a turntable + speakers. (Although, it’d be kinda funny to try to experience something like Dune on my smartphone, lol.) I saw Spencer in the theater, and it was one of the more crowded and chattier screenings I’ve been to in the last five months. But it didn’t detract much from my experience with Pablo Larraín’s strange fantasy of a film that has shades of gothic horror and black comedy.

It reminded me of the odd (and once thought to be lost) thrills and surprises a communal experience can bring with an audience who’s at least receptive and open to wild tonal shifts. It was nice to return to that after so much time without it. I hope your viewing of The Green Knight had an air of that as well. Another fantasy, but of Arthurian legend rendered in the style and lore of a Souls game. Loved it. I hope we can preserve the theatrical experience for things other than high-budget action and MCU/DCU, but maybe we should adopt Paul Thomas Anderson’s attitude and welcome anything that is getting people in the habit of returning to cinemas.

Hanna, I love the meticulous detail in your reflection of selling movies and thinking about Cronenberg’s The Fly, which is one of my most significant movies. (More about that here.) “He saw the possibility” is a sentence that stuck with me. It’s in the holding on to physical media and passing it to someone else, which is impossible to do when you’ve fully turned yourself over to streaming. “Ooo, I’ll check this out” becomes an impersonal “I’ll try to get around to it” in the literal/metaphorical scrolling wheel of content. Horizontal lists of movies that become more lists, related and unrelated distraction.

Owning a copy, especially an analogue VHS copy, also changes or lends the promise of the experience a quality or possibility that wouldn’t be there if you’re streaming it. Maybe it’s the “coming soon on videocassette” reel before the movie plays that you don’t fast-forward through, or the way some of the shots look with motion interlacing or tracking, watching a film on the media that was available when it was first released can be impactful.

I saw The Fly for the first time on VHS when I was probably just over 10, and it absolutely scared the shit out of me, ha. Nightmare fuel. But as I faced my fear of it a decade after that in college, I remember becoming stuck on the very Cronenbergian dialogue that oozes weird wit and is consumed with the flesh. It inspired some creative writing for a class where I was tying various quotes from that, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch together. I hope Nate and Madeline and Megan find something similar in it when they intently watch your copy, with you or otherwise. Its politics are very pro-choice, if you need another selling point beyond the visceral, gory effects and the dark humor.

You also make a case for avoiding the binge, and that’s significant. It is often necessary to think about a movie for a while after you watch it rather than blindly jump into something else. Of course there is a thrill/value that comes with marathon-viewing to build associations, but I’ve always been fond of what you wrote as “quiet introspection paired with emphatic discussion, research, and a wave of new thoughts.”

Hmm, thanks for sharing more on the virtual watch parties, Lewis. It sounds unique. One of these days I’ll join in, especially if it’s something I’ve seen before. I’m a member of a few Discords connected to Twitch streamers I follow, and so the opportunity is there. I’ve just not done it yet. Anxiety-related, maybe. I remember a couple of the Discords hosting Coraline earlier in the year as well as Die Hard (a Christmas movie in summer? Blasphemy).

There is something nostalgic for anyone who’s a millennial and older in just walking around in a video rental store and picking up random cases, studying the box art. Not quite like Hanna’s garage sale but similar in fostering discovery maybe. I would recommend it to anyone, even if they’ve never properly been in one and don’t have that same memory.

Yeah, that’s a great note about recreating the live music experience through cinema. The bulk of Lovers Rock is a lovely swoon. Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” is the song that most sticks with me. Moses Sumney just released a live performance film called Blackalachia that I hope I can get around to watching soon. I don’t think it’s a proper narrative film, but something close to approximating the feelings of experiencing the ecstasy and theatrics of a live show.

Lots of promising features coming to theaters in the next couple weeks. I really hope Sean Baker’s Red Rocket is one of them.

Really thoughtful take on those distinctions between art and app culture (or something approaching that… maybe meme-adjacent), Max. Thanks. I’ve also been keeping up with Le Cinema Club for much of the year, excluding that weird summer period when they hosted bi-weekly concert films, and they have presented a few things that are somewhere between those forms or approaches—maybe most notably, New Acid by Basim Magdy. It’s a trippy collage of new media with animals conversing via text message. If it sounds cringe… yes? Lol

But yeah, it has been interesting to devote more attention to what’s happening in the world of short film—to survey new and upcoming talent and art from decades past that had perhaps been widely unavailable before. I didn’t actually know about the Le Cinéma Club series on Criterion Channel until Wednesday night after I watched Gabriel Abrantes’ Marvelous Misadventures Of The Stone Lady. Creative, beautiful, political short that feels like something Pixar or Fox should be making instead of another Toy Story, Cars, or Night At The Museum.

I did take advantage of the Film at Lincoln Center virtual programs, but only once, I think, for Christos Nikou’s Apples back in May. For fans of Yorgos Lanthimos and Quentin Dupieux, for sure. I did rent a couple more high-profile things (Worst Person In The World and Petite Maman) through the Chicago International Film Festival in October, though. Have to say it was calming to watch new feature films at 2 a.m. in my room, ha.

Thanks for the Screen Slate nod, too. Had no idea they were digging deep on these things. I watched the 1993 Super Mario Bros movie 10 years ago for the first time since childhood, and now I’m remembering the Kinoplex marquee for an XXX feature called I Was a Teenage Mammal. Disturbing, but these revelations aren’t as surprising to me personally, lol. The co-directors of that movie clearly weren’t out to make kids fare but some sort of perverse dystopian thing equally inspired by George Miller and Victor Fleming.

I watched All Light, Everywhere on Hulu a couple weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Hugely ambitious documentary and a must-see on the virtues and exploitation of invention. Impossible to summarize. One of my favorites of this year, too. Wish I would’ve been able to see that with an audience as you did and then effusively talk about it with someone- a friend, a stranger- afterward rather than just resort to my usual typing notes into the void (on a glowing screen).


The first few moments of the first night of Rooftop Cinema back in July (The Greying Rainbow short film preceding Jazz On A Summer’s Day). Photo by Grant Phipps

Jason Fuhrman: I have always been devoted to seeing films in the theater as they were intended to be viewed. Naturally, I was forced to adjust my movie-going habits when the pandemic started. But since theaters gradually reopened this year, I can honestly say that I have become more fanatical than ever about watching movies on the big screen. The pandemic has definitely reinforced my belief in the value and therapeutic potential of the cinematic experience, while highlighting its essential fragility.

I feel like I have a renewed appreciation for the magic of movie theaters. Before the pandemic, I was accustomed to seeing several movies in the theater every week. Needless to say, the prolonged absence of cinema in my life left me with a profound sense of loss and I returned to theaters at the earliest possible opportunity. Marcus reopened late last year with limited seating, safety precautions, and the ability to purchase tickets and concessions in advance to minimize contact. As a grocery store employee who regularly comes into contact with a large number of people, I found it very easy to rationalize going to a practically empty theater where even a single person seldom came within 50 feet of me. In fact, I found the cinema to be one of the only indoor spaces other than my apartment where I could actually relax. At first, there were few good films to choose from and the prospects for new releases were bleak, but the lines were nonexistent, the parking spaces were ample, and interruptions from smartphones and uncouth audience members were gone. It was surreal and exciting to see movies amidst the eerie, post-apocalyptic atmosphere of quiet, vacant lobbies and open corridors. While a maximum of ten people was allowed at any given screening, there were usually less than that. In the womb-like comfort and darkness of the theater, it was like my own secret escape from the harsh realities of a dystopian, post-truth world ravaged by a deadly virus and rampant misinformation.

One of my most memorable experiences during this unique, short-lived interlude of movie-going was seeing Ridley Scott’s Alien for the very first time, completely alone in the theater, while a snowstorm raged outside. Somehow it felt like the most perfect way to watch that film. The line “If we break quarantine, we could all die” was particularly uncanny and resonant. Other highlights include Goodfellas, another first for me; Promising Young Woman, which I persuaded my roommate to see with me; Judas and the Black Messiah, which I saw twice; Black Panther; One Night in Miami; and Get Out.

Since then I have taken full advantage of the many opportunities to see movies on the big screen in Madison at UW Cinematheque, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema and Rooftop Cinema, Market Square, AMC, and Marcus. As curator of the Madison Public Library’s Cinesthesia film series, I also hosted a one-off screening of David Lynch’s Dune two weeks prior to the release of the new movie by Denis Villeneuve. The event had originally been planned to coincide with the release of Dune in December 2020 and it was amazing that everything aligned to make that possible in 2021. One of my favorite viewing experiences was Dune on opening night in IMAX, something that seemed impossible only a year ago.

I was ecstatic about seeing so many films on 35mm (my preferred format) this year, especially Mulholland Dr., Magnolia, The Florida Project, The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974), Diva, The Fourth Man, Summer Of 85, and Aliens. It was great to see both Alien and Aliens for the first time on the big screen in the same year. Some of my other favorites were The Velvet Underground (2021), Identifying Features, Zola, Candyman (2021), The Card Counter, Pig (2021), New Order, The Story Of A Three Day Pass, Barking Dogs Never Bite, The Apartment, and Possession.

While it certainly seems strange and incongruous to visit theaters during a pandemic, I feel like going to the cinema has really helped me stay focused and benefited my mental health. Of course I realize that this isn’t necessarily an option for many people and I’m very grateful for all the experiences I’ve had in 2021. I’m sure I will continue to see as many films as possible on the big screen in the coming year.

HK: Grant, reading your review of The Fly on Letterboxd reminded me about how big that app has become for me in the past year. I use it religiously to log films that I have watched and I love finally having a virtual film diary. I don’t use it so much to write reviews but I love the satisfaction of logging a film and seeing the data about what others (inside and outside my friend network) have seen and enjoyed. You can find me @vhannas.

Jason, Your Alien viewing experience sounds truly far out and amazing! How wonderful it is to watch a movie in a theater while a storm rages outside. When you mentioned seeing Dune in IMAX as a highlight I remembered that my Dune theater experience was also notable. I was visiting my brother in Austin, Texas, in late October and had a delayed flight that was originally scheduled to leave Halloween Eve. Instead of having a spooky time in the airport, I dragged my brother and his roommate to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to see Dune. I was happy to get to check out the theater and enjoyed the experience of watching it on the big screen instead of on HBO Max in my brother’s living room next to the deck where the pigeons periodically fly in. Our seats for the film kind of sucked but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and suddenly became a Timothée Chalamet fan.

JF: Hanna, I’m definitely jealous that you have The Fly on VHS, and I agree that it’s the perfect introduction to Cronenberg’s films. It was the first one I saw and I’ve been obsessed with him ever since. After seeing The Fly years ago, I made a point of watching every Cronenberg film I could get my hands on. As all of his films explore the intensity of human frailty and decay with a focus on the body and its many accelerated mutations, I feel like Cronenberg’s vision has become increasingly resonant in the time of COVID-19. While his movies are certainly disturbing and grotesque, I have always found a strange comfort in them because I think Cronenberg is essentially a humanist who creates art about how reality is a projection of our individual will. 

Also, I’m glad you were able to see Dune in the theater! That’s definitely the way to watch it in my opinion. It’s just so tactile, immersive, and breathtaking. I really felt like I was in that world and I was profoundly stirred by the experience.

Alisyn, I completely understand your reluctance to go to theaters. I feel like working in a grocery store for 40 hours every week throughout the pandemic has possibly warped my perception of reality and compelled me to compartmentalize my own COVID-related anxieties. And I know exactly what you mean about the sensation of sitting with a work of art alone. Oddly enough, I was able to have that experience in movie theaters earlier this year. While I did see Spencer in the theater, and it was amazing, your isolated viewing experience seems quite fitting.

Edwanike Harbour: The last 18 months have been a bit rough as I try to go to the theater minimally three times a week. This includes UW Cinematheque to keep it cost-effective, but for sure, I felt the void of not being able to see movies on the big screen. The Warner Bros. deal with HBO Max was actually a godsend, though, as it made streaming titles so much more convenient. I do wish I waited for DC’s Suicide Squad for the first viewing. I was floored at how good that release was and will try to see it if/when WUD screens it in the future. I was fortunate to have a column (for six months) where I selected streaming titles for home consumption.

I have not had a chance to see more prestigious releases such as Belfast or Spencer. That is highly unusual for me, but I recognize how much more intentional I have to be with my time and selections. There were definitely some screenings that rank up there for me. As usual, A24 did not disappoint with Zola and The Green Knight. Red Rocket is already in my queue. Pig was one of the best things I’ve seen this year, and that’s now streaming on Hulu. Outside of that, I really had a chance to flesh out my Criterion Collection, which I’m very happy about.

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