Nostalgia almost always acts as a form of escapism, a thing people turn to in times of stress or despair. It’s no surprise, then, that an overwhelming number of films released in 2021 are nostalgic in some way.As the world sinks deeper into what now seems like a pandemic that’s here to stay awhile, it’s only natural that escapism would dominate arts and entertainment. That’s not to say that films indulging in nostalgia don’t appear on an otherwise regular basis; biopics, period pieces and historical dramas are a typical part of the cinema landscape. In addition, the wistful nostalgic drama got a boost recently thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), and the success of that film certainly inspired other filmmakers. Additionally, it’s not like 2021’s films are all a direct response to life in the time of COVID—after all, a good handful of this year’s releases were originally intended to come out in 2020, well before the virus hit.
Nevertheless, many of 2021’s movies approach nostalgia in a curiously unique fashion: these films aren’t mere lazy recapitulations of fond memories, but act instead like reopened investigations on numerous levels, be they social, political, cultural or personal. These films operate as an indication that the longer our collective memory becomes, the less able we are to easily sugarcoat and deny our past, let alone our present.
The most obvious films in 2021 that directly engage with nostalgia convey the message that past eras’ magical allure conceals a darkness that persists to this day. That theme is the literal text of Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, in which a young girl obsessed with the 1960s is supernaturally whisked back in time, forming a link with an aspiring singer who is not only abused but ultimately commits some misdeeds of her own. At first glance, Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story seems like a work of indulgence from a filmmaker revisiting material he grew up with, but the director is far too responsible an artist for that—his West Side Story takes the political and social themes of the original 1957 stage musical and beefs them up, pointing out how racism and tribalism are perpetual cycles that continue to cause tragedy in the world, taking what has become colloquially known as a love story and revealing it as the story of hate it always was.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is very openly a love story, a tale about a will-they-won’t-they relationship between a teen boy and twentysomething girl, set against the backdrop of the early 1970s. Yet the film’s time period isn’t viewed with rose-colored glasses: there are a number of troubling characters lurking in the margins and a pervasive sense of unease throughout the movie, making the love story at the film’s center less syrupy and more a blissful oasis in a desert of worry.
If 2021’s odes to bygone eras were not-quite-love letters, the year’s biopics and historical dramas are even less forgiving when it comes to the past. Some of them pierce the veil of nostalgia surrounding their time periods, while others utilize the power of cinema to better understand and bring more kindness to their subjects. With regards to the former, David Lowery’s The Green Knight and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel bring a tactile grit to the Middle Ages, one that strips away almost all romanticization about that era and reveals the cowardly, puerile, bestial men in their stories for who they truly are. As for the latter, Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Pablo Larraín’s Spencer focus on women vilified in their time by the media and, whether that treatment was earned or not, examines them with kinder eyes. Spencer even follows in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s footsteps, making the nostalgia of the film work for Princess Diana rather than against her, giving her a happier ending on screen than she got in reality. Other films used the language of cinema from their historical settings to further illuminate the distance between nostalgia for classic film and the reality of those time periods: Rebecca Hall’s Passing and Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move use stylistic elements of ‘30s and ‘50s movies, respectively, to draw contrast between movies of those periods and these more nuanced and probing looks into race and class. Even the surface-level nostalgic whimsy of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch conceals a roiling critique of the 1960s and the modern era by comparison.
Of course the best bellwether for the cultural mood of any era are genre films, and 2021’s sci-fi, horror, and action films revealed how concerned with the past we currently are, and how that obsession keeps coming back to deal us damage. Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy acts as a fond tribute to horror movie history while also serving as a critique of those films’ treatment of gender and sexual politics, not to mention telling a story about how hate and evil can transcend generations. James Wan’s Malignant, marketed as a tribute to giallo, used genre nostalgia against its audience, surprising them by zigging where they may have expected it to zag. Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley takes vintage noir material and portrays it visually as stereotypically as possible, the better to make its bitterly cynical point and make noir iconography uncomfortable again. Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody has a protagonist upend his life by revisiting his violent past, while Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man is a revenge thriller where a character’s past trauma is his sole guiding principle. Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War is a climate change parable with a sci-fi twist, making our present day into the nostalgic ideal “past,” while Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence portrays a future in which obsession with the past has become a literal thing, where characters can plug themselves into a machine which allows them to relive their memories. In all of these films, the past isn’t a safe escape, but a living and dangerous element that must be reckoned with.
Perhaps the most telling and curious instance of the cinema of 2021’s obsession with nostalgia lies in the year’s franchise and blockbuster films, each of which contain elements of being forced to reconcile with the past. The most notorious example of a film unable to let the past go is certainly Zach Snyder’s Justice League, an expensive and high profile attempt to literally rewrite history. Even the likes of F9, Black Widow, No Time to Die, The King’s Man and Eternals call their respective series’ pasts into question, retconning and revamping events that affect the present and possible future of their characters. Some sequels acted as blatant nostalgic pandering (Space Jam: A New Legacy) while others attempted to reconcile their series’ pasts on a metatextual level, as with Nia DaCosta’s Candyman and David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills. The most glaring—and current—instances of franchise films confronting nostalgia are seen in Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections. Each of these films are ruled by nostalgia in a different way: Afterlife attempts to make a heartfelt “legacy sequel” that panders to its protagonists as well as fans of all ages, No Way Home sees characters from past Spider-Man movies literally invading the current one, and Resurrections makes its subtext into meta text, having Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss’ Neo and Trinity caught up in a blend of reality and fiction.
All these films are indicative of our current struggle between a deep desire for comforting escapism and a gnawing, persistent dread of our present. The past acts as both a fond memory and a perpetrator of systemic problems, a place we both wish to escape to and ironically can never escape. In eras prior to now, it was easier to keep the past at arm’s length, even in cinema. Yet the characters seem to be lingering on screen far beyond their expiration, even beyond the lives of the actors who portrayed them: witness the digital resurrection of Harold Ramis for Afterlife, the latest instance of nostalgia superseding a person.
These trends may not be as troubling as they may seem, however. After all, cinema doubles as a living historical record, not so much of fact but one of perspective. The longer this record lives on, the longer our collective memories can become, and the easier it may be to remember and acknowledge where we’ve been, what mistakes we’ve already made, and how to change our future for the better as a result. No matter what happens, the films of 2021 prove that the past isn’t just a place to escape to, but a thing that must be reckoned with.