This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we explore the best video essays of 2021.
Another bizarre, pandemic-riddled year is in the can. Once again, video essays have provided a welcome distraction with sharp perspectives on all things film, from technical curios to tried-and-true aspects of visual storytelling. Some of 2021’s best video essays shed light on new, under-discussed sides of beloved classics. Others invited us to finally hit play on titles that have been languishing deep in a long-forgotten watchlist. And some attempted to make sense of the stickier corners of filmmaking, untangling knotty subjects with precision and putting intuitions into words.
I have had another wildly fun year of hosting The Queue, a thrice-weekly column dedicated to highlighting short-form video content about films, television, and the craft of storytelling. The following 15 essays are some of my favorites. Choosing just 15 was a difficult task, and I want to sincerely thank all of the video essayists I’ve covered this year for their hard work. Thank you for keeping us edutained for another year. I look forward, as ever, to seeing y’all pop up in my feed in 2022.
But, for now, let’s take a look back on the best video essays of 2021:
Why 4:3 Looks So Good
For a significant period of both film and television history, the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio wasn’t an artistic choice; it was the only way to present footage. While 4:3 fell out of favor with the advent of new technologies, this aspect ratio is making a comeback. And while it’s easy to dismiss the recent revival as a pretentious visual trend, this video essay does a fantastic job of unpacking the ways in which directors deploy it intentionally.
This video on the visual appeal of the 4:3 aspect ratio is by Karsten Runquist, a Chicago-based video essayist. You can check out Runquist’s back catalog and subscribe to his channel on YouTube here. You can follow Runquist on Twitter here.
How Jackie Chan Takes a Hit
A part of what makes Jackie Chan such a compelling action star is his willingness to get hurt. Rather than protecting his ego and presenting himself as a human-sized action figure, he is willing to serve the character, the story, and the stakes of a fight by putting himself on the receiving end of a hard-hitting wallop. Not only that, but as this super entertaining and informative video essay underlines, the actor/director/stuntman repeatedly demonstrates that taking hits is just as much of an art as dolling them out.
This 2021 video essay was created by Accented Cinema, a Canadian-based YouTube series with a focus on foreign cinema. You can subscribe to Accented Cinema for bi-weekly uploads here. You can follow them on Twitter here.
Return to Oz is an Absolute Nightmare
Not only is Return to Oz one of the darkest Disney movies ever made, but it’s also one of the most faithful adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s work. Surprise, surprise, those two facts aren’t totally unrelated. If you’ve only ever heard whispers of this infamous “kids” movie or if you’re looking to confront long-repressed childhood trauma, this video essay is a great way to get familiar with the project’s troubled production and its success as an adaptation.
This video essay is by In Praise of Shadows, a channel run by Zane Whitener and based in Asheville, North Carolina. They focus on horror, history, and retrospectives. You can subscribe to their YouTube channel here And you can follow them on Twitter here.
Paul Thomas Anderson and The Long Goodbye
With Licorice Pizza hitting theaters at the end of 2021, now is as good a time as any to recommend this fantastic video essay on the influence of director Robert Altman on the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. For Anderson fans unfamiliar with Altman’s work, the video is an enticing carrot to dig deeper into one of the biggest names of the 1970s.
This 2021 video essay is by Philip Brubaker, a nonfiction filmmaker based in Gainesville, Florida. He has made a heck of a lot of video essays for Fandor, Vague Visages, and MUBI, in addition to short documentaries. You can browse Brubaker’s video content on his Vimeo page and follow him on Twitter.
Disney’s Robin Hood and the Death of Color
I’m a huge sucker for big-scoped retrospectives, so when this video essay on the cinematic trajectory of Robin Hood hit my subscription queue, I couldn’t hit play fast enough. The essay devotes a good deal of time to Disney’s Robin Hood and why it’s great, focussing in the back half with the ways that gritty reboots neutralize the power of the mirth-filled myth.
This video on Disney’s Robin Hood is by Jace, a.k.a BREADSWORD, an LA-based video essayist who specializes in long-form nostalgia-heavy love letters. Impeccably edited and smoother than butter, BREADSWORD essays boast an unparalleled relaxed fit and an expressive narrative tone. Long essays like this take a lot of time to put together, and somehow BREADSWORD makes it all look effortless. You can subscribe to them on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.