The best video essays of 2021

After ‘Year of the Virus 2: 2 Metres 2 Vaccines’, it’s no surprise that we’re presenting yet another poll inevitably marked by isolation and fatigue.

There have been numerous developments and projects of note, continuing the previous year’s theme of collaboration. There’s been the forming of Video Essay: Futures of Audiovisual Research and Teaching, an academic research project led by Johannes Binotto at Lucerne University in collaboration with the University of Zurich, which has produced some fascinating work this year; the One Villainous Scene collaboration, for which Nando v Movies gathered 230 essayists on YouTube to explore their favourite villains; the TV Dictionary collection, for which 20 essayists followed Ariel Avissar’s open invitation to dabble in videographic ruminations on television series; and two more volumes of the Essay Library Anthology, ‘micro-essay compilations’ by members of the Essay Library Discord community, touching on the very relevant themes of ‘time’ and ‘death’.

This year also saw the return of several big names, such as Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou (the team behind Every Frame a Painting) in their contributions to Netflix’s Voir series, and Mike Rugnetta (former host of Idea Channel), who began uploading essays to a personal account.

But even amid these excellent projects, not only have video makers continued to struggle within the realities of a continuing pandemic, even poll voters have been down from previous years, suggesting that many of us have struggled with not only finding the time to make but also finding the time to watch video essays this year.

That being said, many of the videos that have been made and watched seem to have turned their attention towards the very act of watching, a trend that’s perhaps unsurprising given the amount of time we’ve all been afforded with ourselves this year. Left to our own devices, it’s only a matter of time before we begin to look inward, and thus introspection marks a clear theme in this year’s most talked-about videos. This result may be even more inevitable than any undercurrent of fatigue or isolation, as what would a group of video essay enthusiasts love more than essays about essays and videos about videos.

There’s no shame in a little indulgence this year.

Trends and numbers

Of the 30 contributors to the poll this year (down from 42 last year), 20 are male, 9 are female and 1 is non-binary. Two thirds of them are based in Europe, one third in the USA. They are video essayists, academics, critics and filmmakers. They submitted a total of 178 votes, for 122 unique entries that span online video essays, essay films, documentaries, installations, television series and Twitter threads. These works were made – or published – this past year, by both established essayists and newcomers to the field; they range from 20 seconds to 6 hours in length, with the average length above 22 minutes (5 minutes longer than last year’s average).

Practices of Viewing, “a video essay series on new media and their many old histories” by Johannes Binotto, was the top-mentioned item, receiving a total of 13 mentions (of either the series as a whole or several individual entries). Also of note were: the collaborative TV Dictionary collection, which received 7 mentions (of either the project as a whole or of various individual entries); Screening Room: On Digital Film Festivals by Jessica McGoff (6 mentions); and What Isn’t a Video Essay? by Grace Lee (5 mentions). As previously stated, most of these are devoted to an exploration of the subject of video essays or videographic criticism and of various practices of consuming, engaging with and reacting to media images. This trend also extends to Max Tohline’s A Supercut of Supercuts (4 mentions), Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin’s Videography 1978 (4 mentions), and several other entries featured on the poll.

Of the essayists whose work is featured, 38% are female (up from 33% last year, and 24% the year prior) and 50% are male (down from 53% last year, and 68% the year prior), with the remaining 12% made by mixed-gender teams or non-binary essayists.

The videos are overwhelmingly presented in English (95%) and are predominantly from the US (36%) and the UK (22%), followed by 23 other countries (mostly in Europe), marking a gradual rise in the number of countries featured in the poll. The dominant focus in terms of medium, though somewhat less so than in previous years, remains film (63% of videos), with television a more significant – though still distant – second (13% — up from 5% last year). 23 of the videos (or 19%) were published in various online academic journals, primarily [in]Transition (10 entries) and Tecmerin (5 entries).

Besides voting for their favourite video essays of the year, contributors were also given the option to suggest video essayists to be featured on our new ‘Emerging voices’ section, which seeks to spotlight new makers of note, whose work this year was significant or impactful, and who are well worth keeping an eye on in the following years.

Emerging voices

This year has been one not just of self reflection, but of discovery. In light of all the discoveries we’ve been making, we wanted to use this year’s poll to spotlight new voices who have emerged this year. We asked our peers to submit individual essayists that they believed had truly struck out anew this year, be that through debuting their first works, or by significantly expanding their own profiles.

One journey many of us can relate to is that of finding our voice throughout our academic progression. Many of our emerging voices are students whose works originally developed as academic assignments. Emily Su Bin Ko, from the University of Massachusetts, was one such creator. For her latest piece, the pointed videographic exploration Citizen Kane: Transcending Bazin’s Dichotomy, she was singled out by both Barbara Zecchi and Adrian Martin as having demonstrated her analytical talent, an engaging style and a thought-provoking voice.

Another was Niki Radman from the University of Glasgow, who made her debut this year with the video essay eye/contact, and was noted by Ian Garwood. The piece explores the work of Barry Jenkins through a critical supercut, and demonstrates an exciting mastery of the form and an ability to poetically communicate her ideas.

Matthew Smolenski from the University of Warwick was suggested by Katie Bird as another newcomer of note for their video essay Here, There and Everywhere: Movement in the Beatles’s Fiction Filmography, which deftly addresses movement and sound on screen through the context of the Beatles’ filmography.

Myrna Moretti from Northwestern University was also praised by Katie Bird. Her work, Friends from TV on the Internet, made for the Desktop Documentary Seminar at SCMS 2021, manages to be both lighthearted and poignant as it explores fandom, nostalgia, and climate anxiety.

Not all submissions received were discovered through traditionally academic spaces. Some were video essayists who have been accruing greater audiences on YouTube. Maia, known as Broey Deschanel, was put forth by Dan Schindel for her well-researched and thoughtful analysis of pop culture subjects. Her works on Sofia Coppola and Love Island were mentioned specifically, and while she has been working steadily since 2018, her work of this past year has been exceptional.

Yhara Zayd was also recognised by Dan Schindel for the uniqueness of her topics and the finesse of her analyses. Since 2019, she’s been creating thoughtful and original critiques on everything from Skins US to Reefer Madness (1936), and an acknowledgement of her work is well-deserved.

Corinth Boone is a cartoonist, animator, and now video essayist, with the debut of her piece, So I Decided to Watch All the Lupin III Movies. She was specifically hailed by Shannon Strucci for her wit, editing skills, and the well-researched manner of the work.

Finally, Sophie from Mars was suggested by Grace Lee. While she has been successfully analysing media and culture for many years now, Sophie was specifically heralded for the achievements of their work of the last year, the skilful honing of their visual style, and an affecting personal point of view.

Growth is a term that is wholly dependent on context. Thus, the creators selected for this emerging voices section represent the diversity of the videographic community itself, and we’re pleased to share each of their stories.

All the votes

Jiří Anger

Film theorist, curator and occasional video essayist, Charles University in Prague and Národní filmový archiv

Throughout the pandemic, I have become fascinated with the idea of extending the screen-mediated experience of the world beyond the actual computer or smartphone interface. Chloé Galibert-Laîné already explored this notion in 2020’s Forensickness; this year, Jessica McGoff utilised the ‘desktop cinema without the desktop’ approach to reflect on attending digital film exhibitions within the spatial monoculture of her apartment. A paper-made quasi-cinematic dispositif crushed by an intervention of a fluffy cat is only one of the many playful experiments McGoff stages to invent new ways in which we can exploit the limitations of the pandemic against the grain.

One of the great potentialities of videographic criticism is giving insight into the research process in all of its stages and facets. Yet, rarely do videographic essays delve into such meticulous depth as Greene’s investigation of her ongoing encounters with The Elephant Man’s soundtrack. One minor detail – a strangely cleaned-up line of dialogue – serves as a MacGuffin that sparks a journey across often obscure or intimate research artefacts and software interfaces. The essay highlights the alignment between research and post-production as material processes whose gaps, fissures, and excesses tell their own stories.

The Thinking Machine #48: Videography 1978 by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

Examination of continuities and discontinuities between analogue and digital images is another area where videographic criticism thrives. Besides the works of Johannes Binotto, whom I mentioned in previous polls and who continues this line of work in the Practices of Viewing series, a moving autobiographical essay on films as material artefacts was created by López and Martin. Videography 1978 offers a fresh look on the ‘unattainable object’ issue, highlighting, for example, the non-identity of analogue and digital frames. The essay testifies that despite the (often justified) criticism, cinephilia as a mode of watching and analysing films remains relevant.

Mediated Auscultation by Emilija Talijan

Out of this year’s essays published in [in]Transition, Talijan’s exploration of the relationship between cinema and the stethoscope resonated most closely with me. I generally appreciate when videographic works reach toward a broader context of audiovisual culture, particularly of its very origins, and Mediated Auscultation finds the proper equilibrium between structured argumentation and formal experimentation. The stethoscope’s technological possibilities deconstruct the audiovisual unity of film back into a multiplicity of deranged, often impenetrable images and sounds, with a nerve-racking heartbeat rhythm always hovering around.

Train Again by Peter Tscherkassky

Once again, my list would not be complete without at least one experimental found footage film. Tscherkassky’s treatise on the ever-present bond between trains and cinema overflows with allusions to early cinema and the avant-garde, yet achieves to marry the old with the always already new. The Austrian artist’s vintage analogue deformations join forces with digital pixelation to show the train-image for what it is – a constantly trembling and crumbling entity on the verge of destruction and rebirth.

Ariel Avissar

Video essayist and media scholar at Tel Aviv University

Viewing the world outside from the comfort/prison of her room, McGoff offers a perceptive meditation on contemporary ways of seeing that is as irreverent as it is reverent. Quintessential viewing for the pandemic era. Make this a double feature with McGoff’s My Mulholland from last year, which likewise investigates the superimposition of online and offline experience.

Sitting in a different room, Donnelly offers a sonic counterpoint to McGoff’s, offering a fascinating examination of the sonic soundscapes that envelop us all as we sit, in our own rooms, watching and listening (though perhaps not listening as attentively as we ought to). Make this a double feature with Donnelly’s Sonic Chronicle Post Sound from last year, which investigates (diegetic) sonic soundscapes.

Practices of Viewing by Johannes Binotto

Like McGoff and Donnelly, Binotto’s fascination is with the way we interact with images and sounds, and this phenomenal series, consisting of five entries to date, is a must-watch for anyone interested in the way technology mediates images and sounds, and the possibilities it opens up for interfering with and complicating its own mediation. My personal favourite is the one on screenshots, but it’s dealer’s choice, really. Make that last one a double feature with Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin’s Videography 1978, Binotto’s explicit source of inspiration, which also explores technologies of viewing – and their pre-digital antecedents.

Irani Bag by Maryam Tafakory

Made as part of the Monographs series of essays on Asian cinema commissioned by the Asian Film Archive last year, which is finally available online now, Tafakory’s soulful and mesmerising video employs excerpts from 24 Iranian films to interrogate the ways in which a handbag can serve as a surrogate for bodily contact, enabling the performers to “touch without touching”. Make this a double feature with Tafakory’s longer essay film follow-up, the upcoming Nazarbazi; it is a meditation on the subject (and absence) of touch in Iranian cinema that is powerful, reflective and, yes, touching.

A History of the World According to Getty Images by Richard Misek

Misek offers a thoughtful and ever-timely exploration of the ways in which commercial archives mediate – and commodify – our access to the past, and offers a mode of resistance in the form of a direct intervention. Be on the lookout for it when it comes out sometime next year; in the meantime, whet your appetite with this shorter, early iteration of the project titled Captured Images, which can serve as a sort of trailer for the longer film – and also stands on its own.

Mad Men’s ‘Babylon’ by Ariane Hudelet

Hudelet patiently and diligently traces multiple intertextual threads offered by a song featured on an early episode of Mad Men, presenting the kind of thorough, insightful and enjoyable analysis that I, for one, would love to see dedicated to more works of television in videographic form. On that note, make this a double feature with Occitane Lacurie’s Prendre conscience / perdre connaissance, a fascinating desktop examination of intertextual relations between Westworld and Last Year at Marienbad.

And finally, Tohline’s epic, feature-length reflection on the supercut is a comprehensively impressive (or impressively comprehensive?) investigation of one of the digital age’s most viral videographic genres. Over its 130 minutes, Tohline examines the supercut’s aesthetics, structures and effects; its complex and multiple contexts and histories; and its relation to technology and ideology, as a simulation of database logic. The analysis is coherent and persuasive, and the diverse perspectives are highly informative and enriching. No need for a double feature on this one (though I dare you not to look up any of the numerous supercuts sampled in the video).

Johannes Binotto

Lecturer in media and cultural studies, video bricolageur, leading videoessayresearch.org

I feel absolutely unable to have an overview of what work has been done in the field throughout this year. Instead the video essays on my list are all works that I came across not because I was searching for them but purely by accident, strangely in-between, and when I least expected them. Each of them hit me sideways so much that I still don’t want to recover from what they did to me.

I was watching Dayna McLeod’s haunting take on Lynch’s Wild at Heart when I came across this other piece that perhaps many would not even consider a video essay. McLeod performs the performance of someone who has to perform gender studies (and its interest in performance) under the circumstances of COVID remote teaching and being constantly interrupted. This is really wild, unpredictable, intellectual, clever, very funny, but – and this gets me the most — so extremely touching in its acknowledging one’s own awkwardness and vulnerability. We always joke about the things that hurt us most.

3 x Shapes of Home by Elisabeth Brun

What would seem as a purely conceptual and abstract research on how to investigate landscapes through different film practices turns out to be like a poem by Whitman, encompassing the most intimate and the most universal. A film in which the sudden freeze of an image and the humming of the filmmaker cuts me so much I start to cry. A crab gently poking at the camera is a sight I will keep dreaming of.

I thought I already knew this video but when seeing it during a workshop I was shocked by how much it affected me. It left me overwhelmed yet at the same time made me want to work myself in exactly this state of overload. I guess I heard the Althusserian interpellation in the title. And it is fitting that I had to return to this video to find out its unique power since it is about the hypnosis of repetition, both on narrative and formal level.

I probably should have picked Max’s incredible jumbo jet of a video essay on the supercut, but this one means a lot to me because it is among many things also a personal present. Seeing a collection of video essays students of mine made on The Conversation, Max not only fell in love with them but wanted to join our group by contributing his own thoughtful, sensitive, and complex analysis of the religious under- under overtones in this film. Like a confession of its own. What a gift!

The Archival In-Between by Evelyn Kreutzer and Noga Stiassny

I don’t know how to talk about this one because it attempts what must remain impossible, approaching the unapproachable. It uses archival material that I am not sure anyone should ever use again but of which I am also convinced that it must be seen. The video’s impossibility seems to me the impossibility of the archive per se Foucault wrote about. So how then even to begin to make this video? It gives no answer but begins and remains beginning. Like the crackling noise on the soundtrack: a needle in the empty grooves of a record before the music starts.

Who hasn’t fantasised of seeing Vertigo in 3-D? David’s video fulfils the dream but does so by rendering it a disturbing nightmare. There are moments when the 3-D-effect works as one would think it is supposed to, giving us Scotty and Madeleine as seemingly graspable bodies but even more fascinating are those moments when the images we see on left and right eye no longer align but completely diverge, fall apart, splitting your consciousnesses in half. The longer I watch the more I fear this video will damage my brain irrevocably.

This was a triple surprise. A video on a series I had never heard of before by an essayist I hadn’t known before focusing on a term I never cared about before. Watching admiring the scene it picks and how it dances together with the text I ask myself: What is the strength of a video essay? For me it’s not tech-savviness nor the amount of material or concepts it works with. I think it’s rather the willingness to make yourself be seen doing something you haven’t yet nor ever will have mastered. It’s not a confidence thing.

Katie Bird

Assistant professor, communication, University of Texas at El Paso

Greene’s video leads the viewer through a unique historical investigation of initial discovery, possibility, and lingering questions in a way that allows the viewer to feel how answers to a production’s history are many, and regularly conflicting. Unlike most historical presentations that simply point at the ‘evidence’, Greene allows us to literally ‘search’ and ‘flip the pages’ alongside. Greene focuses on equivocation, back tracking, and talking around, and what is largely left unsaid in many of the interviews. This project cuts around auteurism, without being a critique and articulates Splet amongst a larger set of industrial and and national forces.

Long Take, Pop Song by Ian Garwood

Nothing brought me more joy this year than this little pop diddy composed by Garwood and sung by Anna Miles ear-worming its way into my daily thoughts. Beyond the catchiness of the tune that directs this video on the important of pop music in a scene from Before Sunrise, Garwood brings in a pop aesthetic to the video with the use of animated and freeze frames, turning the conceit of the Before Trilogy into a comic book that takes place within the span of a pop song. It is a delight and a treat to see criticism have fun.

From now on, I won’t be able to watch Jeanne Dielman without also seeing McGoff’s own sink. This moment where a small scene of washing dishes floats about McGoff’s sink (the lines of the tiles almost matching) last only 6 seconds, but the gesture speaks to the intimacy and vulnerability of McGoff’s style. Her now signature approach to desktop, combined anew with the casual recordings of daily life (the record, the cat, the windows, the screens, the screens, the screens) offers a critical and personal glimpse into something that felt/feels all too familiar over the past years.

The TV Dictionary project by Ariel Avissar and various

Ariel Avissar’s TV Dictionary project was enormously generative for my own thinking about what diverse and creative experiments could be produced out of a simple prompt. I was inspired to create my own lists of terms and shows I would apply them to, and though I never made one, this speculative edit was a thrill. There’s too many videos to celebrate. But Libertad Gills and Juan Llamas Rodriguez tapped into the layering of their terms ‘experience‘ and ‘comfort’: how their shows feel to viewers and what is felt between characters in a moment or shared series of moments.

Practices of Viewing by Johannes Binotto

Beyond inspirational, and field changing, nothing made me want to throw in the towel on making more than seeing Binotto’s playful, critical, and incisive video series Practices of Viewing. Each one challenged our ways of ‘seeing’ and making, each one carefully bringing in new techniques to test the boundaries and possibilities of videographic form. But whatever trepidation I felt, was always overshadowed by the openness and curiosity that grounded each of Binotto’s experiments and his welcomeness as a videographic maker joyfully throwing out these gambits for the rest of us to up our games. But, MASK did me in.

Mourning with Minari by Kevin B. Lee

I’ll need to sit and rewatch Lee’s video essay many more times before I’ll have words good enough to match his evocative “gathering of images” of grieving through making, of holding space, and of breathing this memorial into being. By walking us through Minari, Lee leaves room for the questions trauma and white supremacist violence has left in its wake. By showing what has been made invisible, Lee similarly works through what it means to “manage the politics of presence” in the film and in US visual culture writ large, not to see these images as ‘empty’ but as open

De la femme by Caterina Cucinotta and Jesús Ramé López.

Stitching and Cutting, Stitching and Cutting, Stitching and Cutting! The repetition and overlap of the manual labor of production (seamstresses and editors) woven together with the metaphorical and literal fabrics of the film: its costumes and film strips. A gorgeous meditation on the gendered craft work of Hollywood production using both scraps of fabric and trims of film: materials on display and also what is not meant to be seen. The multi-screen side-by-side creates simple unexpected patterns and delightful sonic parallels to the sewing machine and the editor’s splicing. With these workers we get close in, slow down, and reconfigure.

Steven E. de Souza

It’s a Christmas movie. Bylines: @nytimes @LosAngelesTimes @EmpireMagazine @FadeInMagazine @SightSoundMagazine

Listening to Toy Story by Andrew Saladino (The Royal Ocean Film Society)

The almost purest representation of a literal ‘moving picture’, animation’s inevitable accommodation of sound would seem an afterthought hardly worth a thought, its early scores dismissed even by its applicants as ‘mickey mousing’. A century on, any imagined deficiencies of bandwidth inherent in the medium compared to live action demands sound loom even larger in its duty to inform and enhance a narrative.

After nodding my head sagely at Andrew Saladino’s essay how diligently animation endeavors to add depth, clarity and content to its simulacrum of reality, I’m now shaking it in dismay at Pearson’s analysis of live action’s race in the opposite direction, coupled with minor relief that it’s not just me, I don’t actually need a hearing aid.

The Coolest Stunt You’ve Never Heard Of by Adam Tinius (Entertain The Elk)

It’s the rare filmmaker who didn’t start down the storytelling path in childhood, in backyards populated by cops n’ robbers, cowboys, pirates, and — most of all — imagination. Sometimes less is more, and we were right all along: simply pretending may be the best trick of all.

Golden Ratio in Cinema by Walter Murch

The Aesthetics of Evil by Lewis Michael Bond and Luiza Liz Bond (The Cinema Cartography)

Where would we be without our villains? (I know where I’d be, still teaching ESL at John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Willingboro, New Jersey — Go, Gryphons!) But in a world of increasingly grey tones, with black and white cowboy hats and their corresponding matching horses long dispatched to Boot Hill, how do we signal Villainy before it even opens its mouth? Here, Luiza Liz Bond and Lewis Michael Bond crack the color code; let the Pantone chips fall where they may.

Queen’s Gambit: What Makes a Story Cinematic? by Adam Tinius (Entertain The Elk)

People sitting silently in chairs glaring daggers at each other over seven hours of film will be edge of the seat suspense, said no one ever.

Scott Frank: Hold my beer vodka.

Voir, episode 6: Profane and Profound by Walter Chaw (on Netflix)

Just in time for its 40th anniversary, Walter Chaw spares no superlatives in his pedestaling of 1982’s 48 HRS. as a watershed work of not only genre, but as a seminal, crucial and long overdue vivisection of contemporary society. In an essay flaying metatextual layers aside, he shows us the racism that’s the apex tentpole of the American power structure, and unpacks this archetypical ‘buddy comedy’ as a poisoned chalice of popcorn, its bitter taste sweetened by heaping doses of comedy.

Will DiGravio

These seven videos/projects/films, for me, epitomise the greatness of this form: they provide a new way of seeing and engaging with familiar images, sounds, and mediums. Each taught me how to be a better watcher, listener, and reader. They inspired me, and I look forward to returning to them time and time again in the years to come.

The Thinking Machine #48: Videography 1978 by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

Practices of Viewing by Johannes Binotto

All Light, Everywhere by Theo Anthony

What is Neo-Snyderism? by Ariel Avissar

The Rise of Film TikTok by kikikrazed aka Queline Meadows

Maggie Mae Fish

Actor, writer, film video essayist

I love all of Yhara’s work, but this video in particular touches on a moment I remember in real-time — the backlash against a canonically young Black girl in the Hunger Games books, who when brought to life in the films illuminated the stunted imagination and racism in YA audiences.

F.D. Signifier is one of the most cuttingly insightful media critiques, and his work on Bo Burnham’s quarantine ‘masterpiece’ hits into why this type of art can ring hollow or shallow for as many people as it resonates with.

Rac(ism) & Horror by Khadija Mbowe

Khadija is funny, snarky, our ‘Millennial Auntie’ and in this video becomes a film professor to give an overview of the intersection of Blackness and the horror genre. It would be at home in any university course on the subject, but Khadija goes full out swapping costumes and sets to give as much entertainment as insightful analysis of a broad and deeply important topic.

Thomas Flight

Video essayist and filmmaker

What Isn’t a Video Essay? by Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

The video essay is a notoriously hard genre to define. Grace Lee expertly uses the form to examine itself and avoids easy or cliché answers, appealing instead to our subjective intuition.

What Distinguishes the Great Existential Films? by Tom van der Linden (Like Stories of Old)

2021 came as a year of personal video essays. Blending a reading of real-world spaces and film, Tom explores his love of existential cinema through his love of empty churches.

Geller looks at how a video game, several films, and a TV show use their structure to examine the passage of time.

Sometimes video essays serve a very practical purpose. Ari Aster’s Midsommar got under my skin, and I wanted to know why. But I was too unsettled to dive deeply enough into Midsommar’s world to figure out why for myself. Fortunately, Spikima does the dirty work of thoroughly answering that question in this essay. Does knowing a film’s tricks make it less horrifying?

How Movies Helped Me Process My Mother’s Death by Adam Tinius (Entertain The Elk)

Adam Tinius, from Entertain The Elk, offers a deeply personal and emotional examination of how losing his mother to cancer compared to representations of death and grief in film.

EraserNomad by Liz Greene

Greene discovers an implausible but compelling visual link between Nomadland and Eraserhead. There’s a strange echo in how Jack Nance and Francis McDormand navigate these spaces. Perhaps their characters are haunted by a similar ghost.

Ian Garwood

Senior lecturer in film and television studies, University of Glasgow

Not that anyone will be checking back, but my list this year features only names who I have not picked for previous polls.

Not that anyone will be checking back, but my list this year features only names who I have not picked for previous polls. I love the ‘Truman Show’ conceit of this video, which is superbly realised through dead-pan narration and an incredibly astute selection of clips.

This is an exhaustive, yet consistently enlightening and accessible, treatise on the supercut. Three years in the making, Max Tohline’s feature-length essay identifies a dizzying array of precursors to the internet-era supercut, as well as pinpointing its aesthetic and ideological effects.

Mediated Auscultation by Emilija Talijan

This is a fascinating essay that makes an imaginative and persuasive association between the technology of cinema and the stethoscope. Its philosophical analysis of cinematic listening is pursued through a wonderful selection of clips.

Practices of Viewing: Muted by Johannes Binotto

On the one hand, Johannes Binotto’s Practice of Viewing could be seen as something of a video essayist’s manual, each entry itemising a technique associated with video essay-making processes. However, there is nothing textbook about the way these techniques are discussed: the address is passionate and wide-ranging, offering enlightenment on why these processes fascinate, rather than a ‘how to’ instruction. I’ve chosen this particular entry as it aligns with my interest in sound. It also provides an ending that resonates uncannily with the preoccupations of Mediated Auscultation – so watch them as a double bill.

Like Binotto’s work, Oswald Iten’s three-part experimental mash-up of [Safe] and The Neon Demon is accessible through videoessayresearch.org, a research website that should be bookmarked by anyone interested in the development of videographic criticism. Each of the videos combines the films according to a different founding principle, providing captivating evidence for Jason Mittell’s claim that formal parameters lead to content discoveries.

Ariel Avissar’s curation of the TV Dictionary series was a highlight of the year, one in which I was happy to indulge as both creator and viewer. I’m really interested in the range of approaches adopted to address the same brief: to encapsulate a TV series in one word. Barbara Zecchi chooses a distinctive path by allowing a scene to play out at length first, before introducing her chosen word, and then letting the scene resume, now understood in the light of that word. I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing the pivotal word (but it made me laugh)!

One technique showcased in the TV Dictionary series was to let a scene play out with minimal, yet still integral, textual commentary. Libertad Gills, who added an entry on Derry Girls to the collection, adopts a similarly minimalist approach to her use of captions in this video, which runs through a sequence from Affonso Uchoa’s Seven Days in May. The result is an explanatory scene analysis that displays the lightest of touches.

Tomas Genevičius

Art critic, kritikosatlasas.com

The Thinking Machine #48: Videography 1978 by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

The Thinking Machine #50: Nicholas Ray — Notes on Style by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

Practices of Viewing: F.FWD by Johannes Binotto

Catherine Grant

Screen media-maker and publisher of scholarly video essays, and a former professor of screen studies (Website: https://catherinegrant.org)

The Rise of Film TikTok by kikikrazed aka Queline Meadows

Her first video essay and a superbly engaging work on Gen Z’s latest hub for film appreciation by the video essay’s MVP in 2021, which Queline followed up with another excellent study, The Two Worlds of Wolfwalkers. If these two huge achievements weren’t enough, Queline was also instrumental in the wonderful Essay Library Collaboration Project. Join the Essay Library Discord and check it out. And listen to Will DiGravio’s great conversation with her at the Video Essay Podcast..

Mediated Auscultation by Emilija Talijan

We were very lucky, at [in]Transition, the peer-reviewed video-essay journal I co-edit, to be able to publish some marvellous entries by new makers in this emergent scholarly field. Of the three I am highlighting here, one of the strongest in scholarly terms was this work that explored how one form of media (the stethoscope) might reveal something about another (cinema), and in so doing revisited some essential questions of cinema’s medium specificity in a supremely original way.

TERROR NULLIUS Unmixed by Caitlin Lynch

Given the ubiquity of global remix culture, Caitlin Lynch’s highly original proposal for a videographic research methodology designed to tackle this culture deserves a lifetime achievement award! What an amazingly useful concept ‘unmixing’ is, especially when it comes to deeply political work, like that by Australian collective Soda_Jerk. I can only agree with peer-reviewer Jaimie Baron who wrote that TERROR NULLIUS Unmixed shows that ‘the activities of remixing and unmixing, alternating in a potentially never-ending cycle, may constitute a productive strategy for grappling with our mediated traces of history, to which a definitive and closed meaning can never be attached.’

My personal favourite video essay on television and film, published in 2021, was co-authored by a new maker (Giulia Scomazzon) and by someone who is better known so far for her brilliant writing on video essays, my [in]Transition co-editor Chiara Grizzaffi (author of the great book I film attraverso i film. Dal «testo introvabile» ai «video essay»). Their collaboration produced a substantial and satisfying work, with affect like no other — a perfect combination of poetic, personal and scholarly approaches to contemporary female gothic films and tv series.

Outside the Lines by Dayna McLeod

One of the most exciting developments of 2021 was the turn to video essays made by established found footage and experimental film artists. Dayna McLeod is an internationally known Montreal based performance artist and video artist whose work often touches on topics of feminism, queer identity, and sexuality. In her first ever online video essays — on Lynch’s Wild at Heart — she shakes up the videographic universe with a wonderful fusion of personal-essay-filmmaking in a film critical vein. I really love what Dayna achieves in the incredibly concise and powerful frame of Outside the Lines.

Stephen Broomer is an internationally renowned experimental filmmaker, film preservationist, and scholar of Canadian cinema. His new turn to video essays in 2021 was both brilliant and prolific, resulting in two new series of high quality work: Art & Trash, which premiered in February 2021 with a twelve-episode first series of video essays on underground, avant-garde, psychotronic and outsider media, which his essay on Josephine Massarella inaugurated; and Detours, an equally rich new videographic series on the bruised soul of film noir. 2021 was an incredibly productive year from a remarkable filmmaker. I can’t wait for more.

My final vote in the poll (as I will retire after a long but happy stint as participant in it this year) goes to yet another young filmmaker, long interested in found footage, who is now making online video essays. Libertad Gills made my very favourite video essay, to date, in Ariel Avissar’s wonderful collaborative project TV Dictionary. Her work gets at the heart of what’s so brilliant about Derry Girls, which is no mean feat in three and half minutes, and reminds us, along the way, what a work of genius the series is.

Chiara Grizzaffi

Postdoctoral Fellow at IULM University. Co-editor of [in]Transition

Montegelato by Davide Rapp (watch trailer)

Screen Glare by Enrico Camporesi, Stefano Miraglia

Rites of THE PASSAGE by Catherine Grant & Deborah Martin

The Thinking Machine #49: The Burning House by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

A Woman’s Place: Home in Cinema by Louise Radinger Field

Practices of Viewing: Screenshots by Johannes Binotto

How Good Filmmaking Brings a Script to Life by Michael Tucker (Lessons From the Screenplay)

Cydnii Wilde Harris

Film scholar and video essayist

The TV Dictionary project by Ariel Avissar and various

I’ve always loved a good homework assignment, and I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing everyone’s responses to Ariel’s prompt. Every one I’ve seen has been a standout. I particularly really enjoyed those that used the video essay medium to play with form and tone, and really capture the essence of their chosen tv shows. But one that stuck with me in particular was Ariel’s own on Seinfeld: A real punch of text, editing, laugh tracks, and humor for the tv show about nothing. A’s all around.

Practices of Viewing by Johannes Binotto

Johannes’s Practices series has been such a marvel throughout the year. With every new entry, I’m confronted with his genius, and it’s been really inspiring to bear witness. Muted in particular really resonated with me. The whole series feels like an interrogation of film history, media present, while somehow remaining deeply meditative and personal. Johannes’s work, without fail, always leaves me feeling invigorated, about what I’ve just seen, and what I could possibly do.

Rio Bravo Diary by Will DiGravio

Watching the Rio Bravo Diary unfold all year has been such a treat. I didn’t grow up with any real affinity for the western, so to read Will’s essays about what this film in particular meant to him growing up and coming of age really helped me reappraise this specific film. His transparency has been really revelatory to see, and I really appreciate how he’s invited us all to get to know him a little better through this year-long project. Further, the consistency and discipline of dealing with a single text for a full 365 is such an interesting experiment in the first place.

It is so, so cool to see someone top themselves so consistently. The things Jessica accomplishes here, the introspection, the way she was able to tackle the issue of accessibility while also broadening the topic, the interplay between film, the internet, and the various windows surrounding us all from literal glass panes to phone, tablet, tv, and theater screens. I don’t think I’ve ever wished a video essay would keep going while also being so impressed by how perfectly it ends. It’s just so dynamic in every sense of the word, and incredibly well done.

This is a video essay that somehow managed to synthesise an online conversation with such care and context that I can’t help but share it with friends. What they accomplish is one of my favourite forms of video essays on YouTube. It’s informative, well researched, yet personable and accessible. Their argument flows really nicely, and the citations do a lot to back up the personal statements made. It also really nicely laid out something that maybe I had felt about a recent media trend, but hadn’t yet been able to articulate myself. If I had to answer the question of sex scenes in films, I would simply point to this video essay as my answer.

I’m so happy I waited to submit, because these are two of my favourite video essayists discussing one of my favourite actresses (I’m also happy because it means I get to nominate them both under a single entry). I think sometimes we have a knee jerk reaction to group projects, and I think this video essay is a perfect example of how to combine two distinct voices and visions into a single project. The exploration into Union’s career is long overdue and so deserved. I think what struck me most was how strong the voice was. They make no apologies for their stance, and really challenge Hollywood to not just reflect but act. They really manage to ask some tough questions of not just the Hollywood system, but those that benefit from it. It’s theory with praxis and it’s all deliciously powerful.

Oswald Iten

Film scholar, video essayist, animator, PhD researcher

‘The Lighthouse’ (2021) by Leonardo Govoni, Cristina López Caballer, Mehran Abdollahi

Amuse-œil by Eric Faden

Barbara Stanwyck Rides Again by Shannon Harris, Catherine Russell

Mad Men’s ‘Babylon’ by Ariane Hudelet

Special Mention: A Supercut of Supercuts by Max Tohline.

Miklós Kiss

Associate professor in audiovisual arts and cognition at University of Groningen, NL / co-author of Film Studies in Motion: From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video

Amuse-œil by Eric Faden

A wonderfully rich follow-up of Visual Disturbances (on my S&S best of list of 2019) on the analytical urge of ‘interrogating’ filmic images, obsessing on a rather invisible 1.14-second-long shot from Citizen Kane, and on those ‘small gifts for the eye’ that subtly but abundantly appear in Playtime. Like I said earlier: Faden’s care for quality is admirable and inspiring.

The COVID pandemic has normalised a once special technique of split screen, forcing its ‘cubist psychology’ on us while locked in our homes with only virtual split-windows to the world. Singer’s interview with Mike Figgis, director of the quadruple split screen film Timecode, is a highly informative, superbly comprehensive, and abundantly illustrated walkthrough of the (cinematic) history and effect of the technique.

‘The Lighthouse’ (2021) by Leonardo Govoni, Cristina López Caballer, Mehran Abdollahi

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, but as an ethnographic documentary exploring the life of lighthouse keepers in the early 20th century, directed by Robert Flaherty. An ‘ethnographic screwmeneutics’ project by the students of my Videographic Criticism course at the University of Groningen.

A massive (two hours!) video on supercuts, covering every possible angle on the technique, thereby forcing all the other supercut-researchers to find another subject of study.

Keating, with his signature analytical thoroughness, walks us through his audiovisual thinking process, distinguishing between camera movements delivering characters’ ‘revelation’ and ‘recognition’.

Montegelato by Davide Rapp (watch trailer)

VR supercut diorama, the first of its kind, piecing together 180 films, TV series and commercials of the Monte Gelato waterfalls (near Rome) in 3D and with spatialised audio. Great idea, incredible effort, and superb implementation. Cinephile goosebumps are guaranteed!

Jaap Kooijman

Associate professor in media studies, University of Amsterdam, organiser ASCA videographic criticism seminar

The Black and White Coffee Set by Barbara Zecchi

Barbara Zecchi’s The Black and White Coffee Set is brilliant in its simplicity. The focus on one prop (he black-and-white coffee set in Ana Muylaert’s Que horas ela volta?) and the way the design of the audiovisual essay aesthetically repeats it, effectively work together to show the narrative importance of a seemingly mundane object. While its playfulness makes the audiovisual essay enjoyable to watch, its more ‘serious’ argument about Brazilian class and race relations remains clear throughout.

Staring Back by Sara Delshad

Although Staring Back works perfectly well as a study of auteurism, convincingly showing a signature style of filmmaker Chris Marker, Sara Delshad’s audiovisual essay stands out for me in the way it forces the viewer to become aware of their own subject position. The audiovisual essay highlights the human and non-human animal subjects staring back at the camera and, in extension, at the viewer. Those moments when the subjects answer the viewer’s gaze evokes a feeling – at least in me – of being caught staring. Delshad cleverly uses slow motion and freeze frame to enhance this sensation.

Sonic Chronicle, Post Sound by Cormac Donnelly

Some audiovisual essays really teach you something new. In Sonic Chronicle, Post Sound, Cormac Donnelly applies R. Murray Schafer’s definition of the soundscape to sonically analyze the newsrooms scenes in Zodiac, The Post, and All the President’s Men. Donnelly uses both sonic and visual techniques to make sound tangible, enabling those with untrained ears, like myself, not only to pay attention to, but also make sense of sound.

Evelyn Kreutzer

Postdoctoral researcher, Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf

Practices of Viewing: Mask by Johannes Binotto

I always attempt to curate my suggestions for the annual best video essays lists in a way that represents the breadth of video-essayistic output. Binotto’s Practices of Viewing series reflects sophisticated, in-depth, and yet very accessible and informative introductions to film-analytical concepts that are very suitable for both teaching purposes and film-scholarly thinking more broadly. I like Mask in particular because it evokes multiple layers of cinematic framing and spectatorship that seems to speak intuitively to our current moment of increasingly ‘masked’ experiences of the world.

Barbara Zecchi’s video essay is a powerful, deeply affective video on cinematic sound, specifically the transcendence of internal and external sound (experience and narration). As a sound scholar, I always look and listen for videos like these.

The Typewriter (Supercut) by Ariel Avissar

Ariel Avissar’s video is less an academic video essay than it is an impressive, entertaining, and insightful supercut of a single object/motif across numerous media sources that is simple in its conceptual premise but very sophisticated in its execution and certainly provocative of critical reflexion.

TV Dictionary — Marcella by Barbara Zecchi

Like the entire TV Dictionary series (curated by Ariel Avissar), Barbara Zecchi’s video on Marcella turns the seemingly narrow pairing of a dictionary entry to a TV series into a multi-faceted, scholarly evocative, and visually stunning exercise. I like the whole series but so far this entry has been my favorite.

Grace Lee

I don’t know what I was doing this year, but apparently it wasn’t watching a whole lot of videos, so no ‘hidden gems’ from me this year. But these three entertaining and engaging videos, while popular in terms of views, may have slipped through the more academic net. So enjoy!

Space Jam 2 is a Lie by John Walsh (Super Eyepatch Wolf)

I’m a sucker for some fiction, and Super Eyepatch Wolf sure knows how to have fun with the video essay format, making some of the most creative uses of the form. This video was a stand out for me this year.

The Battle of SHARKS! By CGP Grey

A charming story of the battle between art and city council planning permission, I don’t know if I’ve ever finished a video feeling more giddy and delighted. Review from my mum: “That video is worth more than every other video on YouTube put together, and deserves an award.”

A wonderful defense of a defense of millennial teens, and an account of millennial nostalgia, which I am already nostalgic for. Ahh 28th Jan 2021, when I was still so full of hope for the year ahead. Ian Danskin continues to make exceptionally engaging videos from a deeply personal perspective that perfectly balances anecdote and academia.

Kevin B. Lee

Video essayist and educator; @alsolikelife

Three Minutes: A Lengthening by Bianca Stigter (watch trailer)

Three minutes of home movie footage taken in 1938 are explored through an impressive array of videographic techniques to create a vast and deeply moving contemplation on lives lost and history regained.

Also: ‘One Thousand and One Attempts to Be an Ocean’ by Wang Yuyan (watch trailer), whose epileptic temporality goes in the polar opposite direction to achieve its own revelatory experience of the extreme online present.

Home When You Return by Carl Elsaesser (see details)

Stretching and blurring the boundaries of video essay, experimental film and home movie, traces of a 1950s homemade melodrama by amateur filmmaker Joan Thurber Baldwin intermingle with a mournful homage to the author’s grandmother and her vacated home. A powerful mélange of cinematic and domestic spaces, past and present.

Also: Screening Room: On Digital Film Festivals, by Jessica McGoff

Practices of Viewing by Johannes Binotto

Launched this year, this series currently consists of five video essays, each concerning a different method through which viewing is mediated (muting, screenshot, pausing, fast forwarding, masking). With an arresting combination of playfulness and obsessiveness, Binotto re-performs and reflects upon the techniques that govern spectatorship.

Also: Amuse-oeil by Eric Faden

What Isn’t a Video Essay? By Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

YouTube video essays have generally bloated into hours-long vlogfests to maximize monetization algorithms, but here is a rigorously crafted tour de force that rewards rewatching for the many memeic details it contains. It breathlessly performs a mind engaging the internet on its own terms, utilizing the temporal and audiovisual affordances of always-on networked life to reflect thoughtfully back upon itself.

Also: The Scholarly Video Essay by Ian Garwood. Garwood demurs from calling this a video essay, but they certainly demonstrate how pre-recorded lectures can evolve from a lowly COVD-era necessity into an arresting videographic form in its own right.

The Rise of Film TikTok by kikikrazed aka Queline Meadows

This was released just around last year’s poll; since then it’s become a go-to reference for film dinosaurs like me to make sense of how film culture can thrive among a new generation and its preferred platforms.

A critical and revealing interrogation of the gender (en)coding of virtual reality as it has been presented in cinema, implicitly calling for a more inclusive re-coding of these mediums not only as a means for entertainment but for social co-presence.

Also: Michael Ironside and I by Marian Mayland (watch trailer)

As also evidenced in his The Game That Won’t Let You See All of It, Geller is able to narrate the YouTube video essay and its pop culture preoccupations into areas of uncommon sensitivity and existential poignancy.

Adrian Martin

Film critic and audiovisual essayist

What is Neo-Snyderism? by Ariel Avissar

Satirical pastiches are good when they are accurate, and this one is so accurate it manages to satirise several things at once, from nerd-fan culture to the Kogonada craze.

The smart conjunction of Last Year at Marienbad and Westworld via a quote from surrealist cinephile Robert Benayoun – I could hardly ask for anything more.

Most audiovisual essays depend on some level of prior film analysis, but not so many are actually very good at really achieving an analysis above the most obvious and basic undergraduate level. Keating is an excellent analyst and he turns his insights into finely constructed montage pieces, like this one.

TERROR NULLIUS Unmixed by Caitlin Lynch

A lot of so-called remix culture simply, from Adam Curtis downward, simply celebrates the brute fact of being able to sample and throw things together — often quite incoherently. Lynch’s superb work takes a patient strategy of unmixing to comment on those genuine remix masters, the Soda_Jerk team.

Vedette — For Laura Mulvey by Catherine Grant

Catherine Grant’s dispositifs of audiovisual comparison, often with an inscribed text component, can look deceptively simple. This one revealingly lines up words from Laura Mulvey’s recent work with breathtaking passages of two classic Max Ophüls films.

Dialogue III: CAROL / JESSE by Oswald Iten

This is the culminating and best work in Iten’s series interweaving Todd Haynes’ Safe and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. More than a matter of demonstrating the banal influence of one film or filmmaker on another, this audiovisual essay achieves a dreamy, hallucinatory intensity and texture.

Secrets of Ghosts by Johanna Vaude

If you’re going to re-imagine a pre-existing film in a new and creative montage, really push it to something extreme. Vaude, among the most masterful of all practitioners in this field, works her special magic on Mulholland Drive, part of her series of ongoing commissions from Arte’s BLOW UP program.

Daniel Mcilwraith

Video essayist and video editor

Rites of THE PASSAGE by Catherine Grant & Deborah Martin

Alan O’Leary

Associate professor of film and media in digital contexts at Aarhus University. His manifesto for a parametric videographic criticism was published this year in NECSUS.

Nuit Debout/Up At Night by Nelson Makengo (watch trailer)

Congolese artist-filmmaker Nelson Makengo spreads his portrait of Kinshasa, a city beset by power cuts, across three screens punctuated with bare lightbulbs and the dancing beams of torches, the whole underpinned by an evocative sound world of generator noises, off-screen conversations and voices from the radio. Some participants at the ethnographic film festival where I saw Up At Night complained they found the three-screen format distracting, but it is precisely the reflexive use of multiscreen—sometimes showing identical images, sometimes different, and sometimes nothing—that places Up At Night in the essay film tradition and lifts it clear of documentary or auto-ethnography.

3 x Shapes of Home by Elisabeth Brun

Obliged to placate a UK funding system structurally suspicious of academic and artistic enquiry, Screenworks, the journal of practice research in screen media, insists on a detailed setting out of research questions and social impact for each of its video publications. Elisabeth Brun duly complies in the statement accompanying her intimate and spectacular 3 x Shapes of Home, but the film contains all the elements it needs to explain itself. I love how it’s unsatisfied with, and unafraid to compromise, its own beauty, and how the playful voiceover interacts dynamically with content and form. It’s a sensual and conceptual treat.

Rio Bravo Diary by Will DiGravio

Ian Garwood has used tweets as ‘research outputs’ in a novel way as part of his Indy Vinyl project (see his 2020 article in NECSUS) but Will DiGravio has actually deployed the structural affordances of Twitter in his year-long analysis of Rio Bravo. In 365 daily tweets, DiGravio methodically posted 22-second clips from Hawk’s film prefaced by an observation or reaction in 280 characters. This is ‘video/essay’ as iterative performance rather than reporting of analysis and I like to think of it in the tradition of Barthes’ S/Z, where scientific method is pushed to absurdist (and intensely personal) ends.

Elizabeth Alsop is concerned in this video essay with an ‘exhibitionism’ that resists and exceeds plot summary in shows like The Leftovers, Hannibal and Twin Peaks: The Return. Alsop talks in her [in]Transition creator statement of confronting the methodological challenge of dramatizing (rather than summarizing) spectacular televisual phenomena without merely appropriating their rhetorical force. I admire how she meets this challenge with wit and economy (and without voiceover) through a combination of sound and cryptic imagery, multiscreen and onscreen text. The framing sections effectively stage the meditative experience of the extended extracts that form the central bulk of the video essay.

Apparently, Catherine Grant has asked not to be mentioned in this year’s poll, but it would be strange to omit our leading role model in ‘filmmaking research’ (Grant’s preferred term). Anyway, I have chosen an epigraphic video I don’t particularly like. Grant’s treatment of onscreen text is exemplary, as ever, but the quote from Sarah Ahmed is coercive and folksy, while the juxtaposition of quirky music and looped images of Frances McDormand risks whimsy. The point for me, though, is that this sketch forms part of a broader practice that is always more than the sum of its video parts.

He Almost Forgets That There Is a Maker of the World by Ben Spatz, N. Eda Erçin, Caroline Gatt and Agnieszka Mendel

In this essay, onscreen text is used to annotate a 30-minute single-take recording of researcher-performers using speech, song and body to interact with books and each other to investigate some meanings of Jewishness. This ‘illuminated video’, as maker Ben Spatz dubs it, is an expression of what Spatz refers to in a series of writings as ‘the video way of thinking’ (see 2018 article of that name and the 2020 book ‘Making a Laboratory’). What I particularly value here is the idea and practice of essay-making as an experimental situation rather than as the mere documentation or reporting of research.

Julian Palmer

YouTube video essayist, The Discarded Image

What Isn’t a Video Essay? by Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

A trip into the video essay metaverse, but done in a unique and funny style that makes potentially academic content propulsively entertaining.

What Distinguishes the Great Existential Films? by Tom van der Linden (Like Stories of Old)

Using a combination of self-shot footage (mostly churches) and some of the great existential films from Bergman, Schrader, Tarkovsky, Malkick, etc, LSOO explores why he’s drawn to religious art and architecture, without being overtly religious himself, which I can relate to.

The Invisible Horror of The Shining by Kristian T. Williams (kaptainkristian)

After being away from the scene for two years, it was great to see the return of Kristian’s trademark slick style. He takes arguably the most talked to death film of all time, and makes it fresh.

Clearly inspired by Bo Burnham’s groundbreaking achievement, Flight applies many similar techniques—with numerous camera set-ups and video essay styles—to explore that work in a wholly original way.

The Transformation of Anthony Hopkins by Luís Azevedo (Little White Lies)

A touching and creative tribute to the legendary actor. Azevedo has Hopkins in dialogue with himself, creating an emotional journey through his many roles.

How Movies Helped Me Process My Mother’s Death by Adam Tinius (Entertain The Elk)

I’m sure we all use movies to guide us through the toughest times. And this emotionally raw video uses them as a way to remember a loved one, and deal with a devastating loss.

Audio-visual PhD student at the University of Birmingham

Concise videographic epigraph that explores and pleasingly manipulates colour, maintaining an Anderson aesthetic throughout.

A complex reflection on documentary storytelling that focuses on Orson Welles’ F for Fake and includes a performative element from the creator. Rich in its academic grounding and playful in execution.

A video essay that ate other video essays. This really resonated with me, not only for its acknowledgement and incorporation of the Zoom space we have inhabited for much of the last two years, but for the important questions it poses about how we choose our material as essayists.

The Typewriter (Supercut) by Ariel Avissar

I just find this joyous to watch: beautifully paced and a brilliant example of how the supercut can reveal as well as revere.

The Archival In-Between by Evelyn Kreutzer and Noga Stiassny

This is a powerful and haunting piece of work. In slowing down, repeating, and zooming in to archival footage, it forces the viewer to confront and re-engage with what may seem familiar images of the Holocaust.

Many of these bite-size explorations are essentially well-crafted compilations with voiceovers rather than more experimental or academically essayistic pieces, but I learn something every time I watch one. There’s an eclectic range of topics, from uncanny spaces and nuns on film; to examinations of the macguffin and credit sequences.

I’m a firm believer that any video essay should make the most of the form and this is a strong example of an undergraduate doing just that through employing various audio-visual techniques to develop his argument. It’s great to hear a regional accent too!

Daniel Schindel

Associate editor, Hyperallergic

ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS Tokimeki Memorial by Tim Rogers (Action Button)

Tim Rogers transitioned from being a leader within New Games Journalism to producing some of the most in-depth video reviews about video games and how they create meaning. This epic six-hour essay goes in-depth on a little-known Japanese romance game, including summaries of two playthroughs of it. In line with the rest of Rogers’s work, it is not merely about this game, but about a sprawling, branching series of fascinating tangents around interpersonal relationships and how interactive art can engage them.

A terrific example of found commentary in pop culture. The designers of Grand Theft Auto V likely didn’t intend to make a statement on the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’, but by programming police officers not to attack one another, no matter what, they unwittingly replicated real-world dynamics. Earle turns his tinkering with the game’s code into an intriguing investigation into media message-making.

Identity: A Trans Coming Out Story by Abigail Thorn (Philosophy Tube)

This is the least ‘essay-like’ work on my ballot, but Abigail Thorn is pushing the creative envelope so much within the field of popular YouTubers that I feel she deserves mention. One thing I love about Philosophy Tube is how Thorn finds a way to incorporate the concepts she discusses into the forms of the videos themselves. Here, she makes clear the performative nature of gender by having a cis male portray the closeted, male-presenting version of herself. The moment when that actor steps aside and Thorn comes out (sorry) is one of my favourite in any video this year.

Practices of Viewing by Johannes Binotto

The way that Binotto scrutinises the structures and conventions of digital modes of viewing through the lens of analog interfaces is consistently engrossing. It’s always a treat each time a new instalment in this series pops up.

There had to be something here acknowledging the pandemic, and McGoff’s literate and deeply considered rumination on the experience of a virtual film festival spoke more to my supremely odd times as a cinephile under lockdown than anything else I’ve seen on the matter.

The History of the Atlanta Falcons by Jon Bois, Alex Rubenstein, Joe Ali

Jon Bois might just be my favourite documentarian working today, and I have a strong suspicion that soon a lot more internet videos are going to be taking cues from his work. This multipart look at the trials and tribulations of the Falcons is a longform study of failure in all its myriad forms. In the hands of Bois and his collaborators, we see in this team a devastating series of near-misses, could-have-beens, and lost opportunities. Sports narratives often focus on snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; who knew the opposite could be so engrossing?

What Isn’t a Video Essay? by Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

My only complaint about Grace Lee is that she doesn’t upload more often! Especially since in her recent work she’s demonstrated an incredible visual sensibility, casually packing tons of information — jokes, easter eggs, and more — into every shot. This video is near and dear to my heart because it speaks to my own struggles to define video essays, and my gnawing feeling that sometimes we might be getting too permissive with the term, or alternatively too restrictive. Few essayists explore this kind of ambivalence as well as Lee.

Video essayist, StrucciMovies

Faline San’s videos are typically anecdotes about her life or explanations of her thought process regarding bizarre niche topics. They caught my attention due to her quick pacing, engaging storytelling, her finely-tuned (and very funny) editing style, and her self-deprecating sense of humor. how i would defeat the immortal snail is a great example of this – it’s essentially a ten minute rant about a Reddit thought experiment, but it’s very funny and complex. This is especially impressive considering she is still a teenager, and I look forward to seeing what work she produces in the future!

John’s essays are always funny and thought-provoking and he had some more avant-garde videos this year that pushed video essays as a medium (specifically his Space Jam and Dell nightmare videos, which I’d also recommend) but his fake psychics video stood out to me as something with the potential to help save a viewer from being taken advantage of, which is tremendously valuable. It’s dense with research and history and comes from both a place of anger and empathy. It’s a fantastic video.

Scout Tafoya

Practices of Viewing: F.FWD by Johannes Binotto

Johannes had a hell of a year. This whole series is superb.

Tenderness — Rio Bravo Diary by Will DiGravio

De la femme by Caterina Cucinotta and Jesús Ramé López

Reimagining Blackness and Architecture (MOMA) by Russell Yaffe, Rafael Salazar Moreno (RAVA Films)

Our Focus by Kevin B. Lee

Max Tohline

Independent media scholar and video essayist

Flight of the Navigator | VFX Cool by Alan Melikdjanian (Captain Disillusion)

Captain Disillusion’s videos debunking viral hoaxes or misinformation about visual effects wizardry have been top-tier YouTube content for years, but nothing could have prepared me for this ravishing deconstruction of the technical magic in the cult-classic Flight of the Navigator. I don’t have euphoric superlatives extreme enough for how I felt watching this video the first time — not only does C.D. use VFX to analyze VFX (probably the final boss of videographic criticism); his attention, research, wit, obsession, and good old fashioned formal analysis blow everything else out of the water.

Mediated Auscultation by Emilija Talijan

Though it has stiff competition from Faden, Keating, Mittell, and others, Mediated Auscultation is my favorite peer-reviewed essay of the year. Like many film scholars, I’ve never given enough attention to sound — precisely because sound never struck me as being essentially ‘cinematic’. But Talijan shows that cinema’s promise of immersive sensing from a distance applies as much to sound as image. The icing on the cake is that while plenty of video essays are ‘meditative’, few have made the tone demonstrate the argument as Talijan does here, with the audio putting me in a near-ASMR haze.

What is Neo-Snyderism? by Ariel Avissar

I never realized it was possible to deploy a parody of a video essay (in this case a classic on neorealism from kogonada) in the service of an argument that is not only NOT a joke, but possibly richer than that of the original. Whereas kogonada merely illustrated a reasonably conventional understanding of the difference between de Sica’s style and classical Hollywood style, Avissar completely overturned my narrow-minded received takes on Snyder by offering me a different mode of attention. Even if an ambiguity remains as to what Snyder’s style ‘means’, I’ll never pigeonhole him the same way again.

No Face Is an Incel by CJ the X

Generally I’d exclude wall-to-wall-talking-head channels from a list of great video essays, but CJ the X is in the middle of an annus mirabilis. So, for those who don’t have the 2.5 hours for CJ’s urgent cry-of-the-soul Burnham/Bezos essay, here’s an intoxicating 100-mile-an-hour sprint of an essay that performs a Žižekian looking-awry on Spirited Away that might not be dressed up in academic finery, but has a more nimble intellect than many who’ve put up with the steamroller of peer review.

Practices of Viewing by Johannes Binotto

As we enter the eighth or ninth wave of rumination on what ‘counts’ as a video essay and how to think videographically, Johannes Binotto has become the undisputed master of reflection on the everyday practices of viewing that form the foundation of what video essayists do. Watching his ongoing Practices of Viewing series (in particular the one on the screenshot, but also others on pausing, fast-forwarding, muting), I felt like I’d found Arne Saknussemm’s name scratched into the cave wall— a fellow traveler.

eye / contact by Niki Radman

This essay takes its time and a good deal of text setting up its argument, but when it finally unveils its purely visual denouement — a 3×3 grid of images that jaw-droppingly links one note of Barry Jenkins’s formal language with his whole symphony of themes surrounding identity — I felt like I was gonna turn into drops.

The tip of the YouTube iceberg conceals a Sierpinski triangle of icebergs beneath it — so many that it’s mathematically remarkable that any individual essay ever made it to my eyes at all. Had I not met Arttective on the Essay Library Discord server, I wouldn’t have seen this gem, which uses the rewind and skip keys on YouTube to inject some tantalizing interactivity into the grammar of the video essay. But I’m so glad I did: the experience is engrossing. If anyone out there solves the puzzle in this video, please let me know the answer!

David Verdeure

Creator, collector and curator of video essays under the nom de video Filmscalpel

The pandemic proves fertile ground for video essays. Changing film distribution models mean movies are available sooner to audiovisual critics. In-person and live events have been replaced with pre-taped materials, creating another vein of visuals for video essay makers to tap into. We’re often confined to our personal visual echo chambers that are filled with screens that confound as much as they clarify. And that we’re forced to spend more time in close quarters may also contribute to the unmistakable trend that video essays are getting longer. In 2021 audiovisual strategies that are common to the video essay popped up everywhere. In academia and the arts. In news broadcasts and film festivals. In talk shows and on TikTok. These are just a few remarkable examples.

In his feature-length video Tohline gives an overview of the history, the aesthetics and the modus operandi of the supercut. He examines the tension between its dueling impulses of (fannish) desire and serious analysis, and he proposes strategies to increase the form’s critical impact. But most important is how Tohline regards the supercut not as a mere editing technique but as the material expression of a specific and novel way of thinking. We try to make sense of the world by ordering it into either archives or databases, and the supercut is the poster child for that database mode.

Montegelato by Davide Rapp (watch trailer)

Just when you think the whole supercut model has been mapped, along comes an innovative application of this strategy. Davide Rapp combines clips of the Monte Gelato waterfalls near Rome into a 28-minute VR collage. Scores of rectangular film and television scenes together form a full circle, recasting the role of the spectator from immobile viewer in a theater seat to participatory flaneur. Montegelato is an immersive three-dimensional palimpsest that puts the viewer at the center of this nexus of cinematic storytelling: a location that inspired filmmakers working across different genres, in different times and with very different means.

Gyres 1-3 by Ellie Ga (watch excerpt)

American artist Ellie Ga’s single channel video installation Gyres 1-3 is another example of how to put an inventive spin on a classic videographic strategy. This is a desktop video essay of sorts, with the desktop being a light table onto which she arranges and rearranges transparent photographs. Her essayistic voice over narration is triggered by the succession of (often) archetypal images that serve as lodestars for the video’s loose narrative structure. But unlike the more traditional virtual desktop, Ellie Ga’s physical handling of the transparent slides adds a tactile and more personal touch to the process.

Under the White Mask: The Film That Haesaerts Could Have Made by Matthias De Groof (watch trailer)

In 1958 Paul Haesaerts made Under the Black Mask, a documentary on Congolese art. That Belgian film was formally inventive but it also perpetuated racist stereotypes. Scholar and filmmaker Matthias De Groof remixed Haesaerts’ film into a scathing critique of colonialism. He combined the footage of mute masks with an impassioned voice over by slam poet Maravilha Munto. In Haesaerts’ version, art hid atrocities. Aestheticism was used as a mask for the ugly face of colonialism to hide behind. This powerful remix tears off that mask: it uses exactly the same artistic means but reclaims their critical potential.

In this beautifully paced and expertly constructed video essay Celia Sainz focuses on a quartet of documentary films made in Catalonia over the past two decades by female filmmakers. She does not seek to ascribe a collective national identity or ideological agenda to these works but looks for shared artistic (cinematographic and narrative) strategies. Like the creative documentaries it studies, this video essay uses time and tone to drive home its points. The assured audiovisual approach and well-judged rhythm of this piece are part and parcel to its intellectual and affective impact.

Lucie Emch’s video essay deals with the troublesome on-screen representation of rape. She starts off in a conventional way but then brings music videos into the mix. The video essay really hits its stride when it mashes up Jenny Wilson’s RAPIN* music video (from 2018) with Ida Lupino’s film Outrage (from 1950).

This fine piece was published by Tecmerin. That online journal deserves to be lauded for its persistent efforts to bring to the fore the work of video essay makers who are not native English speakers, and for the fact it reviews and publishes pieces in many different languages.

Professor and director of the film studies programme, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Practices of Viewing: Muted by Johannes Binotto

The most intelligent video-essay I’ve seen on sound (or rather, on lack of sound) in cinema. Brilliant!

The TV Dictionary project by Ariel Avissar and various

With over 40 works to date, Ariel Avissar’s intelligent project has certainly accomplished its expected goal of increasing the video essay’s interest in television products. It has also achieved a less expected result: it strengthened a community of video essayists who have engaged playfully in this almost addictive collaborative endeavor.

Skillfully produced (superb storytelling and rhythm), this video-essay takes full advantage of the form’s possibilities by centering in a simple perceptive observation. A little gem which marks the beginning of a promising new series by Will DiGravio

The Thinking Machine #48: Videography 1978 by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

Cinephilia translated into an audiovisual essay at its best. A deeply personal and emotional account of Adrian Martin’s love for film and for film analysis becomes one of the best pieces I can think of on a rigorous and theoretical reflection on the video-graphic essay as a form.

I saw this video-essay for the first time when Ana Mejón presented it at the video-graphic webinar organized by the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in September. I was immediately impressed. It’s a superbly crafted video-essay that condenses thorough and serious work of scholarly research.

The Archival In-Between by Evelyn Kreutzer and Noga Stiassny

A powerful and chilling work that did not go unnoticed at the Adelio Ferrero Festival, Italy. I look forward to the multi-modal project that will be published in the upcoming issue of Research in Film and History together with this video-essay.

What Isn’t a Video Essay? by Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

It’s so smart and funny, and, as Jason Mittell said, it “speaks to many of us.”


https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/polls/best-video-essays-2021