There’s no pretending on my part to have seen everything there was to see in 2021. I’ve still got a pretty long list of movies from the year that I would like to catch up on, including the other movie from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY, Hamaguchi’s was a name that was completely unknown to me before a couple of months ago, so it’s exciting to actually have another film of his on which to hang my high expectations, after being so captivated by DRIVE MY CAR. But there are others than have yet gone unseen, including end-of-year award contenders like Pedro Almodóvar’s PARALLEL MOTHERS (coming soon to a Laemmle Theater near me, I’m told), Paul Thomas Anderson’s LICORICE PIZZA (whose controversy over its depiction of Japanese characters, or caricatures, hasn’t done much to spark my interest, my being not the biggest PTA fan to begin with), KING RICHARD and BELFAST, along with potentially fascinating (or disappointing) titles like LUCA, RED ROCKET, CITIZEN ASHE, BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR, A CHOICE OF WEAPONS: INSPIRED BY GORDON PARKS, CRUELLA, UNDINE, NINE DAYS, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, ANTLERS, ETERNALS, JULIA, BAD LUCK BANGINE OR LOONY PORN, HOUSE OF GUCCI, THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD and C’MON, C’MON.
But what of what I have seen? Well, I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with desperate anxiety to know what films tickled my fancy this year. (Yeah, right.) Well, I’m gonna spill right now. My list may look pretty familiar if you’ve paid any attention to other year-end lists, but that’s only because there are only so many days in a year and I read best-of lists too, and what I end up making an effort to see is to a great extent dependent on the word of those I know whose word I trust to lead me in the direction of movies and performances worth experiencing. So, get ready for some overlap here, and maybe no big surprises. This year, to limit myself to 20 picks– a top-10 and then some honorable mentions—was not so difficult because I didn’t see a lot, especially in the margins, that thrilled me. However, what I liked I really liked. And there were a few surprises among those I liked best, at least for me. (One of the biggest surprises: it’s been a great year for music on film.)
So here goes. I’ve limited myself to a pithy comment for each one, so as not to overstay my welcome. Here’s what floated my boat in 2021, in ascending order:
20) WEST SIDE STORY This non-fan of the musical or the 1961 film found plenty to like here, watching Spielberg direct the hell out this musty “classic.” In a better year, perhaps not top-20 material, but it’s so much better than the canonized Robert Wise version that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.
19) THE SPARKS BROTHERS Another sort of documentary, extreme fan service in honor of an enduring band who are themselves as odd and amusing as the film dedicated to their history and posterity.
18) BLACK WIDOW Sorry, Spider-Man. My favorite Marvel movie of the year: sleek, sharp and snappy, with terrific character work (yes, character work) from Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and especially Florence Pugh to match the silly, often surprisingly realized action.
17) THE PROTÉGÉ The first of two action thrillers on this list that I assumed would be routine entries in a tired American form which turned out to be anything but. The chemistry between Maggie Q as the titular learned assassin and Michael Keaton as her primary nemesis is as palpable as it would be impossible to conjure artificially, and it takes this movie to some very interesting and amusing places.
16) MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY In many ways a standard documentary about the feminist human rights activist (who was also an Episcopal priest), but it introduced me to her memoir, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage and the story of a woman who should be more well-remembered by the general public than I suspect she is.
15) IN THE HEIGHTS A musical whose exuberance makes up for the occasional dramatic lulls or shortcomings in some of the song score. And the movie is nothing if not exuberant– it’s a close-to-perfect fantasy of urban community togetherness in which to celebrate the hope of a country beginning to move out of pandemic isolation and toward some new, however redefined “normalcy.”
14) NO TIME TO DIE No way to anticipate how much I ended up enjoying this latest (last?) Bond epic, especially given my indifferent reaction to the previous three Daniel Craig efforts. This one trades up directors (Cory Joji Fukunaga is a big improvement over Sam Mendes) and delivers an exhilarating, even moving completion of the Craig cycle which features the fun and excitement that had been leeched out of its relatively dour predecessors.
13) THE HAND OF GOD Paolo Sorrentino’s vivid, hilarious and very personal drama, based on his own adventures as a young, soon-to-be-budding filmmaker, features moments of unexpected beauty pressed right up against unexpected bawdy humor and a surprisingly unblinkered view of the director’s early ambitions. If THE GREAT BEAUTY was his LA DOLCE VITA, here’s his AMARCORD.
12) GODZILLA VS. KONG Yeah, yeah, say what you will. This big-budget doozy must have taken a nation’s worth of craftsmen and artists to compose, but it lumbers not— it’s as fleet of foot and spirit as you could hope for in a movie about giant beasts asserting their essential (but not necessarily hostile-to-mankind) beastliness and laying waste to their surroundings. The movie has mind-bending visual highlights to go along with a fight-to-the-finish that will satisfy all but the crankiest of those looking for an invite to the monster bash of the year.
11) THE POWER OF THE DOG Thomas Savage’s 1967 psychological western novel is given a provocative, elliptical film adaptation courtesy of Jane Campion, who has never made a film I’ve found entirely satisfying until this one. Anchored by Benedict Cumberbatch’s pained and painful portrayal of misguided masculinity, this movie crept up on me and left me unsettled, with the sorts of questions that reward and illuminate a second look.
And now the top 10:
10) COPSHOP An unexpected hoot. The show is handily stolen by Alexis Louder as the bored Nevada cop who ends up in a standoff with Gerard Butler (hit man) and Frank Grillo (his target) in the titular, bullet-and-corpse-littered police station., with a major assist from Toby Huss in an over-the-top piece performance— genuinely creepy/funny/original– as the gregariously deranged contract murderer who wants to wipe them all out. Solid, clever and mean.
9) NIGHTMARE ALLEY I can hardly imagine a better farewell to this year than this movie, a year in which the world seemed increasingly claustrophobic, much of its citizenry engaged in duping or being duped, in blinding campaigns of continual carny-level chicanery elevated to national disaster, the duped refusing to believe their own eyes (and science) over the lies that line up with what they want to believe. Bradley Cooper heads a perfect cast in Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of the 1947 classic and deserves Oscar consideration for his final scene alone; I’ve seen the move three times now and have been unable to shake what he conjures in the last moment of this devastating noir.
8) NO SUDDEN MOVE A movie for grown-ups who miss the intricacies and mysteries of CHINATOWN or the feints and double and triple-crosses of great films noir like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE or THE KILLING. Steven Soderbergh’s film is centered on a heist scheme that goes terribly wrong and spirals into a morass of betrayals and reprisals that at times can be challenging to track, but which ultimately land in a place where comparisons to the films cited above prove not only apt but well deserved. A great cast, including Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour and Kieran Culkin are all but upstaged by Brendan Fraser’s great character turn, in which he seems to be channeling TOUCH OF EVIL-era Orson Welles.
7) PASSING Rebecca Hall’s debut film as writer-director, anchored by breathtaking performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, is a perhaps unexpectedly nuanced and piercing investigation of two women reunited in 1920s Harlem, one of whom is passing for white and the other who is passing for being satisfied with an apparently secure life among the Black upper middle class, and of the suffocating social constructs that dictate the boundaries of the color line. (I highly recommend reading critic Charles Taylor’s essay on the film after you’ve seen it for yourself– The Fearlessness of Passing – Dissent Magazine)
6) DRIVE MY CAR Absorbing in the manner of a great novel (or a great play, like Uncle Vanya, which provides the movie’s emotional framework), Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s measured, masterful, contemplative character drama digs deep into the ostensibly impenetrable worlds of characters seemingly sealed off from anything but their own pain and sense of betrayal and turns that pain, and the path toward something, anything else, into illuminating, engrossing cinema, as purely exhilarating as anything released in 2021.
5) SUMMERTIME A celebratory comedy-drama built around sequences in which many of the 30 young characters, who float in and around Los Angeles during the film’s 95-minute running time, frequently express themselves in poetic verse. But the movie breaks down resistance almost immediately with visual poetry that augments and enhances those recitative passages and suffuses them with what can only be considered the near-equivalent of song-and-dance sequences which might be found in a more straightforward musical.
4) THE LAST DUEL Ridley Scott has always been a master craftsman in search of stories to tell that are worthy of his visual spirit and intensity, but he hasn’t always been successful in that search. But in the excellent script by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, (based on actual events that occurred in medieval France) tracing the three perspectives on a vicious sexual assault and the resulting duel, the outcome of which will decide, in the eyes of the law anyway, the truth of what happened, Scott has pulled off the year’s biggest surprise (at least for me) and made his best movie in 39 years. Damon and Affleck do career-best work on screen too, as do Adam Driver and Jodie Comer. A compelling, twisting, thrilling piece of work.
3) THE CARD COUNTER Paul Schrader fashions yet another homage to one of his cinematic heroes, Robert Bresson, in telling this story of (possible) redemption for a gambler (Oscar Isaac) haunted by a military past—he was stationed at Guantanamo Bay interrogating suspected terrorists—who takes an interest in a young man who has connections to that past and intentions entirely his own. Like Brian De Palma’s relationship with Hitchcock, Schrader’s links to Bresson’s methods and sensibilities are unavoidable, but often result, as they do here, in shocks to the viewer’s system that bear his own unmistakable stamp, in a movie that is moment to moment, among the writer-director’s two or three best films.
2) SUMMER OF SOUL That rare piece of work that, in its own way, and very much like the year’s other milestone musical documentary THE BEATLES: GET BACK (not seen in theaters, so I left it off this list), seems almost as important as the event it documents. Director Amir “Questlove” Thompson, in making beautiful music of both the concerts and the social context in which they occurred, has conjured a movie that, like the songs and the performers he documents, is likely to stand the test of time, one that understands the thrill of hearing these voices in this time and place, and why it was so important that they should have been released to resonate with their time and ours.
1) THE GREEN KNIGHT Not your college English professor’s “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Director David Lowery demonstrates newfound and masterful confidence as a storyteller in adapting the epic story which accesses an increasing rare quality in modern movies, especially American or English-speaking ones: a sense of genuine mystery. Lowery mounts the entire journey with enchanting visual strategies that suggest the circularity of experience, the inevitability of time (and its possible reversal), the weight of loss, and a hallucinatory dream quality that suffuses Gawain’s pursuit of what it means to be worthy of leading a honorable life, carrying the audience along on waves of visual grammar and wit that are less related to the fevered Wagnerian blasts of John Boorman’s EXCALIBUR and closer to the contemplative pastoral inquiry of Robert Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC, yet that grammar and wit, though bearing the influence of Bresson (and Malick), are ultimately proven to be entirely his own. The movie conjures a world of real and imagined magick, and that includes magick of the cinematic sort, a world which resonates long after the film’s soaring penultimate image and its final, sweetly ambiguous words have passed into the mists of memory, where the movie promises to live, calling out from a forgotten age of tales, and of glorious movies, for a long, long time.
THE YEAR’S MOST PLEASANT SURPRISES:
BAD TRIP (Kitao Sakurai)
BLACK WIDOW (Cate Shortland)
COPSHOP (Joe Carnahan)
THE LAST DUEL (Ridley Scott)
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Guillermo Del Toro)
NO TIME TO DIE (Cary Joji Fukunaga)
OUR FRIEND (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
THE POWER OF THE DOG (Jane Campion)
THE PROTÉGÉ (Martin Campbell)
SHADOW IN THE CLOUD (Rosanne Liang)
SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS (Robert Schwentke)
THE SUICIDE SQUAD (James Gunn)
WEST SIDE STORY (Steven Spielberg)
THE YEAR’S DISAPPOINTMENTS:
ANNETTE (Leos Carax)
BENEDETTA (Paul Verhoeven)
CRY MACHO (Clint Eastwood)
DUNE (Denis Villeneuve)
THE LOST DAUGHTER (Maggie Gyllenhaal)
THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (Lana Wachowski)
PIG (Michael Sarnoski)
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (Jon Watts)
TITANE (Julia Ducournau)
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Joel Coen)
THE YEAR’S WORST (in alphabetical order):
GOD’S NOT DEAD: WE THE PEOPLE (Vance Null)
HALLOWEEN KILLS (David Gordon Green)
THE HITMAN’S WIFES BODYGUARD (Patrick Hughes)
THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (Lana Wachowski)
ME YOU MADNESS (Louise Linton)