As of this writing, I’ve seen 148 films released in 2021. I’ll see a few more. That’s a bit up from this time last year. “But Nick, aren’t there people who watch way more than that each year?” Probably. There’s not much this year I regret. Life is too short to watch all of the bullshit out there. Plus, we have a dog now. She likes to walk. So do I.
Of those, just about 30 were at an indoor theater. Of that 30, I had to tell people to shut up and / or turn their phone off at a half-dozen of those. As I said last year: When I can do that again, nature is healing. Nothing is fully healed, just scarred over right now and flaring up from time to time.
Overall, I’ll have watched just about one movie a day in 2021 — including 52 directed by women (for a third straight year), 41 horror outings for Letterboxd’s annual HoopTober celebration, a handful of generally concise gems (and F9) at a pair of resumed indoor Fuck, Yeah! Film Festival weekends, the entire MC(TV)U, the Fast & Furious series, the Saw series, whatever stragglers I had in Ridley Scott’s filmography to see all of his feature films, more than 100 movies with my lovely wife, and all three cuts of Ali that Michael Mann has put together over the last 20 years.
Throw in 600-plus episodes of TV (including the entirety of The West Wing for the first time and a full-series rewatch of 24 for perhaps the most esoteric thing I’ve ever written). And I also listened to nearly 550 new albums or EPs from 2021 (and bailed at the halfway point on another 200-ish more). Oh, hey, I went to a concert this year. Indoors. I used to see those. That was a fun time. Everyone was wearing masks. Even the band. Good stuff.
The following article includes:
- My top five documentaries of 2021
- My top 10 scenes of the year (plus one)
- My top 10 needle-drops of previously recorded music on a film’s soundtrack
- 10 movies that were entirely not for me
- Every solid recommendation I would make for the year
- My top 25 films of 2021
You can find all of my formal reviews here at Midwest Film Journal and, if you’re so inclined, follow me on Letterboxd for real-time rankings and repartee. I’ve listed where you can (or soon can) watch the good stuff, starting with subscription streaming services first where applicable. And yes, I reserve the right to add and reorder all of this later (probably on Letterboxd; it will take too much work to do here).
Here’s hoping the decade’s remaining eight years suck less ass than this one.
TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES
5. KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME
As more of a Kurt Vonnegut appreciator than acolyte, it was surprising to learn that the author more or less toiled in obscurity until Slaughterhouse-Five — with his past works rediscovered in its wake and even that bestseller’s publication somewhat of a miracle given his endless rewrites and restructuring of that story in an attempt to purge his mind of his Dresden experience in World War II. I also did not know that one of my favorite writers, John Irving, was a student of Vonnegut’s, and he provides one of the best quotes here that pretty well chips away at the literary cognoscenti’s digs on Vonnegut: “It’s not easy to be easy to read.” Director Robert B. Weide’s insertion of himself into this material is smartly pitched at a level not of proxy, equal or authority but simply friend, fan and human. It’s nice that he lets some of Vonnegut’s own emotional contradictions stand as they are — not to hold him up as a cool enigma but instead for his ecumenical connection to mankind, which can often be equally fickle. The structure is also a parallel not only to Billy Pilgrim but a paean to persistence through the pains of life, for grief is a similar slingshot in Vonnegut’s work, his actual life and, eventually, Weide’s as well. We never know when someone will depart, and remembrances of our past with them will crash into our present mind and plague or comfort our future. From a purely completist standpoint, I also appreciate the inclusion of Vonnegut’s Back to School cameo — easily one of the funniest moments in any Rodney Dangerfield outing. (Video-on-demand [VOD] services)
A documentary about a man who loses his iconic voice — and instrument of employment — to throat cancer was not the smartest thing to watch on day three of an unanticipated hospital stint. At least I got to go home not long after it was over. I had zero idea about the circumstances of Val Kilmer’s family life and all of its attendant miseries and grudges. It’s a very specific sadness born of privilege, sudden loss and the sunken-cost fallacy of throwing all your money into something only because you love the family member who’s doing it and because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do with that love. There’s also a palpable sense of Kilmer feeling like he has to be the one to put and keep that family, however irreparably fractured, back together while maintaining his own integrity and interest in his craft. It creates an intriguing counterpoint without ever really making it a counter-argument let alone absolve Kilmer’s reputation to the notion that he was difficult to work with on a set. The movie still doesn’t shy away from depicting him as an asshole, either. That little snippet of custody chatter with his ex-wife Joanne Whalley from one side of things could ONLY come from a person with an emotional mean streak. Same for an actor who thinks a director has failed on a project because he’s not ticking every last one of Kilmer’s creative whims. Or the guy who would spend a year at home embodying the Jim Morrison personae much to his wife’s displeasure. At least Val suggests that perhaps a lot of those poor decisions were fueled by untenable frustrations elsewhere. (Amazon Prime Video / VOD)
What if the world we know is just a simulation? That question, which fuels high-concept documentarian Rodney Ascher’s latest must-see work, is syntactically short. The answer(s) trigger(s) head-on crashes at the intersection of speculative science and existential dread. The pontifications and ruminations on simulation theory are not merely an ontological onslaught. Neither do they turn tautological, as Ascher tackles more offshoots of this theory than even the most open-minded among us may have believed possible, entertaining or intellectually engaging. And although Ascher playfully disguises some folks who’d rather not put real faces or names to their beliefs, he’s also not mocking them. It’s foremost a story of anthropology, not animosity or abuse, and as it dissects the darkest outcomes of believing we are just zeroes and ones, its empathy for mankind rings clear. At times, Glitch approaches the same philosophical nirvana as Werner Herzog works like Encounters at the End of the World or Grizzly Man. Ultimately, it doesn’t try to persuade, or dissuade, on simulation theory, instead illustrating it as a therapeutic method people adopt to escape the complexities of human existence, how they wrestle with their resultant loneliness, isolation and trauma, and how they don’t always win those clashes. (Hulu / VOD)
“How you feelin’?” “It’s a big thing, but I’m here. I’m here.”
A group of men who survived sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests as children comes together for an unconventional form of psychological treatment — drama therapy, in which they write, produce, direct and star in their own (and each other’s) short films about their experiences and how they shaped their futures. Robert Greene’s jaw-dropping documentary looks at how we physically carry trauma by regularly focusing on his subjects’ hands and what their movements (or lack thereof) tell us about the state they’re occupying. It also interrogates the ways in which we contextualize and empower popular culture — along with its tropes and mediums — to become our chosen champion for coming to terms with actual trauma. Raw nerves are regularly plucked here. But what you really take away from Procession, rather than reveling in salacious or unsettling details about abuse, is the way these men hold up, challenge and comfort one another, how they find spiritual peace in unexpected encounters, and how they reclaimed everyday spaces that they could’ve never anticipated or truly acknowledged before. (Netflix)
“You’d rather carry a cactus instead?” “It’s kind of the same.”
Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is among the year’s best animated films, best documentaries, best international films … best period. Purely animated outside of several scene-setting snippets (and a breathtaking closing-seconds cut reminiscent of last year’s Welcome to Chechnya), it’s the story of Amin — a closeted-gay Afghanistan refugee whose name has been changed to save him from exposure of the complex and complicated lies he told authorities — and himself — to avoid the certain death he’d have faced in his homeland had he stayed. The floating animation style, though far from the year’s most beautiful in that space, affords an aesthetic about the way language and memories fade, feeling fluid and foreign, and creates expressions of heartache that live-action simply could not; in one instance, deep and demonic reds dart throughout Amin’s recollections of a harrowing trek until they become something tangible and concrete. This is the way everyday items like phones, watches and clocks transform into totems of doom. The revelations here are not duplicitous withholding as they have been in other “gotcha” documentaries of late but rather a reality that collapses into an abstraction — one that’s no less true because it didn’t happen to you exactly that way. There is an instrumental explosion of Daft Punk late in the film that offers a great gut punch, and the resolution to Amin’s actual identity is perfect both as it took place and as it’s related to Rasmussen (who even finds room in this tight 90-minute story to explore the question of a documentarian’s supposed objectivity). An unforgettable crucible of coming to terms with your own true self. (Opening in limited theatrical release on Feb. 4, 2022 / coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
10 FAVORITE SCENES OF THE YEAR * (alphabetical order by film)
- Frank Rossi finally experiences the singing of his daughter, Ruby, in CODA.
- Backseat revelations between Yūsuke Kafuku and Kōji Takatsuki in Drive My Car.
- The Atreides family observing the Arrakis spice harvest and evading the Shai-Halud in Dune (2021)
- Roman and Tej achieve Ultimate Fiero in F9
- Amin enters a club in Flee
- The climactic Redwood City shootout of The Harder They Fall
- Hutch getting his groove back on the bus in Nobody
- Mikey Saber (XXX) arrives back in Texas City, back on his bullshit, in Red Rocket
- The final scene of Titane
- “America” in West Side Story (2021)
- * There’s also something wonderful in Spider-Man: No Way Home that involves a therapeutic realization and intervention to save someone from an inescapable burden, but … well, just see it.
10 FAVORITE NEEDLE-DROPS OF THE YEAR (alphabetical order by song)
“All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics in SPENCER
The scene: Diana takes a celebratory drive with her kids.
Key lyrics: “And I know you were never right / I’ll admit I was never wrong / I could never make up my mind / I made it up as I went along”
“Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who in PROCESSION
The scene: Mike Foreman indulges in the only productive response he knows for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Key lyrics: “No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings like I do / And I blame you / No one bites back as hard on their anger / None of my pain and woe can show through”
“Bye Bye Bye” by *NSYNC in RED ROCKET
The scene: Stripped of his possessions, Mikey Saber (XXX) runs across Texas City, Texas.
Key lyrics: “I’m giving up, I know for sure / I don’t want to be the reason for your love no more / Bye, bye / I’m checking out, I’m signing off / I don’t want to be the loser and I’ve had enough”
“Could I Have This Dance?” by Anne Murray in HALLOWEEN KILLS
The scene: Allyson and Cameron discover Michael Myers’ latest victims, Big John and Little John, in Michael’s childhood home.
Key lyrics: “I’ll always remember that magic moment / When I held you close to me / As we moved together, I knew forever / You’re all I’ll ever need”
“Doing it to Death” by The Kills in TITANE
The scene: Alexia performs her dance routine atop a car.
Key lyrics: “Baby lately, the plans we’re making / Are the shape of things that never come”
“Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar in NOBODY
The scene: Hutch leads Yulian’s goons in a car chase.
Key lyrics: “You’re the right kind of sinner to release my inner fantasy / The invincible winner and you know that you were born to be”
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Hot 8 Brass Band in VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE
The scene: Eddie and Venom bicker on a beach.
Key lyrics: ‘When routine bites hard and ambitions are low / And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow”
“My Heart Will Go On” by the Math Club in BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR
The scene: Barb, Star and Edgar dance at a club.
Key lyrics: “Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime / And never let go ’til we’re gone”
“Take on Me” by a-ha in FLEE
The scene: Amin introduces himself as a child and that he always knew he was different.
Key lyrics: “Oh, the things that you say / Yeah, is it life or just to play my worries away? / You’re all the things I’ve got to remember / You’re shying away / I’ll be coming for you anyway”
“The Winner Takes It All” by ABBA in BERGMAN ISLAND
The scene: Amy dances in a fit of (fleeting) romantic pique at a party.
Key lyrics: “I was in your arms / Thinking I belonged there / I figured it made sense / Building me a fence / Building me a home / Thinking I’d be strong there / But I was a fool / Playing by the rules”
NOT FEELING IT: MY LEAST-FAVORITE FILMS OF 2021
(least to most offensive)
It’s not the most shameful thing a Landis has done with a Twilight Zone idea. But infamous co-writer Max Landis wraps a story from the thrice-dramatized “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode in a cloak of woke that actually just swaddles Landis’s wish-fulfillment fantasies for a reprieve from his real-world wrongdoings. Chloë Grace Moretz does what she can with thin material. But this bogus story about female empowerment written by a man who has used his privilege and access to instead rob women of power remains irredeemably gross.
THE TENDER BAR
George Clooney has been directing films for 20 years. It’s worth mentioning because you’d never guess by watching this distressingly, depressingly amateurish coming-of-age story. There is a great film this year in which an uncle adopts a position of surrogate paternalism for his young, struggling nephew. Instead, this one traffics in the sort of platitudes you’d read behind a bar or the slurred words of “wisdom” you’d pick up from alley stumblebums taking a piss on the building. Ben Affleck’s amiability is the only asset in this boozy boondoggle. There’s zero sense of purpose, point or emotional authenticity. At one point, the adult narrator muses, “What’s that line about old dogs and new tricks?” This has but two things to teach you: jack and shit.
More like Das Butt.
SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW
True Defective. Distinguishable from the dumbest Saw movies only because it features faces you recognize and reputations for which you’ll feel infinitely more embarrassed. The climax is dumb, dismally obvious and dramatically inert given the discordant dynamic established between the two characters in final jeopardy. And yet there’s someone who probably thinks this is better than Get Out. LOL at the Saw theme rap song.
Part incel fantasia and part box-checking addiction drama, this is the most embarrassing film yet from the Russo Brothers. They know from such things. They made You, Me and Dupree. This pReTtY tHiNgS cAn dEsTrOy a bOy story is an infinity chore, 140 agonizing minutes spent carpetbagging more convincingly caustic storytellers and larding up nearly every scene with ceaseless, needless flourishes. It’s caps-lock filmmaking of the most frustrating order, so exhaustingly embellished by its visual bloat that the artifice swallows any effort the actors put forth. Going for Kubrick or Malick here, the Russos just wind up with “ick.”
ARMY OF THE DEAD
Much like whiny Dieter suggested, hitting yourself in the head with a rock would have a similar effect.
Driftless, feckless tomfoolery unfit to be mentioned in the same breath as 1995’s serial-killer thriller Copycat let alone that year’s similarly plotted, rightly heralded classic (that will remain unmentioned) to which it aspires. Jared Leto waxes rhapsodic about guacamole and potato skins. Rami Malek seems more like a manufacturing cyborg than a real person. Denzel Washington phones it in harder than ever before as a Cop with a Secret. At one point, Malek is barely able to stay awake on a stakeout. You’ll know the feeling. Destined to be adapted into some sort of ill-fated TV show like that Bone Collector nonsense from 2019 that you remembered and forgot about again before even finishing this sentence.
SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS
I would say “all thumbs,” but this movie doesn’t even know how to use a thumb.
Much like its namesake’s nemesis, Roadrunner runs right into the ravine with an astonishingly misguided effort to interrogate what — or more specifically who — might have precipitated Anthony Bourdain’s 2018 death by suicide, with all the aesthetic and A-roll choices of some tawdry true-crime series. It’s ultimately so appalling in its sleaze that I felt like I needed a shower when it finally had enough sense to end. So yeah, the fake Bourdain voice is bothersome, but it’s hardly the worst thing going for one of the worst documentaries ever made.
DON’T LOOK UP
“Boy, aren’t we all a bunch of assholes? The world is burning and we’re just sitting around watching Netflix movies. Oh, wait. I mean, yeah. I know. But you won’t want to fold laundry during this one, trust me. This one’s really important because climate change and COVID, right? Oh, and instead of Buzzfeed in this movie, it’s Autopsy. And there are reality shows like Secretly Poor or Jackpot Fiancée. Oooh oooh oooh, and if you thought “Blame Canada” was edgy, wait until you see how this movie stops for a song by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi. What? Do I hate you? Do I hate myself? No! I love myself. I’m really funny! You? I mean, I don’t know you that well. Please watch the movie, OK?” — Adam McKay
SOLID RECOMMENDATIONS (alphabetical order)
More of an appreciably bizarre and amusing bong rip than Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s follow-up to their 2011 sleeper hit is the closest analog to a Saturday Night Live-inspired film we’re likely to see these days. It’s a mix of screwball energy and screw-it rebellion stuffed with laugh-aloud sight gags and ace supporting players, including Jamie Dornan as a wild card of big-goof, go-for-broke, filthy-Firthy energy. Under so much sunshine, you won’t mind getting baked. (Hulu / Blu-ray and Video on Demand [VOD])
BLACK WIDOW (2021)
Squarely in the MC(TV)U’s meat-and-potatoes midpoint, with character beats and strong themes that generally outweigh the action sequences (although those are hardly terrible). It also avoids the usual prequel problem of staking your interest in whether the protagonist will survive (especially here, when we know exactly how and why she dies). Instead, it’s about what she learns and how that colors what you’ve already come to know about her. The only bothersome aspect is the Ocean’s-ish “oh, hey, we’re actually doing this” bit in the third act. There could have been some more time spent with Rachel Weisz’s character ahead of that. However, it does have Florence Pugh embodying classic little-sibling awe and animosity along with David Harbour clambering into aircraft twice! (Disney+ / Blu-ray and VOD)
A sanguine slab of grab-bag genre filmmaking full to bursting with fiendish turns and unexpected thoughtfulness. Director Peter Thowarth and co-writer Stefan Holtz surpass the SyFy simplicity of their vampire-versus-terrorists-on-a-plane storyline for a horror film that’s commendably bonkers and credibly considerate of airplanes as a microcosm of xenophobia. (Netflix)
Maybe this film crams in so many topics of social commentary specific to America’s Black community because America’s Black community must constantly and simultaneously consider all of these issues. Maybe the reason why this Candyman is paced so quickly is to capture the hyper-awareness of how quickly a Black person’s life in America can change solely because they’re Black. Maybe the reason why none of this is subtle is because it’s a slasher movie. Even down to that expanded lore, this film is about trading on appearance for authenticity? Why not make that as explicit as a slashed throat rather than speaking in, as the movie puts it, “didactive knee-jerk cliches about ambient pain”? Everything can be commodified. Even pain. Especially pain. Candyman literalizes the outstanding and disgusting opportunity costs. Rather than perform expurgation on existing IP like a lot of other creative teams, this one creates a fresh take on horror’s fundamentally folkloric nature — one with wit, insight and anger. (Blu-ray and VOD)
FEAR STREET 1994
An entertaining, just-gory-enough gateway to horror for good little girls and boys whose parents don’t even know about Netflix parental controls. The quandary here is how this introductory installment hoards the best aspects of the trilogy all for itself — concluding in a fashion that’s welcoming in its bleakness and generally robbing the remaining two films in the trilogy (1978 and 1666) of residual pleasures. Also, I’m only willing to shelve my badge from the Pedantry Police Force on needle-drops for so many infractions. There are others, but “Your Woman” is from 1997, people. Gonna just let you off with a warning this time. You drive safely on your way home, now. (Netflix)
Sometimes a bit kitschy and clumsy in delivering its cold comforts, Finch is nevertheless an effective story about palliative care for physical and emotional turbulence under tough circumstances. It tells an amiable sci-fi story that’s more about life’s enrichment than its endangerment — giving Tom Hanks his best role since Bridge of Spies and delivering one of the best motion-capture performances ever from Caleb Landry Jones as Finch’s anthropomorphic robot, Jeff. It’s a compliment that Finch isn’t terribly interested in rehabilitating its prickly titular character into some sacrificial hero or settling for platitudes about what you try to pass on before you pass on. It’s a surprisingly forthright movie about the apocalypse: Most of us would turn into self-serving cowards, but that need not feel like a value judgment or keep you from embracing the entropy of someday connecting with others. (AppleTV+)
THE FRENCH DISPATCH OF THE LIBERTY, KANSAS EVENING SUN
Certainly the most Wes Anderson movie in census if not in length, with a literal cast of hundreds crashing in from all directions during the closing credits. The parade of famous faces feels the most like a distraction that it ever has for Anderson — especially given the already choppy anthology nature. As for the film, it’s less a cane-waving condemnation of journalistic rigor we’ve lost and more of a reminder that the work can still wave a banner for warmth in an increasingly warped world. Hardly a novel idea, but it’s wise enough to understand that all reportage represents an increasingly thinning funnel of memories sometimes punctuated by unassailably true recollections — like Saoirse Ronan’s blue eyes in one of the year’s best cuts. (VOD / coming to Blu-ray on Dec. 28)
Look, all of the third Halloween movies are good. Once this one moves on from the dirty business of cleaning up the mess David Gordon Green made with his 2018 reboot, it’s an appropriately nihilistic wallow that gazes into the abyss of contemporary ugliness … and lets Michael Myers definitively and permanently ruin a lot of people’s days. (Peacock / VOD / coming to Blu-ray on Jan. 11, 2022)
If Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s latest lacks the wallop of his past films, it’s only because the story of spotlight courted without consideration for the consequences is neither narratively new nor unique to Iranian culture in the ways of Farhadi’s other work. This is always the sort of attention that can only be accompanied by misery because all stories have cycles and those revolutions can rip them to shreds. There’s not quite as much urgency for this story of the unheralded. But even if Farhadi’s subjects here encounter a more predictably sour problem, it’s still quite poignant. And the narratively fertile, emotionally barren ground between what people say and what they do is still where all of his films live. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning Jan. 7, 2022)
HOUSE OF GUCCI
Ridley Scott is thankfully in jet-black comedy mode here rather than the grim Wikipediaisms of his last such endeavor, All the Money in the World. You’re supposed to loathe all of these people, and everyone in the cast gets that. Jared Leto, doing 30 Seconds to Mario, is as subjectively perfect for this as he is objectively terrible. The trailers hardly do justice to what he’s up to here, and he enters every scene as if he sprung forth from a hemorrhoid donut. (Currently in theaters / coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?”
Adapting his play, writer-director Stephen Karam creates a recursive circle of hell inside a New York two flat that might as well be a castle on the moors for as tight, remote and full of remorse and regret as it feels. Here, once again, is the faulty hope of a fixer-upper in such disrepair that the Thanksgiving dinner we see has no business being hosted there. And with all the mottled lines and patterns of decrepitude, maybe something’s going to push through the walls by the end of the night — goaded by the seething resentment and the way this family treats even the slightest falter as a focal point for precision-sniped headshots. The film explodes into widescreen composition just when it needs to do so, and the gradual diminishment of light works its way into your nerves with jangling and jarring sound design. At the same time The Humans did a number on me in the moment, it has also diminished alongside my proximity to it. Perhaps that’s a subconscious choice. I know he’s got plenty of his own work to mine, but here’s the highest possible compliment I could pay to Karam: I’ve never seen a filmmaker who made me think they could pull off an adaptation of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves quite like he could. (Showtime)
Eminently and effectively silly, this goofus sci-fi odyssey about eternal rebirth casually suggests there is nothing impermeable about the identities you can assume throughout your life. One character openly resents another’s assumption of the gender assigned to them in conversation. By casting actress and disability rights advocate Liz Carr — and letting her do more than expository hand-holding — Infinite implies physical imperfection is purely in the eye of the beholder. It’s perhaps too charitable to call any of this “smart,” but it also showcases intriguing ideas about the lineage and legacy of action-cinema heroism. The ceaseless voice-over says “every day is a chance to take actions that add up to something bigger than yourself.” You could say the same of Infinite’s cumulative kick over its individual components. (Paramount+)
An undemanding but not unenjoyable hybrid of sports drama and biopic. A tougher, more objective production not produced by its subject’s daughters might push things to a meatier match point. Regardless, it’s a well-acted and well-meaning movie that’s as much about the difficulty of raising good people as it is raising great tennis players. Will Smith doesn’t much resemble Richard Williams, but it’s an evocative expression of the sometimes-exhausting exuberance with which he pushed his process and a towering, and yes sometimes tyrannical, performance that carefully straddles the line between self-aggrandizement and self-confidence. (Coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
My affinity for this little franchise that could is somewhat perverse relative to broadly popular expectations. But frankly, this was the pandemic-postponed title to which I’d been most looking forward for (checks notes) two years now. In a series full of feints, this prequel is the biggest of all — a full swerve away from its more anarchic antecedents into something that emphasizes the enormity of World War I and asks you to invest more in the personal tragedy that precipitated the founding of the Kingsman intelligence agency rather than the geopolitical clashes. Of course, the cheeky fun is still around, albeit in more fits and starts. There is an encounter between Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans that offers a wriggly tongued riposte to the latent homoerotic charge in Skyfall, and the climax is a fun piss-take variation on the impregnable mountain stronghold trope. It’s just a more erudite fantasia than before, something like Mel Brooks if he also had a crackerjack second-unit action crew working with him. (Currently in theaters / coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
It’s not the best romantic comedy from Paul Thomas Anderson featuring a member of the Hoffman family as a mattress salesman, but it’s still good. Were this closer in length to Punch-Drunk Love than The Master, it would be greatly improved. And for as much fun as it is to watch Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman hang out (and enjoy hanging out), I’m not sure Anderson sticks the emotional engagement and thematic satisfaction of the landing here. If it’s meant to be secretly sour, boy, you’d have to dig deep into the crust of this pie for that. Neither does it feel sufficiently sweet given what these characters learn (or do not learn) over the course of their time together. Perhaps such is the taste of licorice pizza, eh? Still, this is fun from moment to moment and certainly among the year’s most uproarious films at times, especially thanks to bit turns from Bradley Cooper, Harriet Sansom Harris and Christine Ebersole. Ultimately, it’s a lot like most romantic comedies — enjoyable if ultimately ephemeral, even if this one is elevated by directorial craft and pleasant aesthetics. (Currently in theaters / coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
Reports are coming in that this received a 20-minute standing ovation at my house in the middle of the night on September 10, 2021 and that the crowd insisted that the HBOMax stream be rewound to savor the glory of its final 22 minutes once more. (Blu-ray and VOD)
More of a meditation prompt than anything else, particularly in its final 50 minutes — which remind you only that it’s a movie attempting anything in the traditional sense of that word with a jarring moment of imagery that, like so much of the rest, only teases an “answer.” Admitting that this was not under theatrical conditions — although it gave my capable surround-sound system proper calisthenics — Memoria feels like something I appreciated more for its contemplative suggestion rather than something that absorbed me into full-fledged thrall. (Roadshow theatrical engagements, city by city, perhaps in your town, perhaps forever, who knows?)
NO SUDDEN MOVE
Everyone wants to feel useful, and that obsession can still ride the elevator all the way up to the penthouse. A few too many creases, but still an unexpectedly mercenary script from Ed Solomon that achieves no small feat of simultaneous bleakness and buoyancy. And while a more, let’s say, judiciously squeezed anamorphic pinch would play up how the proscenium traps so many of these players, Steven Soderbergh runs a tight ship for these sorts of things. Brendan Fraser’s adoption of a Bob Einstein-esque agitation was perfect as was yet more masterful faux contrition from Benicio Del Toro and no-bullshit maneuvering of Don Cheadle. (HBOMax)
A lovely fable in which the 70-minute brevity should not be confused for light weight. Death is a difficult subject to broach with children precisely because it suggests enormity and powerlessness in the world around which they cannot yet entirely wrap their minds. Not exactly a new idea, but Céline Sciamma works a small wonder with it. (Coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
Louder, gnarlier and more conventionally charged-up than its predecessor, but at least John Krasinski isn’t simply copying every stinger from the first go-round. His smartest move is shifting Millicent Simmonds into the lead role, and she gives Regan a pragmatic push-forward attitude that avoids potentially exploitative pitfalls of a deaf heroine. He also conjures a compelling second-act tripartite of tricky and terrifying scenarios to survive; after all, no matter how you calm a baby, it will cry. Outside of a ridiculous climax that believes it’s Jurassic Park when it’s really The Lost World, this is gripping from stem to stern and peaks with a majestic sequence of Spielbergian morbidity that allows one character to catch a breath just when they need it. It’s a welcome nervous chuckle. This also just so happened to be the first film I saw in theaters post-pandemic … in exactly the same auditorium as my last one pre-pandemic. Time = flat circle, etc. (Paramount+ / Blu-ray and VOD)
QUO VADIS, AIDA?
Countless stories have been told about this portion of the world deemed politically expendable because it had no resources to exploit or villains against whom to retaliate and stoke our misguided feelings of nationalism. However briefly, Quo Vadis, Aida? focuses on something most films of inevitably tragic misery forgo — the exuberance of the culture and community being snuffed out along with the corporeal forms, showcased in a literal parade of faces, some of which we have already seen fall, staring directly at us during the title character’s sole moment of relaxation across the entire film. Also, while it certainly is unbearably tense, Aida avoids the persistence of violence out of the knowledge that the looming threat is as much of a terror tactic as anything else. And by focusing so much on the many masses of people, it maximizes the minimal amount of space that Aida’s family would take up in the larger scheme of things. There are definitely limitations to such stories, and Aida is not immune to some of them, but it ekes outside of them in ways that are extremely affecting. (Hulu / VOD)
Netflix regularly drops foreign-language thrillers into its abyss of algorithmic anonymity. But this one finds a way to truly clean your clock, with bold choices that recalibrate your entire concept of what’s happening and elevate an 80-minute mean machine into essential viewing for those who prefer their thrillers Hobbesian — nasty, brutish and short. It builds to a brain-popping boil that, for all the hosannas hurled their way, filmmakers like Ari Aster and modern-day M. Night Shyamalan could only dream to equal. The idea that things are bad but you could be in these folks’ shoes is the basis for all controlled-fear cinema. Red Dot contorts that notion in unsettling and unsparing fashion. (Netflix)
RON’S GONE WRONG
A fast, funny and unexpectedly complex tale of technology run amok that, while overlong and overstuffed with goofy characters, gets right the notion of how friendship’s definition changes as you age and acquire experience. Preferable to the TikTok mania of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and you still get an uproarious vocal performance from Olivia Colman in this one, too. (Disney+ / Blu-ray and VOD)
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsPowered by a straight-up amazing first hour, the late Brad Allan’s inimitable fight choreography that puts as much woo in wuxia as anything, comic energy between Simu Liu and Awkwafina (which honestly outpowers Liu’s individual charisma as a hero), and the legendary Tony Leung — who delivers an immediate top-five (or higher) MCU performance. The third act is arguably a comedown. At the same time, it leans farther into big Chinese blockbuster territory than you would expect Marvel to go and at least demonstrates a commendable and credible commitment to the bit. Quite frankly, the only thing I truly dislike about Shang-Chi is the lengths to which it apologizes for an absurdly manufactured controversy surrounding what remains the second-best MCU film yet. A momentary amusement instead becomes a disruptive element that introduces more questions than it answers, some of them anatomical. My wife thinks Morris emits noise from his wings. Works for me. (Disney+ / Blu-ray and VOD)
With a more glaringly obvious screenplay than Jackie, this isn’t even close to what Pablo Larraín achieved there (even as he similarly directs the hell out of this). So it becomes the best possible outcome of a “performance-makes-the-movie” scenario, with Kristen Stewart hoisting it upon her shoulders. All the accolades are deserved, especially for her commitment to singing along to Mike and the Mechanics. (Coming Jan. 11, 2022, to Blu-ray and VOD)
“Don’t let time take you. You take time. It doesn’t take years to achieve your goals. It takes you.” When you need an exuberant tonic, crack open this poetry-inspired anthology. (Blu-ray and VOD)
tick, tick… BOOM!
Watching this while trying to redirect our gifted but anxious dog toward more productive and positive choices seems appropriate now. No idea Andrew Garfield could sing, too, and it’s refreshing to see him cut loose in this after his rote turn in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Lin-Manuel Miranda also exhibits an instinctive eye for translating his musical milieu to a movie medium; it’s shot, staged and cut just right for its (comparatively) contemporary setting. But the artist-blinded-by-his-own-brilliance story has its limits without a compelling counterweight (like the ones screenwriter Steven Levenson found in TV’s Fosse/Verdon) and they hem in almost every aspect of this story; not giving Robin de Jesús any sort of ending after the energy he puts into his supporting performance is pretty embarrassing in a movie that’s otherwise quite good. (Netflix)
The last thing you’d suppose about this seemingly disposable Amazon Prime streaming pickup is how its title pulls triple duty beyond describing its sci-fi premise. There is unpredictably poignant and potent subtext about generational waves or war-driven PTSD, endlessly Sisyphean challenges of research science and even the constant worry about whether you’re parenting the right way. That’s a lot more personality than you’d presume from a film in which someone earnestly shouts “Somebody get a harpoon on that tentacle!” and J.K. Simmons stares down an alien and calls it a sonofabitch or whatever. Such are the pleasant surprises of a story that offers a satisfyingly goopy threnody of computer-assisted action and leaves ample space for scientific collaboration, conversation and concentration alongside all that detonation. (Amazon Prime Video)
VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE
Eddie and Venom karaoke in Part 3. Daniel Craig villain in Part 4. Michelle Williams spin-off. Tom Hardy’s directorial debut for V-enom. 51-year-old me buying the six-disc 24K set in 2030. (Currently on VOD / coming to Blu-ray Jan. 3, 2022)
This adaptation of the video game teeters a tad too closely to a community-theater Clue at times, forgetting that the collective chemistry there outweighed the individual performances. But it ultimately finds its own weapon as a scathing and satirical indictment of the types of characters that often wind up making their way out of these stories. (Blu-ray and VOD)
Tom Clancy’s unwieldy novel is streamlined into a sleek 100-minute textbook extraction of the material that mattered, certainly the most effective and least pretentious project that mas-macho maven / co-writer Taylor Sheridan has made outside of Hell or High Water. The script eventually falls back on the tired twist of D.C. suits fomenting international chaos for job security, but director Stefano Sollima crafts several action sequences that stand among the year’s best while conveying a clear and present danger, and Michael B. Jordan combines a charged-up countenance and a chilling, seething silence to paint a portrait of a man on fire. (Amazon Prime Video)
“It’s not about surviving. It’s about surviving as me.” The metaphor for conversion therapy and trans identification is never less than anything than a blunt club in this story set at a species disorder institution, where George MacKay (1917) and Lily-Rose Depp portray humans experiencing species identity disorder. In addition to falling in love, they eventually push back against the taskmaster’s sadism disguised as therapy from the “Zookeeper” (Paddy Considine) at their treatment facility. (It’s kind of surprising that Considine hasn’t played a Nietzsche-quoting abuser who gets off on the pain he inflicts and incites before, but why wouldn’t he want to make a movie in which he could angrily whinny, caw and growl at people?) Writer-director Nathalie Bianchieri’s under-the-radar oddity is expertly cast (with terrific supporting turns from Eileen Walsh, Lola Petticrew and Fionn O’Shea), and unexpectedly upsetting (from the Clockwork Orange-ish nature of the institute’s methods to its informational videos, which feature a snake devouring a frog front and center). Props also for the unassailable movement coaching from Terry Notary, who has perhaps by this point out-mo-capped Andy Serkis in this space. The only real knock here is that if you were going to steal a title from a forgotten 1990s thriller about animalistic behavior starring an Oscar-winning actor, they should’ve gone with Instinct. (Coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE
It is nothing short of astonishing to compare Zack Snyder’s cut to the theatrical version and see how woefully misbegotten Joss Whedon and company made this. Just a stunningly terrible pivot. It’s easy to see now why Ray Fisher would also be so infuriated with this turn of events; he definitely emerged as the most improved player in all of this. They really could have ended it with the shirt burst to the S. The tease of what’s (not) to come with Martian Manhunter, Deathstroke and Joker is dumb without any plan to pay it off now, and it diminishes the high notes of collaborative heroism and collective camaraderie from characters Snyder reclaimed the canvas to develop. There’s probably a great three-hour cut to cleave down here, but at least this one exists. (HBOMax / Blu-ray and VOD)
A modestly amusing Twitter thread rendered into a chain-restaurant jalapeño popper version of a Safdie movie by way of a very dirty fryer. There are attempts at counterpoint to serious societal issues that Janicza Bravo’s script is simply ill-equipped to confront, there’s not much here to support the story as any sort of satire between IRL and Really Online image-making, and it’s got to pad itself out even at 80 minutes and change with a lot of rolling-down-the-highway shots. But there’s not a bad performance in it. There’s weary confidence and complexity in Taylour Paige’s titular turn as a woman who knows when a threat is real and when it’s just empty posturing. Nicholas Braun finds some real despair in the dunderheaded driftlessness of Derrek. There should be some sort of trash-EGOT equivalent for Riley Keough to notch at this point. But this is mainly Colman Domingo’s dominion, from the signature grunting noises as he urinates to the notion that he’s basically playing four different personae throughout the course of this movie — pimp, pal, partner for life and even a mama’s boy. (Showtime / Blu-ray and VOD)
THE 25 BEST FILMS OF 2021
There is tactile affection and affinity for the frailty of real life in a film that combines the best instincts of Diablo Cody and Richard Curtis in a way that 1) surprises you neither of them have tried to put their stamp in some way on an English-language remake as of yet and 2) makes you hope they never get their hands on it in any capacity. Certainly, neither of them would use “I’m adopted” as such a shiv of a punchline, and director Yngvild Sve Flikke also introduces subtle moments of visual sophistication like Rakel trying to pin others against a wall while finding herself in a corner from which there is still time to escape. Many films would also, at the expense of cuteness, not tackle the absurdity behind the insistence of friends that someone would be a good parent. Even kind people able to clearly read emotional situations aren’t inherently a good fit to nurture and shape human life. Indeed, the power of Ninjababy accumulates from its hook about the preferences we try to place on our perspectives and the notion that not wanting something, however much a part of you it may be, doesn’t necessarily make you a noxious person. (Release pattern TBD; screened as part of the 2021 Heartland International Film Festival)
How often are we trapped in, and by, some form of linguistic mistake or limitation? Adapting from her own short film, Anna Baumgarten’s feature-length expansion of Disfluency is a compelling extension of how our communication, or lack thereof, plays into how we normalize pausing or postponing important choices. Any thin description of the narrative would do a demeaning disservice to what Baumgarten achieves here; despite a clunky turn in the very final minute, it’s less about that than how we choose to communicate about any sort of trauma. A scene where Libe Barer’s protagonist confesses what has happened to the mother of a deaf child — insisting that it remain in ASL — is both emotionally harrowing and a signifier of her unwillingness to yield communicative control; the mother is new to ASL and thus capable only of limited conversational responses. The whole film feels attuned to such waves of nonverbal communication. But Baumgarten also knows well enough to leave the camera trained on Barer, for whom this is an exceptional lead performance, for the eventual vocalized outpouring — unburdening every last detail of what she does or doesn’t remember about a central incident in a racing-mind moment that’s among the year’s most raw and bracing scenes. (Release pattern TBD; screened as part of the 2021 Heartland International Film Festival)
23. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
This needs to feel like an incantation of avarice and absurdity that feels like a fault line cracking open, and it certainly does that. It’s also easy to see how Macbeth makes perfect sense as a Coen paterfamilias dunderhead who winds up desperately trying to hold onto his kingdom of ill-gotten gains. Denzel Washington’s loopy cadence of insults lobbed at Wheyface could just as easily feel at home, meter-wise, in something Joel Coen made with his brother. And by making it feel like an antechamber between cinema and theater, this is an impressive degree of difficulty from a production and cinematography standpoint. Finally, there are also some elements of the Coens’ come-up with Sam Raimi here that don’t often rear their heads. (Currently in select theaters; begins streaming Jan. 14, 2022, on Apple TV+)
Just when it had become depressingly easy to write off Pixar, here comes this vibrant, beautiful, warm, funny and big-hearted story to immediately remind you: When this studio is on, there are few better. Don’t forget to check out the short-film follow-up, Ciao Alberto, afterward. (Disney+ / Blu-ray and Video on Demand [VOD])
The anxiety level of this ill-gotten-gains saga is pitched somewhere between the unflappability of Steven Soderbergh and the unbridled mayhem of the Safdie Brothers. It’s a snappy and modestly macabre Milgram experiment exploring the intersection of authority and altruism, and it’s also a comic, contemptuous crime caper that yanks further the gaping wounds of late-stage capitalism. Rosamund Pike is also better here than she’s ever been, with a fierce, feral and fearless leading turn that does much more than recycle her ice-queen energy from Gone Girl. Anybody who hasn’t spent the last half-dozen years behind partisan blinders will understand the impetus for the story: There’s been a trickle-down effect of unchecked, often amoralistic, ambition in America, and Pike’s Marla wants in on the racket, too, by fleecing elderly people in exchange for care. She doesn’t want to weaponize her money but use it as a bludgeon, the way real rich people do. And in the grand scheme of American dreams, Marla’s is somewhat of a socially acceptable grift. If there were such vigorous initiative from the young, able-bodied, vivacious and independent among us to drop everything, flip the script and care for our elder relatives when that time comes, the world wouldn’t even need a Marla with the best intentions. The title isn’t just a jab at Marla’s boilerplate response to families, it’s a poke at how we often fumble for pithy sentiment to defend our actions … or inactions. You’re not meant to care a lot for anyone in I Care a Lot. But you will relish its rip-roaring recognition of their roles in the world, whether they’re truly working against our best interests … or just our performative gestures of the same. (Netflix)
The Nordstrom Rack subsidiary of the bespoke beatdowns fashioned by John Wick — still stylish but more simplified, sized for diverse body types, priced to move and, most of all, serving looks that kick unmistakable amounts of ass up and down the goddamn block. The inverted idea here: What if John Wick’s happy ending came to pass, an invisible retreat into idyllic domesticity where he became just another guy missing the garbage truck each Tuesday? Moreover, what if it worked too well, the malaise that meets us all too forcefully manifested itself, and a vigor-reclaiming indulgence of old ways initiated a mess of unforeseen consequences? The hand-to-hand combat and gunplay sequences crackle with incendiary and immaculate staging inherent to acolytes of the 87Eleven Action Design Team. But what could’ve been laddish or loutish is instead complemented by the calming counterbalance of a hero who wants hugs with the fam and thugs he can slam. These tailors don’t traverse far outside the tradition they’ve set for themselves. However, they sew one hell of a surprise into their sleeve with the delight of watching reed-thin, 58-year-old Bob Odenkirk persuasively mash, pound and pummel his way through the movie. Better call all … the paramedics. His punishing work here channels the adventurous and dangerous nature of his yes-and improv roots into a punishingly physical space. But a moment in which Odenkirk’s character corrects himself, shifting to past-tense verbs in describing a villain’s prized possession he has just torched, owns that brute harder than any haymaker ever could. Odenkirk is the right kind of sinner to release this inner fantasy, and Nobody is sure as hell an invincible winner. (Blu-ray and VOD)
19. NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)
“Never. That word again. We’re going to work on that.”
Never is an absolute we rarely mean. A lie we tell ourselves. An invitation to exploitation. Never do we think we’d stoop so low, so cruelly, so foolishly. But the only “never” we can count on is never knowing until we’re there and it’s too late. Some have complained that they believed Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley would be gorier or scarier. Horror can be that and has under his hand. But it need not be. In essence, horror is a loss, and there’s no shortage of that in Nightmare Alley, embedded as it is in its shivering and brittle bones. It’s a dread-laden tale of broken souls and battered dreams against a dust-choked backdrop, of the emotional surrender of the grifting life and the rescue it teases but always, always retracts, of the ceaseless supply and demand of shame and desperation. It’s also pulp through and through, high-toned and handsome but no less salacious. It’s nice to see that del Toro’s awards success with The Shape of Water hasn’t adulterated his fascinations. The bleakness here can’t even leave its rare tender moment alone, with a throw-away remark by Rooney Mara’s character that tells you misery will touch all of these people. (OK, most. Cate Blanchett repels misery. Always.) It’s yet another terrific performance from Bradley Cooper, who saves his words for when they are best weaponized for maximum effect … and often against him no matter what contrary belief he holds. His character is so eager to escape himself that any plateau is something from which to press onward no matter the danger or deception in play. Cooper’s final scene is unforgettably mad, a perfect capper to a sumptuous, beguiling and pure piece of noir. (Currently in theaters / coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
18. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
18. Spider-Man: No Way HomeThe multiverse fantasy is that there’s a better version of you out there … and that perhaps you could just take his place, assume his station, slough off your miseries. If the multiverse were real, it’s absurd to assume such anxieties wouldn’t reverberate across them all. Spider-Man: No Way Home thankfully finds its footing in the latter notion, telling its own assured story alongside a villainous gang’s-all-here approach that has doomed other superhero cinema (including a previous Spider-Man movie). It’s not that No Way Home isn’t exciting, but it’s refreshing to see the foes treated as a problem to solve rather than just people to punch. Even that’s not entirely descriptive of what’s happening here as I dance around revelations. It gets at the altruistic values — and agonizing opportunity costs — behind the heroics better than any other live-action Spider-Man film so far. Also, #CoolYouthPastor. (Currently in theaters; coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
17. BERGMAN ISLAND
“There’s a world outside your own asshole. Fuck Bergman!”
A quietly exuberant and gently engaging story about pursuing authorial authenticity and reconciling the difference between the person your art allows you to be and the person from which it will always keep you at a considerable distance. The vibe here is built on ethereal feelings about what might only ever be ephemeral accomplishments in art, and its setting also renders it a bit like Mamma Mia! with more of a tilt toward the meta and melancholy. (Yes, there’s ABBA and a joke about a GPS that says “you will reach your destination in one hour and 48 minutes” when there is that much left in the film — both welcome.) It’s also nice to see Anders Danielsen Lie in something this light after Personal Shopper and 22 July (even if he wallowed in it all over again in the overrated The Worst Person in the World) and to see Mia Wasikowska rise to the challenge of creating a compelling pivotal character in the construct of one act. Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth are also in fine form here, keying into the more pedantic clashes of people who are partners and parents rather than the more explosive ones. They’re not exactly divergent in their attraction, but they’re definitely digressing while on an island intended as a communion with nature and Ingmar Bergman’s aesthetic headspace, where they only find deeper isolation. (With all the quizzes and safaris, even Bergman has been co-opted as much by a convention and visitors bureau as it has a lost community of muse-hungry cinephiles who think if they can read the runes right on this holiday, they’ll emerge inspired. Instead, they create circuitous conversations and counterpoints that you’ll recognize whether you’ve been trapped in them or stoking one.) Simultaneously a light work and one that looks at life, rather trenchantly, as “a series of failures, betrayals and dramas overshadowed by brief moments of intense happiness.” When it’s that simple and plain, why should I complain? (VOD)
16. THE LAST DUEL
Easy to dismiss from the lobby as just another clanging-sword epic from Ridley Scott. It’s definitely got that, as it’s right there in the title and perhaps the most horrifying such variant Scott has ever staged. But this is generally Scott in his more charged-up chamber mode, gifted with titanic work from Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver, as well as Ben Affleck delightfully dicking around as a caddish count. An excellent script, too, from Nicole Holofcener, Affleck and Damon, split into a triptych treatise on the events that lead to the titular face-off — the first two justifying through unreliable narration, the last one terrifying in the full implications of petty obsessiveness. Damon and Driver’s characters let their true awful selves creep into their tellings of the tale, too blinkered by bravado to not. But it’s in Comer’s section that the film leaps into overdrive, both for her performance (her best yet in any medium) and the film’s blood-boiling raison d’etre: That there’s no rah-rah feeling to return home with that what Comer’s doing is right when women are still contending with the same bullshit, different century. (Blu-ray and VOD)
15. C’MON C’MON
A24 presents Uncle Buck, right down to casting Gaby Hoffmann (who almost certainly won’t get awards attention for this but would if the world were just; some of the most astonishing telephone acting, specifically, in years). In all seriousness, this might be the most clear-headed journey into familial sociology yet from writer-director Mike Mills. Joaquin Phoenix is no less magnetic playing Johnny, a reasonably well-adjusted person who still has his own eccentric peccadilloes and whose job entails querying kids for their thoughts on the future in hopes of assuaging his own misgivings about the past and present. When a family crisis forces Johnny to care for his nephew Jesse (an effortlessly natural Woody Norman), the film becomes an ethnography of youthful exuberance — one that suggests such things are never really, truly gone as long as you have someone there to help you remember them. C’mon C’mon feels persistently and persuasively alive with affection for possibility, from Jesse’s fascination with the fungal interconnectivity of natural things (reflected in the many beautiful establishing shots in Robbie Ryan’s crisp black-and-white cinematography) and in Johnny’s fascination with the immortality of everyday, mundane sounds. At the same time, it acknowledges that terrible choices await us all, and we must make them only because we want everything to be OK for those we love. Mills’s thesis is so clear that even a backgrounded electronic, annoying-noise toothbrush establishes this feeling of powerlessness to which we surrender. It’s a deep reminder of the chaos and conviction of feeling for each other that keeps us going. The unknowable is what keeps things lively for all of us. Onward we go into the adventure, wonder and terror of the future, whatever it brings, no silence too long or loud to someday bridge. C’mon … C’MON! (Coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
Most of this plays like a standard-issue feel-good drama with a distinctive representational hook (and some nice shots across the bow at Pitch Perfect, FWIW). But then there are three key moments in the third act that evolve and elevate this story into an effective exploration of the empathy gaps that exist in this family … and the recognition that they’ll never be bridged in full. It’s the result of sensitive direction from Siân Heder, dynamite performances from Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur, without whom all of these moments would simply fall flat in mushy sentiment rather than sobering recognition, and co-star Marlee Matlin’s insistence upon proper casting for this film. Pure side note: Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is Matthew Broderick now. Jeez. (Apple TV+)
13. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Necessarily concussive direction from Shaka King (that POV shot of Fred Hampton following the gun trained on him out of the bar is incredible) and performances from LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback and Daniel Kaluuya (who’s the lead no matter what the credit order or awards campaigning says) help Judas and the Black Messiah propel past its problems with depicting Bill O’Neil as anything beyond the conventionally conflicted stool pigeon. Whatever clash between self-actualization and self-deception there is here rests almost squarely with Stanfield’s work. Neither do the interactions between O’Neil and Hampton reflect the interpersonal violence of the betrayal that eventually takes place. This is more about the tragedy of the American experiment’s inherent, and perhaps immovable, bias. And let’s just agree to never depict old-man Hoover any longer, huh? The makeup always sucks. Much was made of the opportunity costs lost in not casting more age-appropriate actors to play these figures, neither far from institutionally legal childhood at the time. Hard to do anything other than speculate on that tradeoff, especially given the nigh-imperceptible lip twitch Kaluuya brings here to suggest Hampton’s reluctance to be held up so high so young and the elevating fire Stanfield does bring to what’s in the script for O’Neil. (You also sense slivers of that uncertainty in the moment that Hampton tries to osmotically absorb the vocal powers of Malcolm X.) We get enough of Kaluuya’s darting eyes and self-doubt to resonate as strongly as the hypnotic hold he claims on the movie in his monologues. Beyond that, the period detail is pristine, Mark Isham and Craig Harris’s score is pitched at a conscious pace of discord and dread, and both the depth and contemporary relevance of the rat-fucking traps laid by the G-men are undeniably unnerving. One of the more unexpectedly incendiary major studio releases in a long time, with tremendous third-rail engagement of the themes at its center. (HBOMax / Blu-ray and VOD)
12. IN THE HEIGHTS
This has always been better than Hamilton. Now the world knows it. An exceptional adaptation of the best of what was there, wise changes where necessary to story structure and incident, and an adept inclusion of new realities that an updated version should address. A perfect balance of contemporary flash and classic grace. A showcase for damn near everybody in the cast. The roster of dancers fills the end-credits screen like it was a litany of effects technicians. Give Jon M. Chu whatever musicals he wants. (HBOMax / Blu-ray and VOD)
11. THE GREEN KNIGHT
A deeply strange and decidedly awesome rotation of a longtime parable through a prism of modernity. That’s not in the sense that its characters wear sneakers and jeans, but in the way that writer-director David Lowery’s adaptation of the longstanding myth questions everything about the paces through which Sir Gawain would put himself for the sake of balladry sung in his posthumous name. There is only death, an inevitability of indeterminate delay. War, always the preferred way to transcend death with an ascription of meaning, is predicated on challenges men only purport to understand. and the pursuit of interpersonal violence and retribution outlined here is a similarly fruitless attempt to quest, conquer and claim dominion over death. The Green Knight feels pitched in an anteroom between reason and madness, sometimes expressed by the literal extinguishment of already paltry illumination. It’s a film in which the length and loneliness of Gawain’s journey is emphasized from the jump with languid, unbroken shots of him embarking upon it; this is as close to David Lean as the cinematic lay of the land gets these days, inspiring reams of interior life through exterior luxuriousness and an emotionally stirring central performance of moral interrogation from Dev Patel. I listened to the Clash quite often for other reasons throughout 2021, but I didn’t expect these lyrics to reverberate across my mind throughout one of the year’s best films: “Gonna march a long way / Fight a long time / Got to travel over mountains / Got to travel over seas / We’re gonna fight you, brother / We’re gonna fight ‘til you lose / We’re gonna raise trouble / We’re gonna raise hell / We’re gonna fight you, brother / Raise hell / Death or glory / Becomes just another story.” (Blu-ray and VOD)
Not that my family still lets me choose movies after Dancer in the Dark or the 2002 remake of Solaris, but if I had it to do over again after about 20 years of reflection, I’d do the same damn thing again with Annette. A perfect operatic pitch for this swan dive into a Hollywood-doom abyss of narcissism, masculinity and exploitation that also resonates with emotional tempest among everyday people. I know the Sparks brothers were sad about their Tim Burton film collapsing but let’s face it: That would’ve almost certainly sucked. Definitely wouldn’t have had Adam Driver giving the performance of his life. Or singing into Marion Cotillard’s genitals. Or a puppet-baby pop superstar. Between this and their documentary, 2021 was definitely Ron and Russell Mael’s year. (Amazon Prime Video)
9. RIDERS OF JUSTICE
Something like A Serious Man grafted onto a conceptual thriller about correlation and causation that traffics in the same troubling torment of existence. It’s a shrewd psychological screw-turner about the cold comforts in a chaotic world of sorrow, anger and loneliness. But it also boasts a sense of wit and weariness more savage than its occasional bloody outbursts. It’s a rare mix of physical violence and philosophical elegance, one that doesn’t lazily lean on the idea that we are our traumas but that understands how they are inextricable from the ways we choose to move forward. One of the year’s biggest and best surprises. (Hulu / Blu-ray and VOD)
8. RED ROCKET
“As usual, shit got FUCKIN’ crazy!”
This silver-tongued, star-spangled swan dive into delusional splendor represents a sharp turn from director / co-writer Sean Baker’s work on The Florida Project in the sense that there is no grace or delivery from this Gulf Coast desolation row (in which the details of squalor are distressingly accurate). Baker knows we are essentially two nations under smog, easily divisible, with misery (rarely justice) for all. And for as raucously funny as Red Rocket can be, there’s also a despondency about the proxy parable it paints for American disposability. A cast-aside crack about Craigslist gets at the darkness burbling beneath the broad surface of this film, which doesn’t demonize these folks so much as depict the demoralizing domino effect that knocks their self-awareness and better judgment down to the studs. It’s also driven by Mikey’s narcissistic megawattage, which always sparks thanks to Simon Rex, who would lay claim to Performance of the Year on lowered expectations alone, let alone the inimitable charm he brings to it. And Mikey is charming, even when he gets in predicaments that have an ulcerative effect on your stomach — most specifically a harebrained scheme to reinvigorate his porn career by seducing Strawberry, a 17-year-old redhead at the Donut Hole. Mikey’s Sven-golly charms work on her. They work on his customers. They work on people who hate him. They work on you. This being art, you’ll recognize, as Mikey does on a roller-coaster, that we have indulged in our own form of controlled fear that we let get way the fuck out of hand. You need not look that close to see where all of this reckless ideation results in real-world consequences for the rest of us, but Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch include that, too … alongside an extremely funny scene of Mikey’s hog hanging low while the flag flies high. Cloudy eyes, full of shit, can’t win. (Currently in theaters / coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
7. F9: THE FAST SAGA
The only thing keeping this from five stars: They could’ve had one of the Fiero’s headlights stuck in place. Let this muscular melodrama motor on forever as far as I’m concerned. (Blu-ray and VOD)
6. DUNE (2021)
At the risk of being that guy who insists you should have seen it in true IMAX, you should have seen it in true IMAX. Imagine the final act of Blade Runner 2049, in which Denis Villeneuve slowly cranked the knob before lightly breaking it off, sustained across an entire epic film, and with the sensation that you are constantly cracking open some sort of sacred text. As good as your home-theater system might be, you just weren’t going to get that on HBOMax and, if your local chain is anything like mine, you likely weren’t getting it in regular auditoriums, either. The good news is that Warner Brothers isn’t leaving us holding the Fremkit and has announced Part Two for 2023. That almost certainly means you can rectify any non-IMAX mistake on a double-feature in a couple of years. Pencil it in now. Also: Give a raise to whichever of the screenwriting trio sneaked in the line “If you get a little higher, you’ll have a better view.” Bravo. (Coming Jan. 11, 2022, to Blu-ray and VOD)
Those who might find Mass inherently uncinematic due to its largely one-room, close-quarters setting should look more closely at the spatial storytelling going on all around its quartet of powerhouse performers. How many pieces of ourselves — or those we love — have been left behind in so many similarly nondescript rooms in houses of religious or civic service? Even little moments like Reed Birney and Ann Dowd inhabiting chairs vacated by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton emphasizes the communion these four people take together in all this chaos, expressing terrible pain for pasts that never happened with explosions, catharsis and forgiveness like sacrifices to the immovable beast of grief at its center. Even the aspect ratio changes and cutaways to a fence line feel like they zero in on the minutiae of resentment and helplessness, along with the narrow line between civilized order and chaotic confusion. Director Fran Kranz and his camera are constantly drawing your attention to the absence of people in spaces that feel alien when they are not full, as well as the intuitive aggression of the aggrieved and the defensive stance of the accused. (The film’s unexpected secret weapon? The socially awkward church staff, who not only break the tension at the end but offer an unexpectedly devastating introductory notion: How does one set-dress a conversation between the parents of those grieving a murdered son and the parents of a dead son who took so many other lives alongside his own?) Among these performers, Plimpton has the strongest command of physical detail, Birney has the highest degree of difficulty, Dowd brings the depth of feeling that’s sometimes performative and other times pulverizing in a way that makes hers the easiest turn to campaign for awards, and Isaacs infuses the film with the incendiary charge this conversation would yield. Mass could not be what it is without all of them together; no one performance works without the others off whom to bounce, as it should be. Nails the ending, too, with aggression giving way to antiphony in an abstract sense as well as a mellifluous one, and it’s absolutely the right choice for Isaacs to not see its source. Truly a staggering movie that doesn’t uphold the wrong aspects of all that is wrought unto the characters at its center by its conclusion. (Coming Jan. 11, 2022, to Blu-ray and VOD)
On purely aesthetic terms, a shotgun wedding of spaghetti-Western savagery to no-fucks-given brashness of blaxploitation. It’s a blood-inked love letter to both the patient splendor of Sergio Leone and the urgent anger of Melvin Van Peebles. But Jeymes Samuel’s breakout film wallops at a much higher weight than that of persuasive pastiche. He summons his own uniquely unforgettable high lonesome sound for his Western, with as much poignancy as playfulness in its purposeful anachronisms, a nigh-biblical nature to its barbarism (Old Testament, natch), a vibrancy to its vicissitudes in violent retribution, and a sense-scorching intuition for how the report of gunfire reverberates across canyons of time and culture for Black America. It also boasts gorgeous widescreen vistas, scintillating sound design, promises made good on the simple pleasures of the Western genre, and big-boss performances from a murderer’s row of big-name Black actors and actresses alongside scene-stealing newcomers. By the end, there are plenty of tombstones — some actual resting places, some symbolic burials. The idea of Black Americans sacrificing certain parts of themselves to survive in these United States tracks a long arc into the here and now, well outside the dusty proscenium of Samuel’s specific story. Both intellectually invigorating and impishly entertaining, The Harder They Fall heralds the arrival of instantaneously impressive talent to watch. (Netflix)
3. WEST SIDE STORY (2021)
Steven Spielberg expertly takes the plunge in a genre whose trappings he had borrowed in the past. But it’s Tony Kushner’s adaptation that soars — striking notes of inevitability rather than tragedy. It’s as much an adaptation of the last 60 years as the musical itself. Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist are respectively astonishing as Anita and Riff. Plus, Rita Moreno’s turn offers both shrewd substitution on several fronts and deepens this version’s sorrow-drowned heart. Far, far more impressive than I expected. (Currently in theaters; coming soon to Blu-ray and VOD)
A 108-minute test of fight or flight for you to understand, and come to terms with, the malleability of your flesh and the uselessness of believing otherwise. It had been a long time since anything triggered that feeling in me, and I appreciated that bracing response to TItane, whose engagement with the sound of metal and fury is best experienced as narratively cold as possible. It’s an odyssey of identity and intimacy, a story of desire so desperate that you’ll discard the reality to enjoy a delusion, a reminder of the ravages of time, a parable for parental regret and repentance. Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon give two of 2021’s most devastating performances, and writer-director Julia Ducournau delightfully reclaims the Macarena back from Clint Eastwood. You’ll never hear it the same way again and perhaps find it quite useful. (Coming Jan. 18, 2022, to Blu-ray and VOD)
1. DRIVE MY CAR
Attempts to distill Drive My Car will forever be a fruitless endeavor given the gigantic notions at which it grasps and always, always comes away with a fistful of thoughtful, unforgettable ruminations about life. It’s a story of resolve against impermanence, the very essence of life’s acceleration and deceleration. It’s about the auspicious aspirations of the languages with which we surround ourselves and the realization that, really, dramaturgy is what we all do every day — as we try to interpret others’ stories and hope they are able to understand ours. It’s full of jaw-dropping compositions that convey the current along which we are all carried. It’s a parable about presence and pleasure. It’s about the blurred lines between artistic expression and commercial achievement. It’s about individualized de-commitment and recommitment after an unfathomable tragedy, the spaces you clear for a partner to grieve both alone and alongside you. It’s about the cursed knowledge we carry alongside the miracle of our affection for someone, and theirs for us. It’s about hanging on to heartbreak longer than necessary because it’s something we can at least understand rather than anticipate the fearful unknown that awaits. It’s about how lines in a play, like the fears we face, are something that we both commit to memory and purge after a time — the immediate fight-or-flight response receding but those fears deepening and changing as we regain their familiarity. It’s about the chaos of trying to communicate together in multiple tongues; frankly, amid all of the engrossing interpersonal drama here, I found the multilingual theater concept to be socially fascinating. On that score, it’s also about the processes of work, namely what makes us great at occupational dedication and terrible at so many other integral aspects of our existence. It’s about how even the things to which we are most dedicated and do well are born of denigration or something we’ve denied ourselves elsewhere. It’s about the courage we must summon to remove us from moments in which we’re stuck … and how sometimes that courage eludes us and the alternative damns us. It is, unlike the feckless and underbaked The Power of the Dog, actually about subtle power dynamics as expressed so beautifully in the three main performances here from Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura and Masaki Okada. There are so many revelations across its expansive narrative, but there’s always a sense of poignancy and playfulness amid the patience, as well as a compelling emotional narrative of whether characters are trying to sabotage others or themselves, or if they’re just resigned to where they find themselves in life. This is a 179-minute film that, once it strikes its chords of connection to the characters, melts away like miles down the road. Ultimately, it asks what is more important in an emotional life — objective truth or subjective belief? No easy answer, other than to rebuild, repair and return, over and over until we’re gone. How beautiful. (Coming soon to theaters, Blu-ray and VOD)