Year two of the whole global pandemic thing has been a strange trip. Cinematically, however, it has been something of an improvement. Heck, the fact that I actually got out to see a few movies in the cinema (masked, at odd showings, at a theater that typically had few people even pre-pandemic). So, here were some of my favorites from 2021. Note that I don’t use Oscars rules, because the Oscars are garbage.
20. In the Heights
19. Swan Song (dir. Todd Stephens)
18. The Mitchells VS the Machines
15. The Power of the Dog
14. The Hand of God
13. Barb & Star go to Vista Del Mar
11. Nightmare Alley
10. Mandibles – French madman & filmmaker Quentin Dupieux turns his absurdist eye on the buddy picture. This is like a more surreal “Dumb & Dumber,” but without having to sit through Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey…so bonus. Toro!
9. In the Earth – Folk Horror meets the pandemic in this weird and unsettling movie from the always weird and unsettling Ben Wheatley. Possibly my least favorite film from the director so far, is still in my top 10 for this year. The idea of him making the sequel to “Meg” is still making me feel like I’m being punked.
8, The Empty Man – The treatment of this Cosmic Horror epic is a crying shame. It’s financial failures like this that are why we don’t have a 200 million dollar film of “At the Mountains of Madness.” Anyway, while not a perfect film, this is a really, really good take on the themes of Cosmic Horror. This is not the “Creepypasta”/Boogeyman movie the trailers made it look like. It deserved better. It is long. But in an unusual twist these days, I think it justifies the length.
7. Licorice Pizza – Like “The Hand of God,” this movie is a love letter to a specific time and a specific place. This one may be a bit less autobiographical, but is also based on some real people and their misadventures in L.A. in the 70s. As one would expect from Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s filled with oddball characters, funny and awkward moments, and great needle drops. In a refreshing twist, it never takes a darkly violent turn, which I was expecting for almost the whole runtime. It does deal with some really upsetting stuff, and I think maybe the film isn’t as clear about how messed up the power dynamics are, but still, it’s a good flick.
6. Doors – There have been a few films that have come out since the adaptation of “Annihilation” that feel like they’ve been at least in part inspired by that film (even “In the Earth” has some similar vibes). This is the latest that I’ve seen. It’s uneven and off-kilter, but in a good way. This is likely because the film is broken up into segments that have some different creative teams involved. Though the visual feel of the film is not jarringly different, there does seem to be different focuses and different themes to each segment. What’s most surprising to me is that it all somehow works when it probably shouldn’t.
5. Encanto – This one came out of nowhere. I had heard very little leading up to this movie’s release and saw it in the final days of the year, yet it quickly jumped up on my list. I’m still kinda shocked that this wasn’t from Pixar, as it shows far more quality, particularly in the script, than non-Pixar Disney films tend to have. It’s a good story, has solid musical numbers (that are used the way music in a Musical should be used), and the humor emerges from the characters and the setting. That last part is so important. It doesn’t feel like a bunch of jokes, shoehorned in by a writers’ room desperately trying to make their corporate overlords happy. The humor feels like a natural extension of everything else going on in the movie. That’s rare for Disney’s work outside of Pixar. Also, the design and animation is gorgeous.
4. Summer of Soul – The same summer that Woodstock happened, a huge festival happened in Harlem, but it didn’t get a concert film…until now. The only complaint I have about this movie is that it’s not every single frame of the film that was taken. I could have watched 30 or more hours of this. I definitely wanted to see more complete sets. What is here is pretty great, though. Fantastic music from a tremendous collection of artists. I don’t have a lot of patience with the past. I would never want to live in an earlier time. But stuff like this makes me wish I could go back to certain moments and experience certain events in person.
3. The Suicide Squad – Nobody is more shocked to find this in my top 10, let alone in the 3rd spot, than me. I literally couldn’t watch the first film. Beyond my general dislike of all things David Ayer, I tried to watch “Suicide Squad” a couple years ago and made it like 5 minutes in before just turning it off in disgust. Fast forward to this year and the only reason I even gave this a shot is that I do like James Gunn films most of the time. Hell, I may be the only person in the world who doesn’t think all that highly of Margot Robbie (she’s fine; she’ll be fine). Yet here I am, enjoying the hell out of this weirdly sweet & sincere bit of ultra-violence.
2. The Green Knight – Gorgeous, weird, and dripping with fantastical glee. If you are going to dip into Arthurian myth, at least have the decency to make it interesting. This definitely qualifies. One of the best since “Excalibur.”
1. The French Dispatch – Apparently a lot of folks who like Wes Anderson movies don’t like this one. I’m not one of those folks. This hit all the notes for me. Great performances, delightfully weird characters, Cold War era vibes. Put this straight into my veins.
Best Director: Wes Anderson for The French Dispatch
Best Actress: Alana Haim for Licorice Pizza
Best Actor: Bradley Cooper for Nightmare Alley
Best Supporting Actress: Toni Collette for Nightmare Alley
Best Supporting Actor: Jeffrey Wright for The French Dispatch
Best Soundtrack: Summer of Soul
Biggest Disappointment. I don’t want to talk about the “Worst” movies of this year. Instead I want to talk about a few disappointments. These were movies that had a lot going for them, but didn’t stick the landing.
5. Raya and the Last Dragon – I went into this movie fairly cold. I hadn’t heard anything positive about it, but I liked the look of it, so I figured I’d give it a go. It had all the ingredients, but for this viewer, the constant unfunny humor sank it. It’s especially annoying because I actually really like Aquafina, and even enjoyed her “comic side-kick” routine in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” also from this year. But it didn’t work for me at all in this movie. It’s a problem Disney frequently has, especially in their non-Pixar films. Where the folks at Pixar seem to be able to find the right balance, the same can’t be said for their original animation studio. I often chalk it up to learning the wrong lessons from the success of “Aladdin,” but I really don’t know what the problem is. This same issue translates, usually to a slightly lesser degree, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. It simply tends (tends!) to be less grating there, maybe because it’s not pandering to children as much(?).
4. The Harder They Fall – Don’t get me wrong here. “The Harder They Fall” is a cool movie and you should definitely check it out. It makes my list of “disappointing” movies because it could have been great, but missed the mark because of a problem that is plaguing contemporary cinema. It desperately, DESPERATELY needed a stronger editor (on the script, probably, but definitely on the final film). It is simply too long, and not just because it’s over two hours. There is a section in the middle that exists for no good story reason, but takes up like fifteen or twenty minutes. The actions of the characters don’t make sense and clearly happen because the writer wanted something to happen and couldn’t come up with a good reason for it. With stronger editing, and maybe 20 or 30 minutes trimmed, this movie could have been really, really good. Instead, it’s just pretty good. If they do another movie, I’ll be first in line. I’ll just be hoping it’s tighter.
3. The Matrix Resurrections – How can I be disappointed by a movie I didn’t have any particular interest in? I don’t know, man. I liked the original film and even enjoyed the two sequels (I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who did). I wasn’t really jumping up and down demanding a fourth film, twenty years later, either. But I figured I’d give it a go. There’s a lot to like here, so I found myself really wanting to like the movie. And I guess I kinda did. But at the same time, I kinda didn’t. It was…OK. And somehow, for a Matrix film to be just “OK” feels wrong. I think that’s because it’s not as ambitious as it should be. Had it been more ambitious and been a huge failure, that would have been better than being so middling. Also, the fight scenes, which is one of the things the Matrix films are most known for, were really blah. Or, more accurately, they looked blah, because they were shot terribly. They action might have been amazing, but we didn’t see it, because the camera didn’t capture it.
2. Blood Moon – This werewolf drama has a great premise with a lot of potential. However, it’s hampered by the script that has characters constantly doing the stupidest things possible in order to manufacture the next dramatic moment in the plot. This, sadly, is a frequent component of Horror films (see: “A Quiet Place”). I wanted to like this movie so much more.
1. Come True – I went into this with no expectations. Heck, I’d only just heard of the film and didn’t know anything about it. So I was very happy to get wrapped up in the weird mystery of the thing. Though set in the present (I realized when someone’s cell phone went off), it feels profoundly 1980s. It also feels super, super Canadian. 80s. Canadian. Cronnenberg? Yeah. It was putting me in mind of some classic Cronnenberg. I was digging it. Sure, it was occasionally awkward and maybe not as confident as some of those old Body Horror films, but it was giving me good vibes. And then the final shot. Literally one single camera pan and the whole movie fell apart for me. It went from a movie I might get a physical copy of to a movie I’m not likely to watch again. That’s the power of a bad ending. One single camera pan. If the movie ended three seconds earlier, I’d be buying the blu ray.
Video Discoveries. What follows are some of my favorite first time viewing films from this past year.
10. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (aka The Hideaways) (1973): The kind of Kid Adventure film I’d have absolutely loved if I’d seen it as a kid. Still enjoyed it quite a bit as an adult. Now I want to go stealth-camp at the Met.
9. The Chess Player (1927): This is a pretty epic movie that borders on pulpy Science Fiction at times. Pretty cool.
8. Love & Monsters (2020): I missed this in 2020, but I finally got a chance to check it out and I really enjoyed it. Fun stuff.
7. Arsène Lupin (1932): John Barrymore as a dashing thief? Give me all of it.
6. China Seas (1935): Very cool adventure movie.
5. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014): Australian humor is a whole thing. Throw in an apocalyptic, zombie gorefest and you’ve got some gold.
4. The Bitter Stems (1956): Film Noir out of Argentina. Cool.
3. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964): An absolutely gorgeous, colorful musical from France.
2. Gosford Park (2001): The cast of this film. Goodness.
1. Fish Story (2009): Heartwarming and charming. And is it a stealth sequel to “Armageddon?”
Here’s my Best & Worst of 2020, if you want to check it out.
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