The end of a year is flooded with lists. Lists are a way of engaging an audience. Whether the list identifies achievements, or in this case, favored movies, there’s no right way to stipulate ten preferred items in a given year.
As a result, I detest lists, in general.
In the milieu of social media, lists are subjective.
In the milieu of the streaming age, lists typically don’t stick; content comes at us from all directions, and it is impossible to keep up with, as Adam McKay reminded us in his sublime and ultimately audience-dividing Don’t Look Up, now streaming on Netflix.
The world is fluid, as Covid continues to remind us. Life is short, and every moment is worth living. We tend to get caught up in the minutiae of the moment, evidenced by the four MCU movies released this year. Nostalgia reared its head, too.
With my martini, shaken not stirred, raised to Daniel Craig’s swansong as James Bond, my reticence notwithstanding and in no specific obligation to the end of the year process, I present my Ten (no, Twelve) Best Films along with the Honorably Mentioned Films of 2021.
The mentioned films are not in numerical order; these films genuinely, profoundly touched me, an ode to what the moving art form is intended to do.
Ten (no, Twelve) Best Films of 2021
Belfast/The Tragedy of Macbeth – So enamored was I with the cinematography that these two films shot in Black & White made the cut, with a third being desaturated for a January release exclusively in the L.A. market. In Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, I was reminded of what child innocence and wonderment were like; the depth of the setups accentuating the characters and their settings. In Apple TV’s/A24’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s absolute, all-consuming power corrupts absolutely, and the depth in Bruno Delbonnel’s framing lulls us into Denzel’s expert performance and Frances’ stunning betrayal.
Licorice Pizza – Paul Thomas Anderson continues to surprise me, even in ways that I’m not expecting. Playing like a mixtape that I might have created in the ’80s, the ode to love and relationships in 1973 Los Angeles sets the stage for a beautiful ensemble and two provocative first-time lead performances in Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. It’s easy to see why Philip Seymour Hoffman became PTA’s film muse and why Bradley Cooper might win the Best Supporting Actor award.
Don’t Look Up/The Power of the Dog – Both films are lengthy, unfurling at a glacial pace. Jane Campion’s story of revenge plays out precisely as it should. Netflix had a strong stable of films this year, the strongest I’ve seen and why Adam McKay’s sublime examination of life eternally in crisis mode made the list. Why only two people in the world are sane in an insane normalcy, the lack of compassion and reaction puts Don’t Look Up atop my best films of 2021.
Drive My Car – Forming relationships of any kind, especially in this day and age, is complex. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s spiritual examination of age as a part of forming a relationship is stunning, winning the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Cannes, Drive My Car is worth seeking out.
House of Gucci – Dark Comedies are my forte, and Ridley Scott waltzed right into my hands with this story. Lady Gaga steals the show, Adam Driver is fabulously staunch. It is Jared Leto’s performance, which will most likely go up against Cooper’s performance in Licorice Pizza, Gucci’s underappreciated hero. Like Kidman and Stewart, who disappear behind their respective makeup and prostheses, Leto lets the appliances breathe, his performance becomes that much more comical, and we’re allowed to appreciate the performance while admiring his fallacies and good intentions.
Red Rocket – Sean Baker’s inexpensive film is full of sensual allegory, an aspect not explored too often in American cinema. Despite the harsh circumstances that the brilliant Simon Rex finds himself in, his relationship with Strawberry Son is natural. What sold me is its light-filled hope propagating change in an otherwise despicable character and sells the underdog story as a human interest worth investing the time in the characters and story.
Mass – Another inexpensive movie that has audiences speaking long after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Fran Kranz’s directorial debut is simple on the surface and complex in its structure. The entire cast, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs and, Reed Birney’s emotional reactions are statically captured. The film may resolve their differences, but we’re left haunted by what’s transpired.
No Time to Die – I’m a Bond fan, through and through. Craig’s interpretation of the character over five films and fifteen years has been the most thorough, despite a few rough patches. Cary Joji’s Fukanuga’s No Time to Die is full of emotion and heart, injecting references from the classic series into this story. What’s next for Bond? Only time will tell. We have all the time in the world.
Dune – Denis Villeneuve’s updated Dune adaptation sees Lawrence of Arabia meeting Hearts of Darkness (Apocalypse Now). Epic in scope, limited in exposition, the visuals are where Part One excels. The entire ensemble is stellar. Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, and, in a turn that would simultaneously pale Kenneth McMillan and Marlon Brando, Stellan Skarsgård’s’s Vladimir Harkonnen elevate the epic struggle for good and evil, for capitalism on a galactic scale, Dune is a thinking man’s sci-fi film for the modern ages.
West Side Story – In a year full of Musicals, Steven Spielberg reminds us of what a consummate humanitarian he is with his update on the classic West Side Story, is perhaps this year’s mainstream inclusive film. Once again, the cinematography is the highlight, yet the ensemble sells the story and puts it on par with Robert Wise’s classic.
Honorably Mentioned Films of 2021: Culture defines the Honorably Mentioned Films that graced our screens, big and small. Music also played a significant role, but each of these films unexpectedly touched me. From Nicolas Cage’s outstanding performance to Kristen Stewart’s turn as Diana; Lucille and Desi coming alive behind-the-scenes in Sorkin’s brilliant Being the Ricardos, Disney’s enchanting Encanto, the wonderous Green Knight, Lin Manuel Miranda’s gift of bringing Jonathan Larson back to life, and Dion Labriola’s festival favorite about Ike Eisenmann, all of these films warrant attention.
The Green Knight
The Sparks Brothers
The Last Night in Soho
Being the Ricardos
The Tender Bar
The Addams Family 2
The Last Duel
The Lost Daughter
The Harder They Fall
The French Dispatch
Spider-Man: No Way Home
tick, Tick . . . Boom!
In the Heights
The Matrix Resurrections
The Hand of God
The Card Counter
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