Better late than never, eh? Normally I try to have these posts precede the Oscars but y’know… life got in the way.
Last year’s summary post began with an extended rant on the state of things for movies as a casualty of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. I’ll keep this intro pretty short and sweet, in reflection of the same exhaustion that I’m sure hits most people as much as it hits me: we’re not in that much better of a position. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, theaters are in a slow-crawl towards death (only further punctuated by how many people think that’s worth ignoring for a Marvel movie as opposed to Annette or Titane), and personally speaking, I’m stuck with a Top Ten that is still made up in the end of more 4 star movies than 4 ½ or 5 stars.
But I did get my first 5 star movie of the decade. So we have that going for it. Which is nice. Plus, a lot of this willful ignorance that COVID cases are still on the rise does mean that the same filmmakers that held up their movie’s premiere last year have said fuck it and let them land where they will: much of them readily available for those at home earlier than usual for those who are understandably inclined to watch at home during this season.
I don’t know: It feels like we’re still regressing to this downward churn of films becoming “content”. So I can’t pretend things have gotten at all better, but at this point I’m too tired to throw the blame around to anything or anyone except the powers that be. Best to just take stock, hold our noses, and dive in.
BEST FIRST-TIME WATCHES
Joan of Arc (Georges Méliès, 1900)
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge (Fritz Lang, 1924)
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)
Lonesome (Paul Fejős, 1928)
The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit (Gene Dietch, 1962)
The Mattei Affair (Francesco Rosi, 1972)
Careful (Guy Maddin, 1992)
Mynarski Death Plummet (Matthew Rankin, 2014)
The Tesla World Light (Matthew Rankin, 2017)
BIGGEST REGRET ON MISSING OUT A THEATRICAL VIEWING (POSSIBLY IN MY LIFE)
Om Shanti Om in 35mm at the Music Box
I don’t know what to blame: my temporary roommate hating on the movie for most of the summer up until this screening or the fact that it was watching a nearly 3 hour picture on a Monday night, but somehow I made the choice to catch Shaft instead of this and not a week has passed where I wasn’t thinking “you dumbass, you’ll have plenty of chances to see Shaft on the big screen. How likely is it to have a Bollywood picture in 35mm return?” I caught about half an hour on Netflix a few days later before shutting it off because the embarrassment was too high and the movie felt way too big for a living room watch. Here’s hoping one day…
BEST EXPERIENCE WATCHING A MOVIE IN A THEATER (DEFINITELY IN MY LIFE)
Meet Me in St. Louis in 35mm at the Music Box
A screening I specifically postponed driving down to Miami for the holidays over: Meet Me in St. Louis was already a longtime favorite film of mine and the first time watching it was in an empty theater (maybe the least frequented theater I can think of in the Miami area) at one of those Fathom Events type of things. With that watch, what I latched onto was the marvelous coding of the seasons through color, the type of thing that I feel maps my riding through the years in this world more than any calendar.
This time – even with the lovely softness of the visuals in 35mm film – what I truly latched onto was finding that a very funny and emotionally moving movie with one of the greatest song books a movie musical could have is exactly that and while I spent most of the past year of moviegoing trying to avoid large crowds at the cinema (for obvious reasons), this was the only time that I did not resent the fullness of the theater. It’s one thing to laugh by yourself in the dark, but it’s another to find out that an entire room of unseen strangers align with your sense of humor and connect with the same emotions towards a movie that you found. It was a perfect moment of synthesis that went beyond my previous best experience in a movie (Miami Connection also in 35mm with SCS at the Coral Gables Art Cinema March 2016; a much smaller crowd but the right sort of small crowd) and reminded me entirely of what made going to the movies such a special thing. I still haven’t shaken off the high I got from that 6 months later.
(both Om Shanti Om and Meet Me in St. Louis happened to both be screenings arranged by The Chicago Film Society, so shout out to them and I hope they appreciate it enough to please bring back Om Shanti Om again)
2021 RELEASES I’D LOVE TO REWATCH IN A CINEMA IN THE FUTURE
Shadow in the Cloud and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
I mean, these are just two movies meant for sold-out midnight crowds (Alamo Drafthouse clearly knew that about the latter film, but I don’t fuck with Alamo Drafthouse and fortunately there was no Chicago theater to tempt me – even though now they’re building one in Wrigleyville which ensures that area of the city is about to get more obnoxious). The former is a heightened cartoon thriller and the other is an infectious bright visual comedy that makes for a return to the sort of artful stylization and lovable characters that I wish more modern comedies had. Could you imagine a crowd singing along to “seagull on the tire, can you hear my prayer”?
BIGGEST FUCK-UP OF A RELEASE Lol, even though the distribution method of Memoria is still kind of a joke, most of this rant is officially made null and void by the fact that theaters are now playing Memoria. Serves me right for waiting so long to post, but I’ll include this for y’all at least as a window to an earlier draft of this. Memoria by Neon Upon purchasing the rights to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest movie, Neon announced an unorthodox method of release by saying that Memoria will be playing indefinitely at one cinema for a week at a time and never get a home video release in the USA. And I personally wasn’t initially put aback by this, largely because even if Neon didn’t renege on that “no home video” part, it would be pirate-able for anyone by the overseas releases. But then the end of December came and there was no announcement of an order of theaters. And then the end of year came and suddenly it plopped in AMC’s Chicago River East without advertisement and then… nowhere. It’s playing nowhere. The latest movie by one of the best filmmakers working in the world today cannot be accounted for anywhere in the US. First off, there’s no reason there couldn’t be say… one movie theater per time zone playing it at a time if the Roadshow engagement was really that important. But also in order to function as a roadshow, you need to critically do one thing: book theaters before you announce this release. And it is at this point hilariously clear that Neon didn’t do that. Whatever bullshit I can say about Neon ruining Portrait of a Lady on Fire ’s release to sideline it for more Parasite money, at least that was partly done in by a pandemic nobody in that company could have predicted escalating to the point of it escalating. Memoria ’s screw-over was pure ineptness. (Man, between talking shit about Neon here and talking shit about Alamo Drafthouse above, it’s probably a good thing nobody reads this blog or Tim League would get mad at me)
It’s cheating because it’s basically the same flaws as Sing’s trailer, which are particularly bothersome in the “I know what bullshit is in this movie, but I still don’t know what this movie is about”. But hell, two movies in now and you’d think they’d find some way to streamline the marketing on these incongruous combinations of needle drops and talking animals, especially since by this point they are actually interacting with each other rather than in their own separate movie… kind of.
MOST HILARIOUS COVER-UP JOB OF A TRAILER
Death on the Nile – Trailer
To certain people, this film appears to be cursed most by the COVID delays lending enough time for certain lead cast members to show their ass: Arranged in order of how much attention each controversy gets from least to most, we have ex-IDF and apologist for Israeli settlements Gal Gadot, ostensible anti-vaxxer and transphobe Letitia Wright (and with less attention on him, Russell Brand), fellow anti-vaxxer and sexual abuser Armie Hammer. The former two are – to the dejected surprise of nobody, least of all people who care about these causes – not severe enough in the public eye for damage control, but Hammer’s downfall was so public and based in some abhorrent actions as one of the first big pop culture events of 2021 that Taika Waititi’s next big Oscarbait picture Next Goal Wins is being reshot to remove him entirely at great cost. Apparently it was too late in post-production and marketing for Branagh’s latest hammy locked-room murder mystery (I mean sure For All the Money in the World reshot Christopher Plummer for Kevin Spacey within a few months, but not everyone can be as efficient as Ridley Scott), but it’s clear that outside of one close-up, the editing team behind this trailer is trying very very hard to redirect your eyes away from Hammer’s face.
And that’s what made it the single funniest trailer in the whole fucking year, where the below shot made me laugh harder than any comedy trailer:
(Also seems as good a spot to say I’m sad I didn’t include this category for 2020, because Halloween Kills’ teaser trailer implying Laurie Strode completely forgot firefighters exist almost makes me laugh as much as this shot).
A movie that was already carried by the “lady fucks a car” and “it won the Palme d’Or” hype, but one really has to admire whoever was behind this trailer for combining images that don’t really connect together other than the tasteful chopping up of the movie’s early car show long-take and keeping all mystique on what the movie is about all the way until its release. Plus I really do dig that it shifts gears from an intense industrial beat to the smooth tunes of The Zombies.
Coming 2 America
Damn, did they need to put EVERY character in the post? I know the movie itself already feels like an MCU entry with its overused bad CGI and the non-stop clip show of things but this only added to the vibe.
Wonky in its choice of image and old-school with that red and black palette in proper measures while staring us right in the face at what this movie is actually about. Plus the bloody knife’s point making the “I” in the title… *chef’s kiss*.
No Sudden Move, though The Little Things does threaten it.
TITLE THAT HAS ME READING IT TO THE CADENCE OF A SPECIFIC FAITH NO MORE SONG
I Care a Lot
Shadow in the Cloud
“HIS FRIEND DIED… YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HE DID NEXT!” -A Youtube Video Headline in Dear Evan Hansen (Written by Steven Levenson, based on his stage musical with Pasek & Paul, directed by Stephen Chbosky)
“It’s time we cut out the cancer.” -Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) in Malignant (written by Akela Cooper, directed by James Wan)
A double whammy here for Chris Evans. There is his quick “shit”-bomb in Free Guy just at the movie’s most intolerably pandering moment for MCU bullshit and then there is his ballsy lampshading as a both-sidesy talking head celebrity in Don’t Look Up. As a rule I think you should avoid joking about something that you’d definitely be caught saying in earnest and I think the man who made that fucking “A Starting Point” website should sit the fuck down.
MOST “I AM OFFICIALLY TOO FUCKING OLD FOR MOVIES” CAMEOS
Every single fucking Twitch streamer or internet celebrity that showed up in either Free Guy or Mainstream, already deep enough into both movies to know I just was not going to care about their attitudes of pop culture or what the fuck ever. Mainstream’s internet cameos, I at least recognized like the fucking Riverdale dude or Jake Paul’s punchable face, but I didn’t even know if I was supposed to care who the loud game chair personalities were in Free Guy until well after I watched the movie and I see no reason to bother memorizing their names.
(Not a movie in itself, but still related: having as the “Oscar expert” that Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan consulted after announcing this year’s nominees some fucking TikTok-famous Production Assistant from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel truly made me realize society has gone too fast for me to catch up).
MOST NICHE CAMEO(S)
I’ll cop to most of the meta-humor in The Matrix Resurrections being the least interesting parts of the movie. But the early reveal of Tiffany’s husband and who plays him feels so perfectly tailored to my sensibilities – tying the movie’s eagerness to comment upon itself, my love for John Wick movies, and my understanding of the behind-the-scenes trivia to give me my kind of in-joke.
Almost on the same level is the reveal of what a particular character actually looks like in reality and having him played by the real-life husband of one of the actors in that mirror reflection.
MOST EXCITING CAMEO(S)
Once again, The Matrix Resurrections owns this category with every single face from Sense8 who showed up in even the smallest role (my personal favorite was Michael X. Sommers as the barista with the wild fucking moustache, followed by Purab Kohli pitching the Cat-rix).
Stephen Root in The Tragedy of Macbeth found that perfect sweet spot between his regular performance manner and the carriage of a classical Shakespearean performance to become the second-most wholly unique presence in the film behind Kathryn Hunter and in turn the second-best performance. For just one small bit part where he walks around drunk as fuck.
I’ve already brought up the terrible MCU-pandering in Free Guy’s final battle (and even then I didn’t mention the Star Wars just to remind us this was another lap for Disney in all the property they own), but that’s still not to the level of horror that Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s climax reeling in the classic four-some where the only person who didn’t look reluctant and soul-dead appearing once again in the franchise was the fucking CGI necromancy standing with the three on-screen actors. To battle another beam in the sky.
MOST OVERRATED SCENE
As you will probably see in the list below, I really do love Pig a whole lot. And I am somehow blown away by the fact that the sequence most of the fans latch onto is the monologue where Nic Cage calmly and brilliantly breaks down a chef’s insincere façade at respectability… and the actor he’s playing against is giving his wack-ass Joker impression and ruining the moment because he can’t help hamming it up against the rare time Cage is being restrained on-screen. It is a tonal fuck-up that would be great with a better actor, but here just breaks away from everything the movie has delicately built up and even ruins the surprise of the climax when Cage’s character once again emotionally destroys someone without even trying.
When the villain of Malignant comes out and has, shall we say, a Jailhouse Rock. If you’ve seen it, you know.
ACTOR WHO HAS BEEN GIVING HIS BEST THIS YEAR IN THE WORST MOVIES
I have – at the time of this writing – not yet seen The Eyes of Tammy Faye yet so for all I know that breaks the combo (ETA: I have since writing this seen Tammy Faye and it did break the combo – he was awful in it – but 3/4 ain’t bad). But of the other 3 that headlined Garfield as an actor, I can think of fewer unpleasant movie experiences and the sole source of oxygen appeared to be Garfield giving his A-Game in all three: Mainstream’s muddled and insoluble attitudes on modern celebrity culture and social media is given a spirit of conviction by Garfield’s lack of any inhibition on-screen; Spider-Man: No Way Home’s overwhelming amount of empty fan service only truly resonates with me when it comes to Garfield finding a way to shape his scenes into a rich arc, especially impressive when I have absolutely no affinity for his runs as the web-slinger; and Garfield’s performance as Jonathan Larson (a late theater creative I don’t have many generous attitudes on) is the only thing giving tick tick… BOOM some aware edge of the ego at the center of that self-congratulatory work, and it’s amazing that a lead performance from such a movie is closer to my favorite of the Best Actor nominees than my least favorite. It’s the most I’ve come to admiring Garfield as an actor since The Social Network and it might possibly be the case that the latter two of those performances are his two best ever.
(While Timothee Chalamet is a fellow “actor I don’t like shockingly giving performances I found impressive in 2021”, but also given my high esteem for Dune and The French Dispatch, I can’t say this counts. It might be close that Don’t Look Up is a movie I hate more than any of Garfield’s 2021 films and yet features Chalamet’s career-best performance as its late saving grace).
MOST “YOU’RE REALLY ADAPTING THAT?” SET OF HOLIDAY RELEASES
Nightmare Alley, West Side Story, and The Tragedy of Macbeth
MOVIE THAT MAY MOST DEPRECIATE OVER TIME
The Matrix Resurrections
The more I look back on the movie honestly, the more obvious it is that everything I truly love about it is backloaded (and can you blame me? That chase sequence is so epic!). I’ve watched the film twice now and while I don’t regret that, I did realize I was playing a waiting game in the first hour to the stuff I really found good but the real damning thing is that I can’t recall a single image that I found… earth-shattering the way that even the other Matrix sequels had. Still think it’s a fine movie, still consider it the second best of the franchise (behind the original), and I certainly would take 5 Matrix Resurrections, warts and all, against another Marvel or Star Wars film… but I don’t know that I’d watch it again.
MOVIE THAT MAY MOST APPRECIATE OVER TIME
Wrath of Man
The more I think about it, the more it feels like the version of Dragged Across Concrete that I can recommend to friends who will never ever watch Dragged Across Concrete. I don’t think Guy Ritchie has ever made a picture this unsmiling before and when Jason Statham does, it’s usually a lot campier and yet it fits them both so well as a look that I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m a future rewatch away from this being my favorite work from both of them. Nice cruel and brutal crime cinema for the whole family.
MOVIE I MOST LOOK FORWARD TO REWATCHING
Labyrinth of Cinema
A movie that I have no doubt is more rewarding at the tail end of exploring Obayashi’s career rather than only having seen House out of his movies. It’s evident that it still walloped me as a whole lot of movie containing his extended farewells to all the things and people he loved in his life, but it didn’t have the effect on me that Varda by Agnes did and that’s my own damn fault watching it in advance of a much due Obayashi retrospective.
(This could have also been Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but given how I didn’t run to the Justice Is Grey edition the way I expected myself to… maybe four hours is just THAT much of a barrier. But like… Labyrinth of Cinema was 3 hours so what the fuck am I talking about here?)
MOVIES THAT HAVE SURVIVED THE LONGEST IN MY BRAIN IN THE SIXTH MONTHS BETWEEN 2021 ENDING AND THIS POST
Passing, Spencer, and The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The latter two are already showing up later on (spoiler for my Top Ten!) so I may as well give this point of privilege to the way that Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut takes material that feels already primed for either didacticism or handing itself to its lead actors on a silver platter and instead the method approached is a highly-controlled and refined distance. It specifically reminds me of Daughters of the Dust in the right areas and while I don’t have any particular urge to rewatch it, I look forward to eventually letting myself loosen up enough to the ways Passing rejects naturalism in its approach towards themes that are ostensibly meant to be recognizable if it didn’t demand we work extremely hard to dig them out.
Listen, it was always going to be a tough sell for me on account of Paul Thomas Anderson doing his usual Paul Thomas Anderson-y thing and I’m sure it was really rewarding to him and the friends he basically made this hangout comedy with. But almost none of it connected with me whatsoever, it’s made for an entirely different type of person.
MOST OVERHYPED FILMMAKER
Listen, Drive My Car is on my honorable mentions below and he hasn’t made a movie I outright disliked yet but everything I’ve seen by Hamaguchi Ryusuke feels so overfamiliar that I’m at a loss why particularly in 2021 – where Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car dropped stateside – did we make him the Director Du Jour that every movie forum is heralding as a Bong Joon-ho level talent. He’s a bit too dedicated to on-the-nose symbolism and dialogue for my tastes, but also his taste of humane melancholy – enjoyable as it is – is hardly unique (especially not for Japanese cinema) so I have no clue what the X factor that gave him the West’s complete attention is.
What truly puts me aback here is how most of the criticism that seems to be hitting this thing is for stuff that’s been mainstays of the film noir genre since the post-war years that it first became a thing. That doesn’t make this thing any less corny or flawed – that narration by Hugh Jackman is a big oof! – but it does hold me back from being judgmental given I’m the same guy who thinks Harrison Ford’s voiceover isn’t enough to dethrone Blade Runner from being my favorite movie ever. On top of the charms it has being the first genuinely genre-savvy neo-noir I’ve seen since Brick in 2005 and finding an incredible femme fatale in Rebecca Ferguson, it also features some of my favorite representations of Miami on-screen… a shitty half-flooded concrete waste. Very appropriate for a city I dislike in a genre I love.
BEST POPCORN MOVIE
F9: The Fast Saga
Is it possible that this spot should go to Dune? Maybe. But for all the technical perfection on a massive level of scope that Denis Villeneuve and his crew there performed, it didn’t touch my soul the way that Justin Lin’s triumphant return to this franchise did and a big part of that is how F9: The Fast Saga is one of those movies who is happy to let the STORY act as much of a spectacle as its ridiculous physically impossible action setpieces. Somehow the flashback narrative of things felt bigger than all the cars being captured by all the magnets in the world and that means something’s going right emotionally in my lizard brain.
The Green Knight
I have nobody to blame but myself for this: “lesser-known Arthuriana finally gets its big day in the light” blasted in my head way louder than “David Lowery” or “A24”. It could be worse – it’s evident Lowery is very much devoted to his version of the central legend, which at least gives us an inspired movie – but every time I look back on it, I only see how much more it flattens an already very dense tale of having to truly rip out honesty and courage inside of you into something that’s dazzling but saying less with more rather than the other way around.
I was braced to hate this movie and all of the reviews calling it a self-satisfied overspill of woke didactic choir-preaching – the negative reviews coming from black critics specifically – got me even more dreading it until I came to watch it and find… well, they’re not wrong but it feels like most of the “talking to the audience” parts are slotted to the first 30 minutes. Beyond that, I really liked this a lot. It carries the original film’s inclination for ghost stories with social awareness in measured doses while also modernizing the means by playing with reflective surfaces and shadow work so that the unseen element is more terrifying than what’s actually being experienced. Plus that aforementioned shadow element not only allows the movie to twist the mythos of the franchise very slightly but as a friend pointed out to me later… it also allows them to communicate violence towards black people without exploiting that material. I don’t know, y’all, I get the criticism this movie gets but it’s probably the origin of my feelings that the slasher subgenre is back in action over the 2020s.
SHORTS I LOVED FROM SUNDANCE 2021 THAT I DON’T KNOW IF THEY GOT RELEASED
Black Bodies (Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, USA/Canada)
Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss (Sonny Calvento, Philippines)
The Fourfold (Alisi Telengut, Canada)
Ghost Dogs (Joe Cappa, USA)
Like the Ones I Used to Know (Annie St-Pierre, Canada)
Raspberry (Julian Doan, USA)
SHORT FILM FROM SUNDANCE I AM MOST EXCITED TO SEE MORE FROM THE FILMMAKER OF
Five Tiger (Nomawonga Khumalo, South Africa)
BOTTOM 10 MOVIES
- Night of the Sicario (Joth Riggs, USA) – Quick maths time: Action Movie – Action + Praying = ??? Not even sure you get “Movie” as the answer.
- Space Jam: A New Legacy (Malcolm D. Lee, USA) – Warner Bros. won’t release The Devils by any means but they will flex their ownership of that property like everything else in this grotesque answer to Ralph Breaks the Internet.
- Me You Madness (Louise Linton, USA) – Made by sociopaths for fucking sociopaths, probably ones who thought Patrick Bateman was actually the good guy in American Psycho.
- Werewolves Within (Josh Ruben, France/USA) – Beats Everything Everywhere All at Once for most recent movie I’ve laughed least at.
- Cherry (Anthony & Joe Russo, USA) – The sort of thing that suggests the Russo brothers need Kevin Feige more than Kevin Feige needs either and also that cements Tom Holland can never play a grown-up in his career. Ever.
- Earwig and the Witch (Miyazaki Goro, Japan) – Well… I guess on the bright side, Hayao finally liked a movie his son made. Studio Ghibli going CGI is a crime.
- Charming (Ross Venokur, Canada/USA) – Shrek is already a fucking ugly movie but next to this knock-off… boy, it’s at least nice that one of the songs are catchy.
- Breaking News in Yuba County (Tate Taylor, USA) – Probably the record for most talented assemblage of cast with not a single working beat from them or the movie around them.
- Bliss (Mike Cahill, USA) – Slavoj Žižek’s most shameless moment.
- American Skin (Nate Parker, USA) – Basically the movie Candyman’s haters think Candyman is, with the addition of being a dire floor of mockumentary quality.
MOVIE I FEEL WOULD BE GAUCHE TO QUANTIFY
Just doesn’t feel right having such a raw document meant mostly for the therapeutic effects of its subjects to be “ranked” like all the other films. Truth be told, I’m mildly glad that it wasn’t Oscar-nominated, that would feel like making an unseemly meat parade out of sexual abuse survivors.
Affairs of the Art (Joanna Quinn, UK/Canada)
Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (Maria Brendle, Switzerland)
Annette (Leos Carax, France/Germany/Belgium/USA/Japan/Mexico/Switzerland)
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, Romania)
Belle (Hosoda Mamoru, Japan)
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, France/Netherlands)
Bestia (Hugo Covarrubias, Chile)
The Blazing World (Carlson Young, USA)
Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond, UK)
Drive My Car (Hamaguchi Ryusuke, Japan)
Dune (Denis Villeneuve, USA)
A Hero (Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France)
In the Earth (Ben Wheatley, USA)
On Memory (Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
Oxygen (Alexandre Aja, USA/France)
President (Camilla Nielsson, Denmark)
Prisoners of the Ghostland (Sono Sion, USA)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanić, Bosnia and Herzegovina/Austria/Germany/France/Netherlands/Norway/Poland/Romania/Turkey/Montenegro)
Robin Robin (Dan Ojari & Mickey Please, UK)
Shadow in the Cloud (Roseanne Liang, New Zealand/USA)
The Summit of the Gods (Patrick Imbert, France/Luxembourg)
There Is No Evil (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran)
Undine (Christian Petzold, Germany/France)
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter & Anders Edström, USA/Japan/Sweden/UK)
The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway/France/Denmark/Sweden)
AND MY TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2021
10. The Human Voice (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain/USA)
COVID-era art is a concept that makes me dry heave with how unappealing it sounds to me but Almodóvar’s longtime career inspiration, Jean Cocteau’s stageplay La Voix Humaine, feels especially well suited to working within the oppressive confines of four walls locked away from society so it’s no surprise to me that Almodóvar is able to make lemonade out of the necessary precautions taken out of making movies in this day and age. That it happens to reach close to top-tier Almodóvar is the product of him defying those boundaries and within the span of this short film’s dense 30 minutes deconstructing the space – itself with an alarming green and red palette that is the most vibrant visual codex Almodóvar has indulged in since Volver – as a knowing piece of exhibition and betraying the lie of a movie’s creative process. A piece of exhibition that contains a particularly intense one-sided central conversation delivered by Tilda Swinton’s affected presence. An excellent examination of performance as both something private and vulnerable while being public and disingenuous.
9. Pig (dir. Michael Sarnoski, USA)
I’m not generally somebody who leans onto “nice” movies and maybe that’s the wrong word to apply to Sarnoski’s debut feature film. But one of the great surprises of Pig as a release was how unexpectedly gentle and low-key much of it is in examining how people will internalize pain (pointedly, grief) which necessitates a remarkably quiet performance by that patron saint of Extra, Nicolas Cage, and it chose a particularly delicate artform and setting to embed these observations within cooking and Portland. In this we have a small little sad world whose insulation feels like an extension of the character’s moods themselves and makes it all the more profound when they use the culinary experience as a point to reach out with shattering results. A most confident first film that modulates every note perfectly.
(NB: I took a road trip with a friend to Portland ’round last Fall ostensibly to catch a concert but subconsciously also inspired by this movie’s atmosphere)
8. Malignant (dir. James Wan, USA)
There’s no other way to put it: it’s my kind of silly. As a horror movie, this was James Wan’s cashing of all the checks he’s collected as a co-founder of three of the 21st Century’s most popular horror franchises and a reliable enough journeyman for popcorn cinema and I just praise every cosmic force I can that he seems to want the same overblown bullshit that I do: he’s picked and selected a variety of discordant subgenres and touchstones like a buffet with verve and because he and his collaborators want to afford the material as much straight-faced dignity as possible, the bold “big movie” joy this thing exudes out of getting away with every absurd development in this gory psychological-slasher-body-horror police-procedural feels all the more sweeter.
7. Spencer (dir. Pablo Larraín, UK/USA/Germany/Chile)
We’re going from the one out-and-out horror movie in my top ten (though I’m sure there are arguments for aspects of my number four entry) to the only movie on this here list that feels like an experience in frightening the viewer to the point of exhaustion. Kristen Stewart’s Diana is of course already burnt to the ends of her rope by the time we meet her (and one couldn’t imagine a more perfect bit of casting for portraying that mindset) but for the entirety of the film, Claire Mathon and Jonny Greenwood are doing their career-best work making sure we are as tensed as Diana is a la another holiday with relatives who do everything in their power to make your life miserable: Mathon’s murky visuals putting us at the mercy of the movie’s unstable focus and Greenwood’s music even refusing to give us any psychological foothold. If it’s a bit on-the-nose regarding its symbolism and tries to give us a more generous out in its final minutes that feels – at least to me – unconvincing, it’s all about the ride.
6. The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (dir. Wes Anderson, USA)
Probably the most shameless Wes Anderson has ever been as a filmmaker with results that I find wholly rewarding: in a career that I find significantly more self-reflexive than I see it ever getting credit for (for this reason of apologia, a Wes Anderson retrospective has long been a desire to pull off on this blog and I hate that the last two releases he’s had I’ve had no time to come through on that), Anderson challenges himself to translate his range of stylistic flourishes to adapt to several different voices of narration. And then the next steps of the challenge once he’s expanded the world through the stories’ fluid viewpoints is to curate this anthology in a way that makes them in conversation with each other without flattening their individuality. Anyway, it’s a thrill to watch in my eyes and I think it dissects the way the privileged will co-opt the voices of the condemned, the elders will hijack the future of the young, and the white and heterosexual will condescend to the experiences of the non-white and queer without being no-fun or self-flagellating about it. Just hypercritical.
5. Ascension (dir. Jessica Kingdon, USA)
Probably the single reason I’m most glad I took forever to finish this post: I would not have seen it – or the short work of Kingdon – if it weren’t for the movie’s Oscar nomination and I had no idea what it was made up of. Being faced with a godsend combination of Frederick Wiseman’s patient observation on processes and Godfrey Reggio’s poetic assemblage of images and music in a combination that emboldens the power of both elements was one of the year’s best cinematic surprises and it’s clear that Kingdon has a handle on the vocabulary of film editing to make her bold non-verbal statements on the progression of technology in our daily lives as dampening our humanity and turning us into living cogs. Full of enough quiet beauty in its subjectivity to make the alarm swallow more easily.
4. The Tragedy of Macbeth (dir. Joel Coen, USA)
Less interesting as a Shakespeare adaptation and significantly more interesting as an attempt to figure out what Joel Coen’s trajectory is going to be without his brother as a collaborator. Because there is simply nothing within the Coen brothers’ filmography that suggests this was to come: it’s blatantly stagey in a manner that forces us to the manner of its creation more than the story itself, but also with an aesthetic heavily indebted to angular and shadowy Expressionism (with deep blacks that invite the concept that this is a Shakespearean horror movie) that is supposed to be used only in service of amplifying the spiraling minds and darkening hearts of its characters (Alex Hassell particularly doing the best in making that feel like a tangible force within the mechanics of the plot itself but Kathryn Hunter being a one-of-a-kind on-screen presence that contorts and twists herself into an extension of the movie’s marvelous visuals that it’s no surprise she’s my favorite performance of the year). Anyway, not for the theater kids, I guess, barely for Coen brothers fans, but if you were like me and spent an extended amount of time last year enthusiastically revisiting the German silent films of the 1920s, I hope you got the same high as I did. And on top of it all, this has the one soundtrack that challenges my number one as the best of the year…
3. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion, Australia/New Zealand/USA/UK/Canada)
There were better movies in 2020 and at least one that that released earlier in 2021 that assured me that good stuff was trickling down in the post-COVID world, but they were all just arthouse outliers from the mainstream that I had to seek out rather than have brought to me and I don’t know… I shouldn’t go to the Oscars for any validation whatsoever, especially since this only took home one trophy that night. But the fact that this movie spent an extended period of time as the main awards season favorite is an element of endearing “OK, I’m actually finally feeling aligned with the recent film culture” that I still haven’t let go of yet. And it’s not anything particularly subversive or idiosyncratic so it makes sense that it would have been so popular: it’s just Jane Campion proving herself once again one of the great crafters of unorthodox thrillers in cinema as she traps a couple of people in from the oppressive rocky landscape with Benedict Cumberbatch at his most toxic and best and slowly paces out the effects that has on their psychology, similar to Spencer up above but now the outnumbering is on the “victims” rather than the oppressor (it’s probably not for nothing that Greenwood composed the unnerving score here similar to the disorienting score for Spencer). Anyway a real miracle on every level – including making Cumberbatch finally give a great performance and being one of that small handful of Netflix movies that actually looks like a real movie.
2. Days (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)
Probably a movie that lands most if you were already familiar with Tsai’s filmography like I’ve been a long-time fan for, but I also imagine you’d have to be the most stone-walled and impatient filmgoer to have absolutely no response to it. It starts specifically with a shot that helps the viewer calibrate into what kind of movie this is going to be and the things it will ask you to meet it halfway on and then from there tells a pretty straightforward tale about two lives going through their day in casual tranquility before intersecting in a sequence that announces itself as THE moment that matters and even giving us a specific anchor to keep in mind for the remainder of the film. Days is not hand-holding cinema, but it is uninterested in making any of its emotions inaccessible. And that’s for the better given how profound those emotions are, dedicated to reminding us of how bold and deep any intimacy can feel as an interruption to the mundanity of life. It is a warm and generous movie – if also very melancholic and sad – and maybe it just hit me at the right time, nearly a year after I moved to Chicago and spent as much time as possible living with myself and no one else, but hey… that’s subjectivity in moviegoing, baby!
- Memoria (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/Colombia/UK/France/Germany/Mexico/China/Taiwan/USA/Qatar/Switzerland)
And then following up my number two – an extremely open and transparent work of slow cinema by one of the 21st Century’s best South Asian filmmakers telling us what to feel and think – with my number one, a work of slow cinema by one of the 21st Century’s best filmmakers period (even beyond South Asia) that is so closed off and hard to get a hold of that even the distribution method is pain in the ass. It also feels funny to have this top ten open with a Tilda Swinton movie and close with a Tilda Swinton movie (plus she’s in the middle of the list with The French Dispatch), but I guess she just don’t miss. She’s low on the list of reasons Memoria ended up the most affecting viewing experience I’ve had since Portrait of a Lady on Fire (still on the list though). Instead what’s highest is how it takes one simple mystery – that feels at the threat of being abstractified given the way the rest of the main character’s life is taking precedence over figuring out this primordial disruption in her being – and lets that be a mystery. Except if you actually start to poke and prod at it, it starts billowing into quiet observations about the history of a place, the feeling of displacement, the pursuit of abstractions, and of course as the title indicates… memory. The memory of a person, the memory of location, the memory of an object, and the memory of an event, how tough it is to reconstruct these things or face them together and what sort of privileges it takes to either gain or lose a sensation or to be a part of or separated from a community. And Memoria is a movie made up of sensations, the very reason that watching it in a theater in April finally was such a transformative experience in how the beautiful visuals and arhythmic but often serene soundtrack re-shaped everything I felt I had unpacked on my first home viewing, so it uses the lead character’s experience to have every aspect of cinema fire on all possible cylinders. And what makes it feel the most rewarding is how Weeasethakul’s first film outside of his native Thailand takes full advantage of the Colombian setting and the multilingual cast while being totally recognizable from his Modus Operandi: from the stillness of his visuals, to the bisected structuring, and dichotomy between its time spent in the urban city to the rustic countryside. It’s taken a fucking lot for me to maintain an optimism over the last two years that there are definitely masterpieces out there in the future of the artform amid all the changes the world went through, but Memoria finally let me know that yes there are and here’s one.