Monday, January 17, 2022

Our 2021

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the Oscars have still not totally normalized.

Back in the olden days, the hard-and-fast rule was that we would close out our rankings from the previous year on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced. This was usually the second or third week of January, and had been landing pretty reliably between the 10th and 14th of the month in recent years. (I say "we" because I have a friend who does this along with me.)

Last year was obviously an exception, as eligible films were still being released until the end of February, nominations weren't revealed until March and the show itself went up at the end of April. 

Even this year, though, when the eligibility deadline has returned to its previous date of December 31st, the nominations are still lagging behind. We won't know which films get nominated for best picture until February 8th.

Simply put, that's too long to continue the already interminable-feeling home stretch of cramming in 2021 movies.

My friend and I had decided on January 10th as the day to close our rankings, as we did last year, when we chose January 11th. (We chose Monday morning as that has been what the Oscars have been doing lately.) Then we called an audible and changed it to January 17th, which I didn't realize at the time was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (No disrespect is perceived in this choice, I hope, because none is intended.)

Why? A little film called The Tragedy of Macbeth

Because it wasn't coming to AppleTV+ until January 14th, my friend was fretting over his inability to include it this year. I could get to it at the cinema, but I was loath to use one of my limited available theatrical excursions to see it when it would be available for home viewing only a few days after our ranking deadline. 

So we just mutually decided to extend that deadline.

We wouldn't normally make an exception for a single film, but my friend was also trying to set a personal viewing record (he got there), so we just decided to do it -- a decision made easier because January 10th was essentially an arbitrary deadline anyway.

Hopefully in 2023 things will be back to normal and we'll get a mid-January reveal of the Oscar nominations. 

Because of the extra week and other factors that I have already discussed a number of times on this blog, I also set a personal record for movies ranked at the deadline. Not just set, but shattered. My total of 170 is 19 higher than my previous record of 151, set in 2016. That's in a year in which theatrical visits were severely restricted for a good portion of the year. These are the counterintuitive times we live in, I guess.

I won't subject you to any more of this preamble. But before we get on to the good stuff, a quick listing of five titles (in no particular order) that eluded me for one reason or another, which I regret:

1. Petite Maman - Celine Sciamma's follow-up to my cherished Portrait of a Lady on Fire just wasn't available anywhere to me.

2. A Hero - Ditto Asghar Farhadi's latest, which I would have seen at MIFF had the theatrical portion of the program not been cancelled due to COVID.

3. Nightmare Alley - A scheduled advanced screening of Guillermo del Toro's latest had to be cancelled last Tuesday due to COVID (you're seeing a theme here).

4. Memoria - I'm not sure if anyone has actually seen Apichitpong Weerasethakul's latest, given its weird release strategy, and that includes me. 

5. CODA - I heard good things about this year's MIFF opening night film, but it never seemed to become available for rental.

Okay, it's time to get to the list of my best, my worst, and all 170 films I ranked in 2021, starting with a countdown of my top ten:

10. The Tragedy of Macbeth - Speaking of The Tragedy of Macbeth ... I'm glad I was able to fit it in, as it booted out one of my top ten on the final weekend. (Though I'm sorry for that film.) On artistic merit alone, this could shoot much higher on my list and I'd be only too happy to see it go there. Because of a lingering dislike for this play, though, I'm comfortable slotting it in here. Joel Coen's solo adaptation of "the Scottish play" is one of a few recently seen adaptations that has helped me appreciate Macbeth a bit more, and this streamlined version, which seems not to sacrifice any of the choicest bits of Shakespeare's language, removes a lot of the narrative ambiguity the play previously held for me. Not only do you have an otherworldly landscape and black and white cinematography that would have sent Ingmar Bergman into fits of professional jealousy, but you have a perfectly chosen cast, starting with Denzel Washington -- an actor I never thought would have been such a fit for Shakespeare. His conversational, Washington-style engagement with the dialogue helps us understand this character's humanity, and Frances McDormand, her own character's monstrosity. Kathryn Hunter's depiction of the three witches stands out both for the difficulty of her performance and for the eerie encapsulation of Coen's singular vision for the material. And it really is an unforgettable vision. Ethan who?

9. Dune - This is what I wanted from Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner reboot. If you remove the possibility of the story going wrong -- as it's based on one of the most beloved sci-fi novels of all time -- you're left with only the massive spectacle Villeneuve has proven himself capable of staging. Even other people's disappointments with where the story ended weren't a problem for me, because I was reading the book at the time and knew what to expect. Simply put, Dune was one of the most overwhelming experiences I've had at the theater in quite some time, kicking off from the very first moment, when a profound quotation about space is read by a voice both infinitely alien and infinitely alienating. The sound design is where this film begins, on the audio side, but it continues with possibly my favorite score from a man (Hans Zimmer) whose bombastic collaborations with Christopher Nolan had driven me away. That I would have first chosen to discuss two auditory elements before even getting to the visuals is just a measure of what a massive success this is, as the gloriously conceived images of multiple fantasy worlds just dominate and envelope you throughout, and the cast has been perfectly selected to bring their roles to life. To watch Dune is to feel yourself in the presence of prestige, of artists working at the absolute peak of their abilities. I'm a little worried that the events of the novel's second half won't make for a very good sequel. Fortunately, the unqualified brilliance of Dune was a hit with audiences, so we'll get a chance to find out.

8. Saint Maud - Every once in a while, a horror film is creepy enough (like 2016's The Blackcoat's Daughter) or topical enough (like 2020's The Platform) that it makes my top ten list. Saint Maud has both of those things in spades. The most obvious part of Rose Glass' debut feature, after a half-dozen shorts, is the creepy part. The subject matter concerns a highly religious live-in nurse in England, who becomes convinced that the expatriate American artist she's caring for, currently dying of cancer, is possessed by the devil. There's plenty of eerie shit here, as religious horror can be the best sort if it's done correctly (see: The Exorcist). But without calling attention to it, Glass also has her eye on the religious right and the way they impose their morals on everyone around them. Maud (Morfydd Clark) thinks Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) must be a sinner because she has a relationship with a girl who comes to visit her, and throws lavish parties that are entirely lacking in sensible decisions about her health. But is this just Maud's superiority, and is it hypocritical superiority, as it covers up Maud's own checkered past? Is the increasingly agitated Maud able to separate her twisted fantasies from reality? You have to watch this unforgettable debut to find out, and you'll be treated to an incredible vision of spiritual distress. 

7. La Veronica - For the fourth year in a row (following Everybody Knows in 2018, Vivarium in 2019 and The Killing of Two Lovers in 2020), I am ranking a movie I saw at MIFF that other people haven't seen yet in my top ten. Those three all made my top five -- actually my top three. La Veronica could not quite get there but that does not make it any less fantastic. It's a stylistically unique contemplation on the fame and interior emptiness of social media influencers, from Chilean director Leonardo Medel and starring, in a role with an incredible degree of difficulty, Mariana di Girolamo (Ema). The stylistic uniqueness comes from the fact that every shot in the film -- with one small exception -- is a shot of the title character in the exact middle of the frame, the exact same distance from the camera, only in different environments as she navigates her daily influencer duties, her campaign to become the face of a cosmetics company, her severe post-pardom depression and the possible infidelity of her soccer star husband. It's solipsism incarnate. Each shot runs for several minutes and requires perfection from di Girolamo, which she gives throughout. As I said in the final line of my review on ReelGood, "It's a searing portrait of the toxicity of the self." And it's incredible, so you should see it as soon as someone deems it fit to give you the chance. (The movie started making the festival rounds in 2020 but has not yet found distribution, apparently.)

6. Swan Song
- This is the first year since I've been ranking movies that I've seen two movies with the same title in the same year. Spoiler alert: Only one of them made my top ten, though the other did make my top 20. This one is directed by Benjamin Cleary, an AppleTV+ original in which Mahershala Ali gives one of the best performances of the year in a dual role, as both himself and his clone. In a year in which films about fatherhood seemed to hit me pretty hard, this one did as well. It features a future where cloning is a secret new technology that makes it possible to replace a human being, including his memories, in his family context, leaving all of them none the wiser -- except the original man, who deteriorates with a fatal illness in a remote scientific facility as his family goes on with their lives, believing he's still with them. Whether to do this or not -- to say goodbye to your son and wife when they don't know they're saying goodbye to you -- is the intellectual and emotional crux of this fascinating film. This is the film in my top ten I am most concerned about rewatching in order to confirm its legitimacy as a top ten film, because I was in an admittedly vulnerable emotional place at the time I saw it, less than 48 hours before I moved out of the house I had been living in for eight-plus years. I think it'll hold up under normal conditions, though, both for its immaculately conceived vision of a near future, and for capturing emotions that are timeless. 

5. Drive My Car
- I hadn't even heard of Drive My Car until late December, and was not expecting to have a chance at it, since it's not even open yet in most of the U.S. But it fell into my lap when I got a screener link to review it ahead of its February 10th Australian release. Then there was the issue of it being the longest film of the year at 179 minutes. I overcame all these obstacles to select Ryusuke Hamaguchi's adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story in my top five for the year. Unlike the other very long recent adaptation of a Murakami short, Burning, Drive My Car's meditative rhythms and slow build toward unbearable emotional intensity totally clicked with me. It's the story of an actor and theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as he works on a multilingual staging of Chekov's Uncle Vanya, where actors speak in their own languages (including sign language) and a screen above the stage translates. That's about all I really want to tell you about the plot, because certain things will come as a surprise even though Hamaguchi doesn't necessarily structure them that way. Narrative surprises are too pedestrian an artistic approach for this film, which doesn't suggest it is complicated or hard to follow -- it is actually extremely straightforward. Hamaguchi just knows that the key to an engrossing story with emotional potency is to spend a long and leisurely sojourn with its characters, as ever more is revealed about their actions and motivations. The resulting film grapples with loss and regret and the ways disparate characters, some of whom should be enemies, are bonded through shared human experience. Just sign up for the three hours -- it's time well spent.  

4. The Last Duel - One director I never expected to make my top ten was Ridley Scott, because you know what? He had directed 16 films since I started ranking my movies in 1996, and not a one of them has cracked my top ten. I guess all he had to do was marry his undeniable technical gifts for staging epic subject matter with a script that gave a real event in 14th century France all the immediacy of our 21st century social discourse. The different voices present in The Last Duel -- it was written by the intriguing motley crew of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener -- are a good metaphor for the film, which considers the perspectives of, appropriately, two men and a woman on the rape of the woman, and the duel to the death between the other two that was designed to prove the veracity of the charge. Depending on who won that duel, either one or two of those three would be dead at the end of it -- because if the woman's husband failed to kill the accused rapist, it was seen by the courts as proof that she was lying, which carried her own (very painful) death sentence. Not only does the Roshomon-style story have major implications in our #metoo era, but the six primary collaborators -- Adam Driver and Jodie Comer join Damon and Affleck on screen -- consider other urgent modern matters like Trump-style cronyism and the divide between the haves and have nots. What I may have found most interesting about the movie is that even when the very flawed characters played by Damon and Driver tell their side of the story, their own self-presentations are colored by a blindness to their own monstrous behavior, weaknesses presented as virtues. Privilege gets the most wicked skewering in this rousing spectacle that confirms our human faults have continued to repeat themselves throughout history.

3. The Father - The ambiguity about which movie came out in which year had some benefits, which was that I decided I had good reason to rank The Father this year -- even though Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for it last year. Any time I see a film I love this much, I long to be able to include it in my top ten list, and the release and Oscar eligibility rules were goofy enough that I just decided to interpret them as I saw fit. You might assume The Father resonated with me because I have recently lost a parent who had Alzheimer's. You'd only be partially correct. The Father resonates with me more than anything because of its exquisite filmmaking, only one part of which was the searing portrayal of dementia that somehow legitimized Hopkins' Oscar upset of Chadwick Boseman. Director Florian Zeller could have asked Hopkins to carry the whole film, and he would have obliged, but Zeller's shrewd sense of how to amplify Hopkins' condition through manipulation of the sets and Hopkins' fellow actors went beyond the needs of a film that could have easily just been an acting showcase. Zeller really recreates the confusion surrounding our protagonist, also named Anthony, who alternates from jolly tap dancing to lashing out and back again. You would too if different actors were playing your loved ones from one scene to the next, and a hallway led to a different part of the house today than it did yesterday. That's dementia for you. The film culminates with my most emotionally potent moment of the whole year -- maybe either 2020 or 2021.   

2. Bo Burnham: Inside
- Bo Burnham may have been responsible for 2021's most vital and exciting use of the tools of cinema. Yes, I said "cinema" -- I will not tolerate any suggestion that this is "just" a comedy special, or is even primarily that, given that 1) there is no audience, and 2) no comedy special I've ever heard of has an entire soundtrack of amazing music, which I listened to more than any other in 2021. Burnham took his year-long indoor COVID sentence and turned it into a brilliantly conceived and executed, one-man tour de force that tackles every political and social ill of our times, wrapped up in crippling depression, plus all the ways the internet eats its own tail -- witness the Russian nesting doll of reaction videos pictured here. Miraculously, Burnham never forgets to be funny. His improbable mixture of tones is never better exemplified than the song that earned the biggest external life of its own, "White Woman's Instagram." In the middle of a spot-on evisceration of white privilege, Burnham sucker punches us with the film's most unexpectedly poignant moment. In among all her miniature pumpkins and quotes from Lord of the Rings attributed to Martin Luther King (whose legacy we are celebrating today), the character admits to missing her mother, who died ten years ago, listing for her the ways she has come good in the world -- and asking her to give a hug to Dad. Is this woman's desperate quest for validation just a life-long reaction to losing not one, but both of her parents? One moment she is Burnham's ultimate fool. The next, she is just a human being with the needs we all share -- particularly Burnham himself, who is the most merciless victim of his own satire, a rich white guy torn between trying to change the world and clearing the way for others better qualified to do it.

1. Our Friend
- Welcome to the least critically acclaimed movie I have ever selected as my #1. Oh, I think the people who saw Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Our Friend liked it well enough, but they were spread out over a couple years, as the film premiered at TIFF in 2019 before finally garnering a limited theatrical release this past January, of all months. Some ardent fans notwithstanding, and despite starring a great trio of actors (Jason Segel, Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson), it was basically lost in the shuffle. Well, I'm here to tell you this is a profound achievement both in films about terminal illness and films about friendship. Cowperthwaite, known primarily to me as a director of documentaries (Blackfish), has assembled a lyrical, challengingly structured adaptation of journalist Matthew Teague's article "The Friend," about how his and his wife's mutual friend Dane (Segel) supported them and their two daughters following Nicole Teague's terminal cancer diagnosis. What sounds like a non-stop bummer is actually an engrossing contemplation of our interpersonal duties to the people we love, who are rarely as perfect as most disease movies make them out to be. The stellar trio of performances -- and a fourth from child actor Stella Kai -- made me cry once on my first viewing, and about six times on the viewing a week ago that served as confirmation of my choice. Segel in particular astonishes as a man going nowhere who finds a purpose in just being there for this family as they struggle through the worst time in their lives. The film also shows the history of his relationship with Matthew and Nicole -- whom he asked out before realizing she was married -- interspersed throughout the narrative. It's funny and sad and ultimately life affirming, in the best possible sense of that fraught phrase. It's also thematically compatible with COVID, a time when we've all put our lives on hold, not worried about where we're going or where we've been, and tried to find one thing we could do to make this moment in time more tolerable. This is a touching tribute to all the Danes out there, and it's my favorite of the year.

Congratulations to Burnham, Villeneuve and Coen, making their second (Eighth Grade), third (EnemySicario) and fourth (Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) trips to my top ten as directors, respectively. That puts Joel Coen alone in first place as the director who has made my most top tens of all time, breaking a previous tie with (deep breath) Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and of course his own brother Ethan.

Now on to the bad news. Here are my five worst films of 2021:

5. Jolt - An idiotic female John Wick-style action movie starring Kate Beckinsale, in which the gimmick is that she has rage control issues and must give herself periodic electrical shocks to keep from unloading on the nearest person guilty of the most minor microaggression. Sounds like a good idea until you see how poorly the gimmick is used and/or executed ... oh, and until you see the scene where our hero throws a baby in a maternity ward as a means of misdirection.

4. The Woman in the Window - This laughable rip-off of Rear Window has that gross sheen of airport paperback fiction, which may not be surprising as it's an adaptation of exactly that. Can you say the movie wastes the talents of director Joe Wright if he's the one wasting his own talents? He's clearly wasting Amy Adams' talents as this is an absurd misfire full of incorrectly modulated performances and dumb twists. Just a shameful waste of celluloid -- or maybe these days I should say gigabytes. 

3. Every Breath You Take - Do we really need an extremely basic psychological thriller in which a handsome stranger seduces and ultimately stalks a family recovering from a trauma in the Pacific Northwest? Director Vaughn Stein (that's gotta be a fake name) thinks so. I thought they stopped making these movies in the 1990s. Stein stopped making this movie on day two or three of the shoot.

2. Sweet Girl - If my bottom five movies of the year are laden with groan-inducing twists in bad thrillers, Sweet Girl has easily the worst, which for some reason I will not spoil. Let's just say it's one of those movies where when you get to the twist, you just say "Nuh uh" for everything else that has happened to this point. It's extremely poorly directed, with the normally charismatic Jason Momoa particularly hamstrung by director Brian Andrew Mendoza's cluelessness.

1. The Matrix Resurrections - I normally find myself in the position of defending reboots, so this is a strange outcome for me. In a year I didn't hate many movies, the latest Matrix earns its spot in the all-time hall of shame by being the most disappointed, the most bored, the most confused and the most annoyed I was by any movie I saw this year. Lana Wachowski's jokey meta interpretation of her own disinterest in making another Matrix movie was a massive tonal misfire, and to make matters worse, the film is ugly and poorly executed with extremely uneven performances. Whoa indeed. 

Before we get to the whole list, I need to remind you that I ranked 170 films this year. That means my top 85 are all in the upper half of my rankings. So if a film you loved is lower than you might expect, remember there was a lot of competition this year. 


1. Our Friend
2. Bo Burnham: Inside
3. The Father
4. The Last Duel
5. Drive My Car
6. Swan Song (Benjamin Cleary)
7. La Veronica
8. Saint Maud
9. Dune
10. The Tragedy of Macbeth
11. Sing 2
12. The Disciple
13. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
14. The Suicide Squad
15. Fatherhood
16. Shadow in the Cloud
17. The Power of the Dog
18. Passing
19. Summer of Soul (... or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
20. Swan Song (Todd Stephens)
21. The Rescue
22. The Harder They Fall
23. The Lost Daughter
24. Long Story Short
25. Language Lessons
26. Stowaway
27. Oxygen
28. Those Who Wish Me Dead
29. Val
30. Minari
31. Fear Street Part Two: 1978
32. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
33. Don't Look Up
34. Fear Street Part Three: 1666
35. Wish Dragon
36. The Nowhere Inn
37. The White Tiger
38. Penguin Bloom
39. Spider-Man: No Way Home
40. Licorice Pizza
41. Space Jam: A New Legacy
42. Psycho Goreman
43. Nine Days
44. King Richard
45. The Worst Person in the World
46. The Truffle Hunters
47. All Light, Everywhere
48. Luca
49. The Velvet Underground
50. The Dry
51. Candyman
52. Afterlife of the Party
53. Black as Night
54. The Green Knight
55. Ballad of a White Cow
56. Riders of Justice
57. The Dig
58. We Are the Thousand
59. Malignant
60. No Time to Die
61. Cruella
62. Ninjababy
63. Gunda
64. Judas and the Black Messiah
65. Best Sellers
66. Ghostbusters: Afterlife
67. Space Sweepers
68. Raya and the Last Dragon
69. In the Heights
70. Lamb
71. Belfast
72. Spencer
73. Encanto
74. West Side Story
75. Worth
76. The Courier
77. Tick, Tick ... BOOM!
78. Cinderella
79. House of Gucci
80. One Second
81. The Night
82. Pig
83. Beckett
84. I Care a Lot
85. Music
86. Finch
87. Being the Ricardos
88. A Quiet Place Part II
89. Malcolm & Marie
90. The Voyeurs
91. The Many Saints of Newark
92. My Name is Gulpilil
93. Awake
94. Blood Red Sky
95. Palmer
96. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
97. Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed
98. About Endlessness
99. Vivo
100. Till Death
101. The Card Counter
102. The Scary of Sixty-First
103. Annette
104. Ron's Gone Wrong
105. Coming Home in the Dark
106. Willy's Wonderland
107. Everybody's Talking About Jamie
108. The Guilty
109. The Tomorrow War
110. Titane
111. Night of the Kings
112. Streamline
113. The Godmother
114. Tom Clancy's Without Remorse
115. Percy vs. Goliath
116. Jungle Cruise
117. The Eyes of Tammy Faye
118. Things Heard & Seen
119. A Brixton Tale
120. Rage
121. Old
122. Madres
123. Army of the Dead
124. Coming 2 America
125. Earwig and the Witch
126. City of Lies
127. Lapsis
128. Free Guy
129. Cherry
130. Chaos Walking
131. Black Widow
132. The Food Club
133. America: The Motion Picture
134. Night Teeth
135. Fear Street Part One: 1994
136. The Manor
137. Eternals
138. C'mon C'mon
139. Zola
140. Gunpowder Milkshake
141. Ride the Eagle
142. There's Someone Inside Your House
143. Nitram
144. Dog Gone Trouble
145. Red Rocket
146. Red Notice
147. Spiral: From the Book of Saw
148. Fast & Furious 9
149. Mortal Kombat
150. Moxie
151. The French Dispatch
152. Last Night in Soho
153. The Unholy
154. Royal Jelly
155. The Starling
156. Bingo Hell
157. Reminiscence
158. Nobody
159. Hurrah, We Are Still Alive!
160. Godzilla vs. Kong
161. Good on Paper
162. Bad Trip
163. Dear Evan Hansen
164. He's All That
165. Thunder Force
166. Jolt
167. The Woman in the Window
168. Every Breath You Take
169. Sweet Girl
170. The Matrix Resurrections

And ending with five films with potentially controversial rankings that I felt like I needed to explain:

11. Sing 2 - Would have been the first animated sequel in my top ten since Toy Story 2 had Macbeth not displaced it. What can I say, I loved this movie.

32. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar - As much as I loved everything this was going for, it only got 75% of the way there for me. 

54. The Green Knight - See my comment for Barb and Star.

69. In the Heights - Would have been much higher if the last hour didn't draaaaaag.

151./152. - The French Dispatch/Last Night in Soho - My 1-2 punch of directors I've loved in the past who really pissed me off with their latest films. 

Okay, I'd love to hear what you think! Speak now (in the comments section) or forever hold your peace! (Actually, this is a blog so it will be up forever, until they take down the internet. Speak at some point in the future as I would love to hear what I got right and wrong.)

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