The Best (and Worst) of 2021

The calendar has finally turned over, and of course, because we just can’t have nice things, the universe decided to take Betty White out at the last fucking minute. But anyway, the official book has closed on 2021, a year where we almost, kinda, sort of got back to something resembling normal, only for the dumbest among us to weigh us down again. A year where we finally got a sane leader back in Washington, but not before the most hateful among us, including the outgoing guy, staged a failed coup that they now pretend didn’t even happen, and what’s worse, enough idiots in this country will believe it to put those very traitors back into power come November. A year where the sports world resumed in full force, to the delight of all, only for Tom fucking Brady to win another Super Bowl. Let’s just say, it was a mixed bag.

But the major relief for me was that I was able to get back to the movies. It took a couple months longer than I would have liked, but the theatre experience returned, and I was more grateful than I could have imagined, because even in the worst moments of the pandemic, I never thought it would last so long that I would literally lose a year of my favorite activity.

As such, between the return to theatres and the simultaneous streaming release model for some of the studios, I still managed to get in much more viewing than I did in 2020. Even discounting the first two months, which are part of the previous year’s canon, I ended 2021 with 107 features under my belt, close to half of them just in the last two months as I tried to frontload the foreign films and documentaries. It’s not the highest output I’ve ever had (I think that was 111 a few years ago), but under the circumstances, I think I did alright.

Obviously, that number will go up over the next few weeks and months as we get closer to the Oscars, as my annual quest to see everything nominated remains in full force. In anticipation, I’m already planning to catch up on movies I missed over the course of the year that might still get a nod come February, and once the nominations do come out, I’ll obviously be in Blitz mode to clear off any stragglers.

But for now, the number stands at 107, and with the page flipped and the balls dropped, it’s time to look back on the year that was in cinema. In a normal year, I do a midpoint recap in July. I didn’t do this the last two years, for obvious reasons in 2020, and in 2021 because I was trying to make it into a YouTube video and couldn’t work out the logistics. But I’m not skipping out on the year-end recap anytime soon, so it’s time to relive the year we’ve just shed one more time. For better and worse, this was 2021 in movies, for me at least.

The 10 Worst Films of 2021

10. Oasis
There was very little to enjoy about Serbia’s Academy submission. A teenage love triangle at a home for the mentally-handicapped? Who the hell would find that compelling? Also, just for shits and giggles, our ostensible lead is ugly as sin. I know that sounds mean and shallow, but I’m a child of the 80s and 90s. I’ve seen extremely hot actors and regular-looking ones, and within the contexts of their respective stories, I could believe a romantic angle if done right. Well, would you want to watch the female equivalent of Sloth from The Goonies steal another girl’s boyfriend and make her jealous to the point of suicide? No, you would not. That’s Oasis.

9. Stillwater
The Amanda Knox case is one of the most sordid, horrible stories in recent memory about a massive miscarriage of justice. So what better way to explore that modern travesty than by a melodramatic exercise in American Exceptionalism that out and out lies about the actual facts of the case? Oh sure, sure, they change the names so it’s technically not libel, but that doesn’t excuse this awful attempt to spin tragedy into an opportunity to assert how great we are. Even with a tremendous cast featuring Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin, there is just no saving this maudlin tripe masquerading as a quest for truth.

8. The Great Movement
Bolivia’s entry is not the worst of all the International Feature hopefuls I saw this year, but it’s damn close. Poorly acted, no story, and way too long of a buildup to the acid trip the synopsis promises. The director clearly has his influences, particularly Dario Argento, and I can appreciate that, but when the best thing about your film is its homage to someone far superior, that’s not saying all that much. If you want a good bit of psychedelia, then you can watch a similar scene from In the Earth, which wasn’t all that good of a film, but at least the payoff was worth the wait.

7. Thunder Force
The kindest thing you can say about this wholly ill-advised superhero spoof from Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer is that it’s largely forgettable. Honestly, I had to double and triple check my own notes to be absolutely sure it was from last year, rather than an accidental copy/paste from my 2020 rankings. There is a bit of fun with McCarthy and Jason Bateman having weird crab claw/raw chicken sex, an all-too-brief reminder that these really are highly-competent comedic actors. But everything else about this movie is pure dreck. And yet, it wasn’t the worst superhero movie of the year.

6. Zero to Hero
Now we have the bottom of the International barrel. Hong Kong’s entry, about their first Paralympian gold medalist, is filled to the brim with every sports movie cliché in the book, with the added cringe of its star putting on a performance that makes Forrest Gump look like a fucking Rhodes Scholar. Now, I don’t know if they actor they hired has cerebral palsy like the character or not. Frankly, I don’t care. For me, it’s not automatically insulting for a person to do a role outside their established demographics. If you can make me believe it, then I’ve got no objections. It’s this weird new thing called acting. That said, whether the actor was fully able-bodied or not, the performance of his mental handicap was so far over the top that it felt gratuitous and parodical, and that’s where people can get easily offended. And when your inspirational sports hero comes off like a MadTV sketch from 1994, then you’ve come up well fucking short.

5. Cruella
I wasn’t lying in my review when I said it wasn’t the worst movie I’d seen to that point, but that didn’t mean it was anywhere close to good, either. Yet another retcon/remake/prequel live-action bullshit re-rendering from Disney, this time of another great villain from its animated past, Cruella goes even fuller with the insult to our collective intelligence, recasting a woman so obsessed with furs that she wanted 99 puppies killed and skinned for a coat as an ambitious fashion disruptor and iconoclast of the London punk scene. Fuck. You.

Almost nothing in this film worked, even reliably great actors like Emma Stone. Only Emma Thompson came close to saving this completely illogical bullshit that among other things, posits that Cruella de Vil actually bred Pongo and Perdita to give them to Roger and Anita, and thus engineer the events of the original animated movie… that takes place at least 10 years prior to the events of this one. Apart from her, you’ve got eyepatch puppy. That’s basically it. And now for 20 needle drops that no one asked for.

4. Mortal Kombat
My god what a missed opportunity! Here you have a legitimate chance, with decades of special effects development, story evolution, and just sheer fan willpower to make a genuine, serious, non-camp Mortal Kombat movie. And for the first 10 minutes, it seemed we’d actually have it, with the balls-to-the-wall opening backstory between the eventual Scorpion and Sub-Zero. There was cool fight choreography, earned pathos, some bitching visuals, and the movie fully committed itself to the R-rating by not skimping out on the blood and gore.

After that it was an endless slog of boring. Instead of the epic tournament we all know and love, we got an entire movie of table-setting, nothing more than a feature-length tease for the sequel. How much more wrong could you honestly go? Well, somehow this movie found a way. Introducing Scorpion then shelving him until the end? Check. Giving us a genuinely fun version of Kano only to kill him off halfway? Check. Creating a monumentally dumb and dull protagonist so you can save Johnny Cage until the sequel, thus not giving us the full original seven Kombatants? Check. Neutering Goro? Check. Making our villains into an absolute joke of a non-threat with Shang-Tsung leading a bunch of forgotten, fourth-tier scrub characters we don’t care about? Check and mate! This was a monumental fuckup.

3. Godzilla vs. Kong
This movie did two things right in comparison with the previous Godzilla movies. One, it gave us more actual monster fighting, which was frustratingly scarce before. Two, it moved those fights into better lit areas so we could actually see them for once.

Unfortunately, once the fights came into the light, we saw that they were just shitty CGI cartoons that made no logical sense whatsoever. And in the movie’s desperate search for a fucking plot to all this madness, they decided to have Millie Bobby Brown and Brian Tyree Henry be batshit insane conspiracy theorists who somehow Scooby-Doo their way into proving themselves right about an evil corporation. Oh, and there’s a “Hollow Earth” where our planet’s core should be, where gravity abides by the director’s whim, and there’s somehow sunlight despite being thousands of miles below the surface. Cinema!

2. The Unholy
Christianity-based horror films are usually terrible, and this one was no exception. From the moment you hear Cary Elwes try to do a New England accent, or Negan from Walking Dead giving a formerly deaf girl the gift of “music” via a Billie Eilish CD, all you can do is laugh at how utterly fucked all of this is. If this were a horror parody, it could almost have worked, but somehow, this was meant to be legitimate with proper scares and suspense, which only made the absurdities and failures stick out even more.

Ostensibly this is a film about a disgraced reporter finding his faith once again through observing an alleged miracle that is actually a demonic possession. Not the greatest idea, but also not doomed from page one. It’s in the execution where this falls woefully short, with monumentally silly twists and turns in the story, cliché after cliché, and so many lame jump scares that I had to institute my new “Jump Fail” policy for overuse of the trope.

1. Eternals
From a pure production standpoint, this isn’t the worst film of the year. But no movie pissed me off more than this naked exercise in Disney’s corporate hubris, taking everything we love (and a few things we hate) about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and throwing it back in our collective faces, telling us that none of it matters, and neither do we, so long as we serve our purpose of keeping their wallets fat. It took days for me to process my rage into what eventually made it into my review, because after spending literally hundreds of dollars on these films over the years, Disney had the audacity to be this obvious in telling the audience how much it really thinks of us. I was disgusted.

From the convoluted “twist” that explains the bad guys’ (and Disney’s) true intentions, to the shoehorned diversity casting with no actual purpose or accuracy, to the embarrassingly bad CGI, to the absolutely horrid pacing where assembling this new team of heroes we’re supposed to care about ends up killing half of them before they’re even all together, it was a nightmare to see just how low the MCU could go. This was so bad that it shook my confidence going forward for anything Disney and Marvel put out. Thankfully Spider-Man: No Way Home redeemed things a bit, but the best I’ll be able to muster for anything coming over the next few years will be cautious optimism. Because this movie? This movie felt like abuse. This movie felt like a smack in the face, followed by a middle finger, a turd on the carpet, and sugar in our gas tanks as reward for over a decade of fandom. It should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us to at minimum lay some ground rules for our engagement with this franchise in future.

***

Now, onto some more pleasant stuff. Before I reveal the best individual films, I like to have a go-round and look at a bunch of highs and lows for the year, as if I was running my own miniature Oscars or Razzies. Most of this will be good stuff, don’t worry.

Most Underrated Film of 2021
Shiva Baby

Most Overrated Film of 2021
The remake of West Side Story

Best Animated Film
Flee, followed by The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Best Actor Nominees
Nicolas Cage – Pig
Adam Driver – Annette
Udo Kier – Swan Song
Will Smith – King Richard
Dan Stevens – I’m Your Man

Best Actress Nominees
Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter
Alana Haim – Licorice Pizza
Patti Harrison – Together Together
Jennifer Hudson – Respect
Rachel Sennott – Shiva Baby

Supporting Actor Nominees
Mike Faist – West Side Story
Ciarán Hinds – Belfast
Bill Murray – The French Dispatch
J.K. Simmons – Being the Ricardos
Benedict Wong – Nine Days

Supporting Actress Nominees
Jessie Buckley – The Lost Daughter
Judi Dench – Belfast
Anya Taylor-Joy – Last Night in Soho
Olga Merediz – In the Heights
Suzanna Son – Red Rocket

Best Director Nominees
Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza
Kenneth Branagh – Belfast
Leos Carax – Annette
Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter
Denis Villeneuve – Dune

Best Scene of 2021

Apart from a brief moment of jump cut continuity errors centering on the pouring of wine, this scene is five and a half minutes of devastating beauty bordering on perfection. In his quest to retrieve his stolen truffle pig, former chef-turned-hermit Robin Feld (Nicolas Cage) ends up at a fancy gimmick restaurant owned by a former line cook of his, played by David Knell. Over the next few minutes, Cage calmly eviscerates Knell over the artificiality of the restaurant industry, which is why he left in the first place, electing to spend his days hunting truffles and living in the woods. But Cage never once makes this about himself. This is about Knell’s character, how he sold out his dreams for profit by following trends rather than taking a risk and doing what he really wanted to do, which was to open a British pub that served as its signature dish, “Liver Scotch eggs with a honey cream mustard,” which sounds absolutely divine.

In one fell swoop, Cage calls Knell out on his bullshit and his fears, while at the same time assuring him that chasing your dreams is still worth doing. This is a man who only worked for Feld for two months before being fired for overcooking pasta, and yet Feld has such a strong memory and such a passion for individuality and moral right that he still remembers this otherwise mundane figure, and his ambitions, enough to reinforce it. This is tough love at its finest, because without ever actually saying the words, Cage tells Knell to abandon the charade and go for broke. It’s crushing to have such a direct indictment of everything you’ve done, but the deep, insightful honesty makes it altogether inspirational. There were a lot of great individual scenes last year, but this one has stuck out in my head more than any other since the first time I saw it.

Biggest Disappointment of 2021
This goes to The Last Duel, which is a tremendous film, to the point of being Best Picture quality, except for a horrendous story decision made in the third act which nearly brought down the entire movie. The three principle players in this medieval rape drama (Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer) all deliver the same sequence of events from their own perspective, with each section prefaced with a title slate reading, “The Truth, According to [Character].” This is a fine framing device akin to Rashomon, but Ridley Scott makes one crucial error, and that’s having Comer’s section, which comes last, have the titles fade out to reveal only, “The Truth.” In doing so, he renders the previous 90 minutes utterly meaningless, creating an explicit bias that her version of events is the only one that counts. And wouldn’t you know it, she’s smarter than everyone else, everybody treats her like shit, and she’s an utter saint in all matters. There’s no nuance to any of it, yet we’re supposed to disregard everything we’ve seen up to this point and sympathize solely with her.

If you don’t make that stupid fade move, this is arguably the best film of the year, taking an historical event without much of a factual record behind it, given the times, and presenting it with a thoughtful amount of conflicting perspectives where the truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle, with everyone guilty of something and innocent of another. Instead, Scott picked a side, asserted it as truth without any way to back up the claim, and directly told the audience that they wasted their time paying attention to the first two acts. The move even undermined one of the more awesome production aspects, which was the costuming. Throughout the first two versions of the story, we see Damon and Driver wearing black clothing whenever they do something wrong, regardless of who’s telling the story. In Comer’s version, she wears black as she watches the titular duel, knowing that if her husband loses, she dies too. Without that fade out, this raises a gorgeous bit of ambiguity into the proceedings, because it represents her self-doubt. Maybe she misremembered certain events, maybe it was wrong to go about her accusations the way she did. Maybe, just maybe, it was consensual. We don’t know in reality, but we’re not allowed to not know within the movie, because Scott abandoned his coolest subtle element and picked a side for the sake of a dramatic effect that didn’t materialize. It didn’t destroy the film’s prospects, but it certainly made it take a significant hit.

Most Pleasant Surprise of 2021
That would be the Fear Street trilogy. Released on Netflix over the course of three weeks, this trio of slasher films presented homage-driven stories, outstanding kills, and legitimate suspense. Based on R.L. Stine’s more adult novels pre-Goosebumps, each film takes place in a different time frame, with some members of the cast reappearing as needed in different generational forms, and the absolute slew of references are largely accurate to the periods represented.

In doing so, the films gave us a sort of “greatest hits” edition of all the best moments and styles of cinematic horror, from sieges to slashers, promiscuous teens to pontificating preachers, and with few bumps in the overall road, it works to great effect. Most importantly, for any true horror fan, they did not skimp out on the gore. The bloodbaths are visceral and graphic, just as they should be, because there’s no greater tribute to the genre than to bathe the lens in guts from time to time. This could have been superfluous nonsense. Instead, with the notable exception of Malignant, this was the highest achievement in horror for the year.

Best Running Gag in a Movie

How could I not? This never failed to make me laugh, and it’s a perfect example of just how delightfully bonkers The Mitchells vs. The Machines was.

***

And with that, we come to the finale, the greatest films of the year. Normally I do 20, so as to have twice as much positive as the negative list that starts the recap. But just to be cheeky, I’ll literally go one better for the sake of synergy with the calendar.

The Top 21 of ’21!

21. Red Rocket
It is no easy feat to make an audience root for an unlikable character, but Simon Rex and Suzanna Son make it work admirably in this indie darling about a disgraced porn star returning to his rural Texas hometown to attempt to rebuild his life. It’s funny, poignant, more erotic than I thought possible, and a great cautionary tale of hubris, with the downfall of Rex’s character feeling oh so satisfying because we get to see the whole way how no one buys into his bullshit except his randy ingenue.

20. The Tragedy of Macbeth
I mean, I liked it so much that I wrote the entire review in iambic pentameter. What more can I really say?

19. C’mon C’mon
The unquestioned tearjerker champion of 2021, C’mon C’mon is both parts a documentary on the hope for the future and a treatise on coping with mental illness. It’s a crash course in child psychology and the sweetest possible depiction of human bonding and relationships. I have already dubbed it the “Uncle Bill” movie, because if I can be half as good a role model for my nephew as Joaquin Phoenix is here, I’ll know I’ve done my job well.

18. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Disney and Pixar dominate the animation industry, but as far as mainstream cartoons went, Sony takes the title as far as I’m concerned. After the unforgivable disaster that was The Emoji Movie, the studio finally righted the ship and gave us a much more profound and insightful movie that relates to our overreliance on technology. But more importantly, it’s batshit crazy in all the best ways, taking risks for comedy instead of defaulting to rote poop jokes. And just for good measure, you get a genuine family drama and an under-the-radar queer protagonist, whereas almost any other movie would make that latter bit the only aspect of the main character’s personality.

17. Shiva Baby
The ultimate exception that proves the rule regarding why cringe comedy doesn’t work, this brilliantly claustrophobic feature-length panic attack plays so brilliantly with the main character’s anxieties that you actually find catharsis in her crisis. Throw in some legitimate pathos and some brutally frank discussions on sexuality, and you’ve got the sleeper indie hit of the year and what should be an absolute starmaking role for Rachel Sennott.

16. 8-Bit Christmas
I can’t stress enough how much I loved this movie. Even if it is just an update on A Christmas Story in its most basic terms, I was amazed at how well it subverted certain tropes while enhancing others, played perfectly into nostalgia without it become trite or treacly, and Neil Patrick Harris was an absolutely perfect cipher for all the madcap antics.

15. Escape From Mogadishu
Although it didn’t make the December shortlist, South Korea’s Oscar submission was a genuinely affecting, suspenseful account of a situation where bitter enemies have to set aside their differences for the sake of mutual survival in a war zone. Mixing the best elements from Argo and Black Hawk Down, what really sells the movie for me is the fact that it’s diplomacy and guile that win the day rather than military might.

14. Procession
Shortlisted for Documentary Feature, this heart-wrenching exercise in art therapy is one of the most essential films of the year. Five grown men who were abused by Catholic clergy, but who never got justice, are given the chance to process their grief through writing and shooting short films reenacting their trauma. The film pulls no punches, and the men’s collective healing process is hard to watch, because while we all know what goes on, we rarely see it depicted on screen, so you have to truly confront what’s been happening for decades to fully appreciate it. Also, the young child actor they cast to play the victim in each of their vignettes is an amazing trooper, given all the emotional and thematic weight he has to shoulder throughout this experiment.

13. The Rescue
Another shortlisted documentary, The Rescue sees the team from the Oscar-winning Free Solo map out the harrowing rescue of a rural Thailand youth soccer team that was trapped in a flooded cave a few years ago. We watched the drama unfold in news updates, but this film gives us the whole story, as told by the people who pulled off one of the most unlikely operations in human history. It’s one of the best examples of how truth can be more exciting than fiction, as the film plays out like a suspenseful Hollywood blockbuster, except there is no artistic license taken, no scripting, no hero shots. This is just how it happened, and by pure coincidence the reality by itself is more compelling than most dramatized films that could be possibly made from this scenario.

12. A Hero
Asghar Farhadi is the unquestioned leader in Iranian cinema, and he may be in line for this third Oscar win with his latest project. A solemn tale of the difficulties of shedding a criminal past, and a testament to how no good deed goes unpunished, Farhadi succeeds in droves with the same essential element he’s placed in all his movies, a deep, empathetic view for every character, even when their actions are in conflict. Without condoning or condemning anyone, Farhadi makes sure to have every character’s motivations make sense within the context of their personal situations, even if they’re abhorrent. He also has a unique ability to show the world how his country lives and gets us to understand it in relatable terms. No better was this illustrated than by the fact that the central debt that keeps our protagonist incarcerated is the equivalent of about $35 American. It’s a glaring example of how easily the problems of his people could be fixed while also giving Westerners a proper context for how his entire country operates without casting judgment on anyone.

11. Flee
In a year where the animated pickings were slim, we have what could be a history-maker depending on how the Academy’s various branches vote in the coming weeks. Flee is not only the best animated film of the year, but it is arguably the best feature documentary, and as it comes from reigning champions Denmark, it could also win International Feature. The truly amazing story of a gay Afghani refugee escaping his country and making it to Copenhagen, where he now lives an almost unbelievably normal life, is one of the most shocking, heartbreaking, and ultimately inspirational stories put out in recent memory. It’s genuinely affecting from beginning to end, as sometimes even recalling the past is difficult or too traumatic for our subject. The animation is simple, but conveys so much emotion through rich character designs and clever light manipulation. On a technological level it doesn’t stack up with the likes of Pixar, but as a device to convey its story, it does better than any other animated film last year by a long shot.

10. Pig
Every once in a while, it’s good to know that Nicolas Cage is still all there. This could have been a gratuitous revenge fantasy, like John Wick for truffle pigs. Instead it’s a deliberate, thoughtful character study about a man who willingly abandoned the phoniness of his life, only for that very artifice to come for him and rob him of what little dignity he had left, and Cage plays it absolutely perfectly. He does more damage with a subdued stare than he ever could with his leitmotif of just going nuts for the sake of going nuts.

9. The Sparks Brothers
It is absolutely criminal that this didn’t get shortlisted by the Academy, especially when you consider that Billie Eilish did. That doesn’t stop this from being the best documentary of the year for my money. I truly learned new things, and got taken on an upbeat, positive adventure discovering music I never knew existed, which was a very welcome respite after such a shitty year as 2020. And Edgar Wright, ever the clever one, used his signature style of humor to keep the audience laughing the whole way as the story of Sparks reflected that same eclectic, slightly off-kilter view of the world. I’ve been slowly absorbing Sparks’ music ever since I saw this film, and if that’s not a sign of a great documentary, I don’t know what is. It became a call to action because Wright decided to share a passion with us, and it’s one I’ve taken to with aplomb.

8. I’m Your Man
The first International Feature entry I saw last year is ultimately one of the best, as Dan Stevens gives an absolutely electric performance (figuratively and possibly literally) as an android who adapts himself to his assigned companion in order to be the perfect mate. Of course, said companion wants nothing to do with him, and only participates in the experiment in exchange for funding of her archaeological studies. Stevens and Maren Eggert play off each other perfectly, giving us not only great comedy but a fairly profound examination of what it means to be human. Stevens was cast in the role because he’s one of the few English actors who speaks fluent German, and that was used to great effect to give his character, Tom, an added degree of uncanny discomfort for Eggert’s Alma. It was an utter delight from beginning to end, and the best pure comedy of the year.

7. In the Heights
Musicals made a comeback in a big way last year, and this was one of the best. An adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway success, the film is alive in a way few films can be. The music is off the charts, the performances solid (especially Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia), and the cultural significance utterly gorgeous to behold. But more than anything else, Jon M. Chu, who previously helmed Crazy Rich Asians, really makes the movie soar through the fantasy-esque musical numbers. They’re transportive and immersive in ways rarely seen, with “96,000” being the absolute peak (my runner-up for Best Scene). I’ve never even seen Hamilton, but for the first time, I really want to, because now I have a true impression of Miranda’s visionary talents.

6. Together Together
This is the sweetest film of the year, a simple pairing of Ed Helms and Patti Harrison with the latter serving as a surrogate to give the former a baby as a single parent. The film is a tribute to the power of platonic relationships, and in doing so ends up as one of the most romantic movies of the year, because it shows how love comes in so many beautiful forms. The idea of naming the baby “Lamp” while its still gestating was a glorious touch, because it forced a deeper emotional intimacy between the two characters despite it being used as a way to keep themselves more distant. The script is one of the best written for 2021, with sharp dialogue keeping Helms and Harrison on equal footing and equal agency throughout. And in one of the more inspired subtle effects, it’s really cool to see Harrison, a trans woman, play a pregnant person, artfully simulating an experience she can never biologically have in the real world. It’s so well done that I honestly didn’t now about her transition until after I saw the movie, and in subsequent viewings, I never once questioned her femininity. That’s a sign of a really great performance, and further proof that superb acting is more important than demographic box checks.

5. Swan Song
Weirdly, there were two movies to come out in 2021 with that title. The other is a sci-fi thriller starring Mahershala Ali that has gotten fair-to-middling reviews, and the studio bought a Golden Globe nomination for Ali. But I’m talking about the first one to come out, directed by Todd Stephens and showcasing Udo Kier – one of the consummate “that guy” character actors – in a role for the ages. An elderly, retired former hairdresser and drag queen, Kier goes on a small odyssey through Sandusky, OH to fulfill the final wish of one of his former clients and dress her body for her funeral. On his journey, he slowly transforms back into his glamorous former self, regaining his mojo a little bit more with every stop. It’s a lovely examination of the lives we touch throughout our own, but also a reflexive treatise on just how far gay rights have come in the last few decades. Finally given the spotlight, Kier gives an Oscar-worthy performance, full of sass, grace, melancholy, and ultimately, acknowledgement of his own greatness. I hope he gets the recognition he so deserves for this.

4. Drive My Car
Japan’s entry is, for me, the best of the bunch when it comes to International Feature. We’ll see how well it does with the Academy, but for my money it didn’t get any better on the world stage than this. A searing exploration of how we process grief and loss, this three-hour journey never once drags, and is filled with rich symbolism. Like Together Together, it serves as another fine example of the beauty of platonic love, coming out of need and shared experience rather than contrived scenarios.

On top of everything else great about this film, it uses one of the coolest framing devices I’ve ever seen. As a play-within-the-play, our lead character, Kafuku, is staging a production of Uncle Vanya with actors from all around Asia, making sure their performances and actions sell the drama more than the dialogue, which each actor speaks in their native tongue (with translations projected above the stage). One of the actors, a mute, even performs in Korean Sign Language. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the universality of the human experience. Even when we come from different backgrounds and speak different languages, we all feel the same emotions and cope in similar ways. Another movie from 2021, Language Lessons, tackled the idea from a different angle and worked quite well on a much smaller scale. But the sheer ambition of the conceit here is something I never would have seen coming, and as a fan of storytelling and cinema as an artform, I’m all the better for it.

3. Belfast
Towards the end of the year, the studios trot out the prestige fare in hopes of getting hardware, but most of them are just good movies that got saved to the end in order to bank on short-term memory to manipulate the governing bodies. They’re betting hard on voters not remembering the stuff that came earlier in the year that outshines the majority of the stuff that they actually put their marketing heft behind. It’s like, if Academy voters were required to rate movies as they see them throughout the year, irrespective of For Your Consideration campaigns and the release calendar, I guarantee you there would be a lot more films from the spring and summer months that would get serious consideration.

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, however, is one of a very few from 2021’s Awards Season push that actually warrants its own hype. Seeing the Troubles from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, processing the information within the limited contexts he can understand, is artistic cinema at its finest. The impressionable Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill; it really was a great year for child actors) sees the chaos unfold around him, but because he’s not an adult, and doesn’t understand the ramifications of what’s going on, keeps it at a remove while he tries to go through the normal motions of childhood, including playing with friends, using his imagination, watching movies and TV, and falling in love for the first time. It’s beautiful to behold, but also tragic because we in the audience know the true implications of what’s being shown on the screen.

The performances are very strong throughout, in particular Buddy’s grandparents (Hinds and Dench). I absolutely loved the black-and-white cinematography, because it perfectly illustrates the lack of subtlety both in the violence surrounding the film and Buddy’s developing sensibilities. Finally, though it wasn’t shortlisted, Van Morrison’s score fit the film perfectly. I sincerely hope his original song at least gets nominated.

2. Annette
Sadly, The Sparks Brothers as a film didn’t get the credit it deserved, but the actual brothers who form Sparks just might, as the wacky, lyrical, literal opening number, “May We Now Start?” is shortlisted for Original Song, and who knows what else the Academy’s various branches might deem worthy of consideration over the next few weeks. In a year where musicals had a huge resurgence, this is the best, and the most original of them all. It’s weird and wonderful all the way through, it showcases the immensely versatile talents of its two leads, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and the music is better on balance than any other musical made last year.

But even more impressive is the central premise, where a provocative comedian and an opera singer have a tragic Hollywood romance that results in the birth of a child who can sing as an infant, but she’s presented to us as a puppet. That’s right, Sparks and Leos Carax (winning the Best Director prize at Cannes) got us to care about a singing baby puppet. That’s an amazing feat, because on paper it’s absurd in the extreme. But the cast and crew sold every moment, turning the story into a quasi-operetta running on live sets and intentionally artificial stage pieces, blurring the line between reality and fantasy, to get us to the point where a glorified prop could be the title character and the emotional core of a serious movie. This is a unique, gorgeous film that, if attempted 100 times, it would probably fail in 95-99 of them. But this is a perfect storm of unbridled creativity that was for the longest time my favorite film of the year.

But, you remember what I just said about the rare late-year prestige entry actually being worth the hype?

1. Licorice Pizza
It’s true. I fell in love with Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest opus pretty much from the opening seconds, when Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) meet and flirt for the first time, Gary wearing her down and eventually winning her over with his goofy, overconfident charm, while at the same time Alana maintaining her agency and not simply succumbing to someone giving her attention. From that moment on, I was hopelessly hooked, and the film never let go.

Whether it’s an absolutely perfect bit of catalog soundtrack (see, Cruella, there’s a way to do it right), a deliciously absurd vignette of supporting madness from John Michael Higgins, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper, the sly and loving portrayals of arrested development evolving into genuine transitions to adulthood, or just a really well-written exchange between Haim and Hoffman calling one another out on their respective nonsense, I was enraptured.

I was prepared to be disappointed. We’re talking about a film that opened right under the wire on Christmas Day (though it did have qualifying runs in three L.A. theatres a couple weeks before), which usually smacks of trying to win prestige by being the last one to the party. We’re talking about Paul Thomas Anderson, who has yet to have a true directorial misfire, and with a film as simple as a coming-of-age story, it seemed like we were being primed for his first mulligan that might still get paid off with a token Oscar or two. But no. All of my skepticism was quickly swept away in a glorious display of clever writing, expert character development, and genuine affection for a bygone era.

I was floored. I go into December movies with all the pent up doubt that I excuse in early year releases. Those are normally bad to terrible, but sometimes I can look at them with a more forgiving eye, knowing that they’re part of the studio dump and aren’t expected to do well. Those movies tend to benefit from the grading curve, whereas the movies that Hollywood crams into the end of the year as Awards Season contenders are held to a much higher standard, because they’re marketed directly with the intent of getting hardware regardless of quality.

Licorice Pizza didn’t need to do any of that. The tactics may still be rewarded, but there’ll be no need to place an asterisk on anything it garners over the next few months. It could have been released in mid-January with no fanfare and it would have been just as special. I expected passable. I prepared for a let down. I got an instant classic.

***

Thank you all for reading. I wish you a safe, happy, and prosperous year ahead, and we’ll see if anything changes once I check out all the other contenders I’ve missed so far. Happy 2022, everyone!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What were your favorite films of 2021? What were the worst to you? What were the most unique, for good and bad? Let me know!

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