For Films Released in 2021
(Because I’m too lazy to write full-length reviews anymore)
Remember me? You thought I died, didn’t you? More than likely, you didn’t even notice. But if by chance you were paying attention, you may have observed I haven’t posted anything substantial in over a year. It’s not that I haven’t written anything, I just haven’t finished anything. I’ve written a little piece explaining all of that for you, but alas, that too remains unfinished. But if you’re even reading this, it means I finished something, and we all should consider that a marker of my personal growth.
One of the things I have been doing is watching movies, lots and lots and lots of movies. After a pandemic inspired year and a half of avoiding movie theaters, I finally returned last October to see Titane, a unique film experience and my first theater movie since the sweet, but average Pixar vehicle Outward. I missed seeing movies in the theater and it felt good to be back.
On the bright side, the pandemic gave me the perfect opportunity to catch up a bit on my extensive movie bucket list. (Thank you, Criterion Channel.) And it gave me the chance to stay current with this year’s Oscar contenders. I’ve seen a total of 34 films from 2021, including all of this year’s major Oscar nominees.
The quality of films on this list is surprisingly high, though I have the benefit of not doing this professionally, thus avoiding having to see most of the mediocre and just plain awful films that dominate any given year. All of the films on this list were released in 2021, more or less, including Judas and the Black Messiah, which was released last year, but qualified for last year’s Oscar competition (for 2020) because of an extended eligibility period due to the pandemic. Similarly included is Minari, which played at Sundance over two years ago, but was not released to the general American public until early last year. Less concrete a qualifier is Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, a film released in London in 2019, but not released in the U. S. until January of this year. It nevertheless qualified for this year’s Oscars for films released from March 1st, 2021 until December 31st, 2021. That’s enough for me to include it on this list. It’s too good to ignore.
There are an unusually large number of foreign language films on my list this year. This is the first time in my 50 years of watching the Oscars that I’ve seen all five Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) nominees before the telecast. It’s a solid list, though there are a couple gross omissions. But the number of foreign language films on my list points to mainstream Hollywood’s increasing refusal to produce anything but blockbusters that reel in tons of cash at the expense of adult drama. Thank god for independent filmmakers.
The films and artists listed are ranked in order of my personal preference. Ratings, per my typical percentile scale, are in parentheses at the end of each title. I make no claims as to which are the “best.” Nibbler Awards are written in black Sharpie on lavender Post-It Notes™ and can be picked up by the winners for a small fee if they stop by my apartment in Kansas City. And though he didn’t make my list, I have a “special” honorary award for CODA’s Daniel Durant if he wants to stop by. HMU, bro. Comments, both positive and negative, are welcomed, but please try to limit name-calling to three per reply.
The big question is, do you care enough about my self-indulgence to make it through a 8,000-word post? I sure as hell hope so. I spent a lot of time on this mother. (What in the name of Fellini, was I thinking?) So let’s break out the pizza rolls, knock our Pepsi bottles together, and toast our mutual love of movies. Cheers!
34. A Quiet Place Part II (40)
I get it, John Krasinski has studied Hitchcock. His application of techniques from master filmmakers like Hitchcock, Lang, and Welles is quite effective at times, but this direct sequel to his surprise hit, A Quiet Place, wasn’t ever going to be as good as the original. That film was similarly plotless, but it had the drive of a family desperately trying to survive. That drive was pretty much snuffed out in the first film when Krasinski’s character sacrificed himself to save the others. This time around we have creepy neighbor Cillian Murphy standing in as father figure, but the emotional connections that made the original film so riveting aren’t there. What we’re left with is a series of well-crafted, but lifeless suspense scenes.
33. The Dig (65)
Based on the true story of the 1939 discovery and excavation of the ancient Sutton Hoo burial sites, one of archeology’s richest and most important finds, The Dig begins marvelously as a two-character piece about wealthy British landowner Edith Pretty (Carrie Mulligan) and the aged excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) she hires to investigate the mysterious mounds of earth on her property. But once the discovery is made, the film degenerates into a mundane TV-style drama as new characters are brought in to fill the rest of the running time. The real Edith Pretty was much more interesting in real life than the dull old lady portrayed here and there might be a good film in her story, but this isn’t it.
32. The Card Counter (66)
Along with Dune, The Card Counter, writer/director Paul Schrader’s latest work, was the 2021 film I most looked forward to and the year’s biggest disappointment. Schrader’s previous film, First Reformed, was one of last decade’s most powerful films, but The Card Counter suffers by comparison. Interesting characters and fine performances from Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish buoy an interesting first half, but it loses its way in the second half, and concludes with the most ludicrous ending I’ve seen in an adult drama in years.
31. No Time to Die (67)
Remember when James Bond movies were fun? Forgettable action scenes and a truly dreary mood turn this, the final Bond film of the Daniel Craig era, into the sobering adult drama we didn’t want or need. Even the title track by Billie Eilish and Finneas is a letdown. Is this the end of Bond? At this point I don’t care anymore.
30. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (68)
To the younger generations who know little or nothing about televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and the scandals that brought down their empire in the 1980s, The Eyes of Tammy Faye may seem absurdly over the top. But to those of us who remember, the film is surprisingly underplayed. Tammy Faye was, as John Waters might say, a “female drag queen,” a sobbing, clown makeup-wearing, self-caricature who preached about Jesus while tears streamed down her face, carrying thick streaks of black eyeliner with them.
But through all of the gaudy spectacle, there was something oddly genuine about her. While she clearly turned her eyes from the scam her husband was running, her love and compassion for others was real and this became clearer in the years after her fall. I would have liked to have seen more of those post-scandal years when she hosted a talk show with openly gay actor Jim J. Bullock, married millionaire Roe Messner, and eventually died of cancer in their exclusive Kansas City, Missouri neighborhood. As it is, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a rote and uninspired biopic.
29. The Mitchells vs. the Machines (70)
In animation, there’s the pre-Pixar era and the post Pixar era. Many animators in the post Pixar era have tried over the years to copy that studio’s seemingly magical formula – the clever stories; the ingenious attention to detail; the cynical, quick witted, and frequently uproarious dialogue that assaults you rapid-fire like a semi-automatic weapon, and the honest emotions and simple life lessons that bring adults and children alike to tears.
The Mitchell’s Vs the Machines doesn’t quite hit the levels of premium Pixar, but it comes closer than most. There are some big laughs for adults here, including an insidiously funny central plot idea involving a cell phone. But I found the animation of the characters unappealing and inconsistent. And the little emojis displayed on the screen, expressing the teen girl lead’s obsession with social media, wore me down with their overuse and inordinate cuteness. Still, this is a fun and clever family movie you can feel good about taking your family to see.
28. Being the Ricardos (70)
I Love Lucy created the template for virtually every TV sitcom that has come since, for better or worse. It’s stars, real life wife and husband Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, were the biggest superstars of the day. And Ball, known throughout the world simply as Lucy, may be the biggest star the medium has ever produced. Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos chronicles a week in their lives when leaks of Lucy’s Communist Party ties began to surface, along with rumors of Arnaz’s infidelity.
The film works best when it concentrates on the often difficult and abrasive creative process of its star. Her genius for physical comedy, comic timing, and staging is well portrayed and wholly accurate. But Sorkin fudges his narrative late in the film with flashbacks that slow the pace. And the story’s other conflicts rarely rise above the mundane. Sorkin is a good writer and a decent director, but his storytelling style is utterly conventional and Being the Ricardos suffers from it.
27. CODA (72)
To be fair, CODA surpassed my expectations, but I wasn’t expecting much. I knew what I was in for, or at least I thought I did, the first time I saw the film’s trailer. It’s called CODA and it’s about deaf people. I could envision the maudlin Hollywood cliches immediately. And CODA is a musical term referring to the end of a piece of music. I knew right away it had a double meaning: Someone’s gonna die in this thing and it’s gonna be weepy, maudlin, and generally unwatchable.
As it turns out, there are no tear-milking deaths in CODA and parts of the film are indeed watchable. CODA, I learned, is an anagram for Child of Deaf Parents. The CODA in question is a young female singer with deaf parents, one of which is played by Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, the other by this year’s likely supporting actor Oscar winner, Troy Kotsur.
I like the idea of the deaf family being insensitive to their hearing daughter’s needs and dreams. And that story is well served by its three superior deaf actors and a surprisingly effective finale. But it can’t erase the shameless singer-pushed-by-demanding-coach and teen romance tropes that make much of the film an eye-roller. In the end, CODA is just an Afterschool Special with one great scene.
26. Spider-Man: No Way Home (73)
Anyone who’s followed this blog over the years understands my movie preferences lean toward adult, character-based dramas with heavy doses of the experimental and the artistic. But I have enjoyed a Marvel movie or two in my life, especially the epic Avengers: Infinity War. At their best, these movies are highly imaginative, wittily self-parodic, dramatically effective, and oozing with impressive state-of-the-art CGI effects and high-powered action. At their worst, they’re predictable, sophomoric, and mind-numbingly overstimulating.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, easily the most financially successful movie since the beginning of the pandemic, perfectly illustrates everything I love and hate about the MCU. The story here, drawing inspiration from the memorable Oscar winning animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, cleverly resurrects previous Spider-Men (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and their respective villains from the previous two series via the usual multiverse rift. The interactions between the three Spideys provide much need levity half-way through the film, but the sensory overload of the action and the film’s overall familiarity grow tiresome early on, as in most MCU movies. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly star Tom Holland, Garfield, and the always memorable Willem Defoe, but their best moments can’t disguise the fact that there’s nothing here we haven’t seen countless times before.
As Marvel continues its seemingly endless death-grip on the box-office (five of the top 6 grossing films of 2021 were produced by the studio), I can’t help but wonder how long they can continue their unprecedented success through endless repetitions of the same formula. But considering the horrible times we live in, the need for mindless escapism is stronger than ever, and the staggering success of this film shows that even a pandemic can’t halt Marvel’s endless barrage of blockbusters.
25. Don’t Look Up (73)
Andy Mackay is a smart and inventive writer and filmmaker whose movies typically eschew balanced observation for nakedly biased editorializing. This approach often results in hilarity, but it doesn’t leave much room for subtle character building. As he did in his previous Best Picture Oscar nominees, The Big Short and Vice, Mackay focuses his crosshairs on politics and greed. Don’t Look Up, nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, is a thinly disguised parody of climate change denial and anti-science stupidities. The film doesn’t lack for laughs, but its singular joke is stretched too thin. It adds up to a fun night on Netflix, but it’s hardly Best Picture material.
24. The Tragedy of Macbeth (75)
Joel Coen’s black and white art house version of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s darkest, most cynical, and most entertaining plays, is a stylistic clusterfuck combining German expressionism, American noir, and heavily theatrical staging into an overstuffed haggis that won’t likely bring many newcomers into the Shakespearean fold. That’s a shame, because despite its weaknesses, the film actually does a great job of conveying both story and dialogue. Denzel Washington, no stranger to Shakespeare, is solid as the suggestable, power-hungry Macbeth, but Francis McDormand never connects as the remorseful Lady Macbeth.
Coen’s high style is frequently beautiful to look at, thanks to its stunning cinematography, but it distracts rather than enhances the story. And his conversion of Ross into some kind of Bergmanesque death/ devil character doesn’t work, particularly in light of Alex Hassell’s bizarre, jarringly bad performance.
Coen’s brother and long-time collaborator, Ethan who has collaborated with him on some of the greatest film of the last three decades, was not involved in the making of this film, and has jokingly referred to it as his brother’s worst film. The sad thing is, he’s not that far off.
23. Licorice Pizza (76)
More interesting than it is entertaining, Paul Thomas Anderson’s lighthearted and lightweight cinematic collage about a highly entrepreneurial 15-year-old boy (Cooper Hoffmann) and a 29, er… 25-year-old woman (the coolly affecting Alana Haim) hops aimlessly through a series of free-wheeling and quirky episodes based on real-life stories from the director’s youth and those of his longtime pal, Gary Goetzman. Set during the 1970s, it’s most successful when it concentrates on the young woman’s burgeoning self-awareness, but the film’s unfocused narrative gets old and repetitious despite some memorable moments, most notably, a much talked about sequence with Bradley Cooper as coked-up hairdresser to the stars turned movie producer, Jon Peters.
Anderson is arguably the finest American writer/director of his generation. But his Pizza lacks the meat of his best films (The Master, There Will be Blood, Phantom Thread, etc.) In the end, It’s much closer to licorice than pizza. The taste is pleasant enough, but it never really satisfies.
22. The Hand of God (76 – Italian w/subtitles)
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, whose La Grande Bellezza won the 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, revisits the Italy of his youth in this evocative, largely autobiographical, picture. Sorrentino’s stand-in is Fabietto (Timothée Chalamet doppelganger, Filippo Scotti), a teenage boy growing up in Naples with his loving parents and a Felliniesqe assortment of oddball relatives and neighbors. The colorful first act gives way to a melancholy second act when the film explores the aftereffects of a real-life tragedy that Sorrentino himself experienced and which helped lead to his career as a filmmaker. There’s a lot of pondering and existentialism post tragedy, but Sorrentino’s rich characterizations and memorable images, bring this somber coming-of-age story to beautiful life.
21. Pig (79)
Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut, the wonderful Pig, is so deceptively simple and low-key in its approach that when it hits the big dramatic moment, it’s a punch to the gut. Telling the story of a truffle hunter tracking down his stolen prized pig, the film is a minor gem of tone and character with Nicolas Cage at his grungy, heart-felt best.
20. West Side Story (79)
Some critics and movie buffs have complained that Steven Spielberg’s epic remake of West Side Story, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbin’s film version of Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1957 musical, is unnecessary. After all, they say, the original 1961 movie won the Oscar for Best Picture and is still considered one of the greatest cinematic musicals ever made. (It’s a personal favorite.) But I don’t agree. This version justifies itself by the simple fact that it brings a fresh audience to a bonafide classic of American musical theater, as well as providing the opportunity for Puerto Ricans and other Latinos to see themselves represented more authentically than in the older picture (i.e., no whitewashing).
There have been some changes, most of them positive. “I Feel Pretty” has been repositioned in the narrative and recontextualized to fit the character of Maria more appropriately (a longtime Sondheim annoyance). And the film’s Tony and Maria (Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler) are decidedly superior to the original’s Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. But while I commend Spielberg for hiring the original film’s shining star, Rita Moreno, not simply for a meaningless cameo, but a meaty supporting role, and a whole song to boot, that song is unfortunately the soaring “Somewhere,” one of the most beautiful and iconic in the history of musical theater. Still a powerful screen presence, Moreno, who was partially dubbed by a ghost singer in the original film, pulls the number off emotionally, but her creaky 90-year-old voice hinders the melody.
If it was going to be remade, Steven Spielberg was the perfect director to do it. But it ultimately showcases his limitations as well as his skills. A brilliant visual storyteller, Spielberg long ago settled in to making safe adult dramas that don’t stretch him creatively. West Side Story is a slick and exciting redo, but it adds little to his uneven repertoire.
19. King Richard (79)
Those of us who followed tennis in the 1990s know the fascinating story of Richard Williams, the controversial father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams, who placed family over sports by refusing to yield to pressure and allow 14-year-old Venus to play professionally for fear that she’d become the next Jennifer Capriati, the 16-year-old phenom who burned out before reaching adulthood. Williams, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, was laser-focused on achieving his dreams of a better life for his family and of sculpting his daughters into world champions. The closeness of the family unit is the core of the film, and their scenes together are frequently lovely.
The film’s glowing tribute is somewhat balanced by references to William’s well-documented flaws, hinting at, but not fully exploring the fact that even before Venus and Serena were born, he’d already drawn up his 70-page plan for their success, with the goal of making himself rich. (He admits as much in his memoir.) In key scenes, however, we do see his overinflated ego on display, particularly his underappreciation of wife, Oracene, who contributed equally to the girl’s training and coaching. But it’s important to remember King Richard was executive produced in part by Venus and Serena and older sister Isha Price, who have given it their approval and were said to have visited the set frequently to fact check.
King Richard isn’t always able to avoid sports movie cliches, but often the events in these scenes actually happened. And though the direction is functional and uncreative, I found the film charming and highly entertaining.
18. Nightmare Alley (79)
The argument for remaking Edmund Gould’s classic, Nightmare Alley, carries considerably less gravitas than that for Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. But this new version, created by Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican fantasist whose last picture, the fish-out-of-water bestiality romance, The Shape of Water, won the Best Picture Oscar, fills it frames with dazzling production design, an A-list cast, and delicious helpings of the prerequisite noir sleaze.
Bradley Cooper delivers arguably the best performance of his impressive career as the corrupt “mentalist” played by Tyrone Power in the original, while Cate Blanchet, Rooney Mara, and the great Toni Collette add to the fun. The film’s dark subject matter fits well in del Toro’s fascinating, if uneven, catalogue. And it’s considerably less violent than much of his previous work, particularly the dark fantasy masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, which makes the film even more enjoyable.
17. Spencer (80)
Diana Spencer, Princess of Whales, is in a bad way. Stuck in a marriage to a man who doesn’t love her and whom the entire world knows is cheating on her, she reaches a breaking point during the now infamous 1991 Christmas gathering of the royal family at Sandringham House. Such is the setup for Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, a plotless, but engrossing character study of the beloved princess.
The movie never glosses over Diana’s dark side – the eating disorder, the histrionic temper tantrums – which only makes her more compelling. And Steven Wright’s script smartly refuses to demonize Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal family. But the story’s success rests on Kristen Stewart’s uncanny, multi-layered performance, erasing any doubt she’s one of the finest actresses in the business today.
16. Passing (80)
Passing, the directorial debut of British actress Rebecca Hall, adapts Harlem Renaissance novelist, Nella Larson’s 1929 novel to the screen with intelligence and a sure, but delicate hand. Tessa Thompson stars as Irene, a black woman in 1920’s New York City, who reunites with childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), a light-skinned black woman passing as white, who’s married to a racist white man. What could have been a simple-minded woke commentary on black-on-black racism, is instead a subtly fascinating character-based story of jealousy with an intriguingly ambiguous ending that adds considerable nuance to the film and had me thinking for days.
15. Dune (80)
I may be one of the few people who liked David Lynch’s much reviled version of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune, back when it was released in 1984. Elevated by memorable production design and a proper mythic sensibility, the film turned off many viewers with its Lynchian gore and a plot that was, to those who hadn’t read the book and even some who had, impenetrable. For me though, the film was darkly entertaining until its second half, right about the point that this new version, the first of two parts, ends.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, this century’s preeminent science fiction director, Dune’s visuals disappoint by comparison. The special effects are immeasurably superior, but the director often opts for spare, uninteresting sets. And most of the film seems overcast by a dull gray hue. Villeneuve properly expands on important and colorful details, barely explained in Lynch’s version, that made me love the book – the details of Fremen stillsuits, for example. Yet he also inexplicably ignores (or buries) other important details, like the function of the Mentats and the Guild Navigators.
But despite the disappointments, this is my favorite of the three filmed versions. (The third was a pedestrian 2000 SYFY Channel mini-series.) Story and character rightly take precedence here and Villeneuve’s cast is far better than Lynch’s. Timothée Chalamet’s brooding Paul is a vast improvement over Lynch regular Kyle Maclachlan’s flat portrayal. And Jason Momoa’s Duncan shockingly surpasses Patrick Stewart’s toupee-coiffed version of the character.
14. tick, tick, BOOM! (82)
Personally, I’ve had my fill of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The ubiquitous composer/librettist of Hamilton, Moana, and In the Heights, has been inescapable the last few years and I’m probably one of the few people alive not overly impressed with his work. But with tick, tick, BOOM!, he makes a solid debut as a director, staging the late Rent composer Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical with flair and sparkling imagination.
As with Rent, the film’s score is uneven, but there are plenty of songs that do work, most notably “No More,” a comic look at the simple pleasures of success after years of failure. Larson’s debt to his idol and mentor, Stephen Sondheim, appropriately permeates the film and the master composer (as portrayed by Bradley Whitford) even appears in a funny cameo.
The musical has been slightly retooled to more accurately reflect the late Larson’s life, but it’s not so much about the facts of his life as it is about the largeness of his character. That’s part of what helps it rise above the fray of the tired biopic genre. The film’s greatest achievement, though, is the performance of its star, Andrew Garfield, who brings that largeness to electrifying life.
13. Belfast (83)
Actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who first stirred up cinematic waves in the ‘90s with a series of Shakespearean adaptations, including his acclaimed, multi-Oscar nominated version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, has produced a highly uneven repertoire in the years since. A splendid version of Much Ado About Nothing and an uneven production of Hamlet were followed by a mixed bag of Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean films.
With Belfast, Branagh redeems himself in this glowing black and white production centered on his childhood growing up in violence-torn Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. Told through the eyes of Buddy (10-year-old actor Jude Hill), Belfast counters the stark reality of the times with moments of tenderness, while largely avoiding sentimentality.
12. Judas and the Black Messiah (83)
With Judas and the Black Messiah, director Shaka King has fashioned a searing, fact-based account of William O’Neal, the two-bit thief who infiltrated the Black Panthers and participated in the FBI’s cowardly 1969 murder of Panther chairman Fred Hampton. Hampton’s fondness for provocative speech and violent metaphors is not ignored, but the fears of legendary scumbag FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, eerily impersonated by Martin Sheen, are shown for what they were: unadulterated racism. Like today’s Trump influenced GOP, Hoover preferred killing black people over listening to their just demands.
The film moves along at a brisk and absorbing pace. Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar winning performance as Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield’s O’Neal dominate this thrilling docudrama.
11. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (85 – Dzongka w/Subtitles)
The story of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, from the tiny South Asian nation of Bhutan, treads familiar water. An unmotivated teacher, who dreams of being a singer in Australia, is forced by the government to teach in Lunana, the most remote village in the world, high in the Himalayas. Initially reluctant, he’s soon won over by the charm of the villagers and their difficult, yet uncomplicated lives.
But the lifestyle portrayed in the film differs radically from what we normally see in movies these days. The villagers live utterly free of luxury, to put it mildly, and under the kind of harsh conditions most Westerners would consider abject poverty. But their innocence and peaceful existence almost seem desirable in comparison to our stressful modern lives. The film’s cast of non-actors and real-life villagers give the film a unique authenticity. They never once seem like they’re reciting a script.
Lunana’s themes of pure hearts and the profound connection between man and nature are deeply moving, and the film’s breathtaking scenery multiplies those feelings. Yes, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but rarely with such disarming artistry and soul-touching beauty.
10. The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (85)
The latest bit of visual storybook fancy from director Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, is an anthological paeon to the golden age of the legendary literary magazine, The New Yorker. Told as a trio of stories from imagined mid-century journalists, modeled after the likes of Joseph Mitchell, Mavis Gallant, and James Baldwin, the movie skips along effortlessly. Stylistically, the film is closest to Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and if it’s relatively lightweight in comparison to some of the director’s best work, It’s no less entertaining.
9. Parallel Mothers (85 – Spanish w/subtitles)
With his twisted humor, graphic sexuality, and outlandish plots, legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he is undeniably one of the great directors of women. One of those women is the extraordinary Penelope Cruz. In Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar provides Cruz with one of her best roles as a new mother keeping a dark secret.
The director’s outlandishness is toned down considerably. The film’s main narrative about two new mothers whose lives become irrevocably intertwined, is framed by a story about her character’s attempts to locate the graves of several Spanish men, including her grandfather, who were murdered by the Franco regime. These bookends powerfully reinforce the movie’s themes of the moral imperative and spiritual necessity of unearthing the truth.
8. Titane (87 – French w/subtitles)
One of the things I love most about the Cannes Film Festival is that its juries rarely shy away from the different and the new and sometimes the just plain bizarre. (Think David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.) Julia Ducournau’s insane body-horror vision, Titane, won last summer’s Palme d’Or, but unsurprisingly, was completely snubbed by the Oscars in favor of safer entertainments like CODA and King Richard.
I generally bristle at the idea of gay and bisexual characters portrayed as killers (see my review of I Care a Lot) and protagonists so dark, they’re impossible to root for. But Alexia, the lesbian serial killer at the heart of Titane, is a compelling exception. Alexia, who had a metal plate placed in her head as a child after a horrible auto accident, is a women whose body wages war with her after she’s impregnated by a car (not even kidding).
Alexia’s body begins to transform in unexpected and shocking ways that act as metaphors for menstruation and pregnancy i.e., the “body horrors” of being a woman (the kinds of things females have endured since mammals first walked the earth, but that would probably make men like myself scream like babies, assuming we even stayed conscious). But beyond the visceral jolts, Titane is ultimately a touching story about loss, denial, and the healing powers of acceptance.
7. The Green Knight (88)
“The world is fit for all manner of mysteries,” exclaims a character in The Green Knight, David Lowery’s beguiling and often baffling anti-sword-and-sorcery, sword and sorcery fantasy. Based on an actual Arthurian legend, The film ultimately mocks the idea of heroic destiny with its comical shaggy dog story ending, but on the way, The Green Knight’s weird and dreamlike imagery, gorgeous production design, and mesmerizing green-hued cinematography cast a lingering, satisfying spell.
6. Flee (90 – Danish w/subtitles)
The very concept of Flee sounds like a gimmick – a documentary about a gay man attempting to escape from the Mujahideen in 1990s Afghanistan, told completely with animation. But there’s a good reason for this: the protection of the man’s identity. A friend of director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin (an alias), recounts his harrowing story as the events of his life are visualized with often gripping, expressionistic animation that’s far more powerful than the usual talking heads and stale archival footage that dominate this genre.
The film has received Oscar nominations for Best Documentary, Best Animated Film, and Best International Feature (an unprecedented triad) and has its best shot in the documentary category. It will likely lose in the animated category to the enjoyable, but inferior, The Mitchell’s Vs. the Machines, while Drive My Car, with the weight of a Best Picture nomination, will likely garner the international feature award.
5. Minari (92 Korean w/subtitles)
As noted above, Minari was released at Sundance in early 2020, but it wasn’t released to the general public until February of 2021, which in my book makes it eligible for this year’s list. Produced and filmed in the United States by American director Lee Isaac Chung, but spoken mostly in Korean, Minari tells the story of a Korean farmer fighting the odds to fulfill his version of the American dream in 1980s Arkansas. Lyrical and poetic and gorgeously filmed, this deeply felt drama deals with themes of family, superstition, death, the clash of cultures, the struggle of immigrants in a foreign land, and above all, faith.
I found the film’s treatment of Pentecostal character Paul (Will Patton) especially refreshing. In nearly any other movie, this character would be treated with contempt, or at the very least, as a joke. But while the other characters initially mock his eccentricities, it’s ultimately his humanity that shines brightest.
4. Drive My Car (95 –Japanese w/subtitles)
Even at slow speed, you don’t see Drive My Car coming. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s low-key direction and cold, city exteriors seem distant, his subject matter sobering. At three hours length, you’d expect it to be a long tedious ride, but I never found myself bored. Drive My Car is an intriguing and engrossing story of love, grief, redemption (and Chekov’s Uncle Vanya), that sneaks up on you.
I love that the film refuses to decorate its tragedy with maudlin affectation; The musical score is minimal and unobtrusive. Hamaguchi instead relies on the strength of his story and his solid cast to elicit emotion. If only more filmmakers were willing to take such risks, there might be considerably less shlock at the movies, but then, how many filmmakers start with a script this good?
3. The Worst Person in the World (95 – Norwegian w/subtitles)
Julie (Renate Reinsve), the protagonist of Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, is a thoroughly modern woman who’s unwilling to shape her life around the wants and needs of men. Yet even in her late twenties, she’s unsure about what to do with her life. Julie seems capricious. A promising medical student, she decides to change her specialty to psychology because she prefers to study mind over body, but eventually drops out of school altogether. She moves from boyfriend to boyfriend until she meets Askel, a famous cartoonist in his forties.
After a one-night stand, Askel warns her that their relationship can never work because of their age difference, but they immediately decide to pursue it anyway. Askel, having the wisdom of experience, and perhaps a subconscious awareness of his own weaknesses as a partner, turns out to be prophetic. While at first, he seems understanding of her needs, in reality he expects her to acquiesce to his desires and his career. In a minor subplot, her selfish father manipulates her with self-pity to serve his own purposes.
The film is about a woman struggling to find her identity in a world controlled by men. Stylistically it bears a strong resemblance to the films of Woody Allen, especially in the funny opening scenes, and the story has similarities to Allen disciple Noah Baumbach’s delightful Francis Ha. But Trier’s Julie stands out because in the end, she’s a woman who doesn’t need men to be happy. With one of the sharpest scripts of the year, and an unforgettable performance by Reinsve, the film never comes off as a feminist sermon. Instead, it’s an honest, entertaining, and sexy exploration of the needs of contemporary women.
2. The Lost Daughter (95)
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stunning directorial debut slowly reveals its devastating subtext through the wonderous face of Olivia Colman and fleshes it out in flashbacks through the equally gut-wrenching performance of Jessie Buckley. Colman plays Leda, a brilliant professor vacationing in Greece whose friendship with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) elicits memories of her days as a young woman struggling to balance parenthood with a promising career. The intricacy of this character is what I go to movies for. Ed Harris’ brief role as a potential suitor brings a delightful, much needed levity to a unique and haunting drama. In a year of great films about motherhood, The Lost Daughter hits hardest.
1. The Power of the Dog (97)
Legendary film critic and American history scholar, Sam Elliott has famously labeled this film “A piece of shit,” lashing out at its gay theme because its cowboys wear chaps, and at the film in general, because it was shot in New Zealand. I suspect his ridiculous assessment also has to do with the fact that the film was written and directed by a woman and perhaps because its closeted gay character hits too close to home. The great irony here is that The Power of the Dog, filmmaker Jane Campion’s gritty, yet exquisitely rendered, masterpiece, tackles the very homophobia and toxic masculinity that make Elliot sound so laughably out of touch.
Set on a Montana cattle ranch in 1925, the film tells of two brothers: George, a gentle, even-tempered soul, and his abusive, abrasively macho brother, Phil. When George courts and later marries a woman (Kirsten Dunst) with an effeminate and creative son, the threatened Phil sets out to destroy both through psychological harassment.
Though Campion’s storytelling is old-fashioned in the best of ways, the film has a modern sensibility about it. The story is complex, the characters multi-dimensional, the hero and villain not so clearly delineated as archaic old farts like Elliot apparently require. And its themes, including the queer one, are almost entirely subtextual. Like the best dramas, it expects you to read the visual clues and pay attention to the details rather than explaining everything with banal exposition as if the audience were composed of idiots. “Great movies require great audiences,” to a paraphrase a famous quote. As someone who loves cinema, not just as an entertainment, but as an exploration of the human condition, there is no more satisfying film on this list for me than The Power of the Dog.
Female Lead Performance
5. Tessa Thompson – Passing
It’s hard to believe the Tessa Thompson who played butch superhero Valkyrie in the Marvel movies and the ruthless futuristic businesswoman/replicant in HBO’s riveting miniseries Westworld, is the same Tessa Thompson in Passing. In the best role of her career, Thompson’s understated performance reveals a versatile and accomplished talent in complete control of her craft.
4. Penelope Cruz – Parallel Mothers
Although she won her only Oscar for her hilarious turn in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, it’s her work with Pedro Almodóvar that has seen Penelope Cruz fully bloom as an actress. In Parallel Mothers, their latest collaboration, Cruz is mesmerizing as a woman keeping a dark secret.
3. Kristen Stewart – Spencer
While mainstream movie goers weren’t looking, Kristen Stewart, along with her Twilight Trilogy costar Robert Pattinson, used their success in that massively successful (and massively hated) teen vampire franchise to launch highly respected careers in independent, art house, and foreign films. Stewart’s work in Spencer as the late Princess Diana is much more than a brilliant piece of mimicry, it’s a textured and gripping portrait of a woman at the end of her rope.
2. Renate Reinsve – The Worst Person in the World
As Julie, the confused and complicated heroine of The Worst Person in the World, Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve gives one of the year’s most complete performances and one of its most compelling. She’s so natural and nakedly intimate that watching her feels like spying on someone’s personal life through a hidden camera. Reinsve won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year and it’s an embarrassment that she was overlooked by Oscar voters in favor of more popular, but more mechanical performances by Nicole Kidman and Jessica Chastain.
1. Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter
As anyone who’s read my stuff knows, my favorite film performances are often quiet ones that reveal character and emotion through body movement and facial expressions. In these performances, the actor seems to inhabit the character rather than simply relying on technique. The technique is there of course but there’s something more and that something is in the eyes. I think of Vanessa Redgrave in Julia, Patricia Neal in Hud, or Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show. Much of The Lost Daughter takes place on the face of Olivia Colman. Her dialogue is minimal in the first 20 minutes or so of the film as her character observes a family, particularly a mother and daughter, on the beach. We understand by her expressions alone that her observations have a special relevance to her. And much of it is mysteriously communicated through her eyes. This cannot be faked. You either have it or you don’t. Olivia Colman has it. And in this, the year’s finest performance in any category, her remarkable abilities bring life to one of the year’s most fascinating and compelling characters.
Male Lead Performance
5. Will Smith – King Richard
I won’t pretend that Will Smith’s performance in King Richard is superior to the others on this list, but I won’t be unhappy when he wins his first Oscar tonight for lead actor. Smith has worked long and hard to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor and was previously nominated in the top acting category for both Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. In King Richard, Smith perfectly captures Richard William’s blind determination, as well as his faith and his deep love for his family. With his highly recognizable voice, it’s difficult to forget he’s Will Smith, but it doesn’t matter. He’s fully invested in his character and that dedication shows.
4. Nicolas Cage – Pig
I’ve never seen Nicholas Cage look so grungy, so downright filthy as he looks in Pig. You can almost smell his nasty ass. But Cage’s devastated truffle hunter is one of the most compelling characters of the year and Cage’s performance nearly equals his Oscar winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas.
3. Hidetoshi Nishijima – Drive My Car
Like the film itself, Hidetoshi Nishijima’s performance as the grieving widower in Drive My Car is restrained and low-key. It’s incredibly difficult to pull off this kind of character without seeming cold and emotionless, but we recognize, through his subdued performance, a man privately burying his grief in his work.
2. Andrew Garfield – Tick, Tick…Boom!
The perfect counterweight to Nishijima’s stoic performance, Andrew Garfield’s tour de force as the late Rent composer/lyricist, Jonathon Larson is, like Larson himself, a bit over the top, and it’s all to the film’s benefit. Bold, brilliant, and unapologetically arrogant, Larson was a force to reckon with and Garfield inhabits his character with nary a false note.
1. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog
Tragic villains present a major challenge for even the best of actors. Benedict Cumberbatch proves he’s up to it in the one of the year’s most complex and dramatic roles. As Phil, the abusive, masculine-toxic rancher terrified of losing his brother to love, Cumberbatch expresses the inner fears and desires of the character in moments both terrifying and heartbreaking.
Supporting Female Performance
5. Ruth Negga – Passing
One of the things I appreciate about Passing, and Ruth Negga’s engaging performance as the light-skinned black woman passing for white, is that there’s no condemnation of her, at least not from the narrative’s point of view. Vibrant, pixieish, and utterly likeable, she simply craves love and acceptance, like any human being, which makes her fate all the more tragic.
4. Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard
Perhaps the most memorable image in King Richard is the face of Aunjanue Ellis. The camera is madly in love with her. As Oracene Williams, the wife of Richard Williams and the mother of two of modern history’s greatest athletes, Ellis’ presence radiates in some silent glory. Like her real-life counterpart, she’s not the star of the show, but she’s always there providing support and you miss her when she’s not there.
3. Ariana DeBose – West Side Story
This year’s shoe-in for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Ariana DeBose, is stunning on every level in the role that made Rita Moreno a household name. DeBose is even better (high praise indeed) and unlike Moreno, sings all her songs.
2. Youn Yuh-jung – Minari
Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung, the longtime veteran of South Korean film and television who won last year’s supporting actress Oscar for this film, creates one of 2021’s most indelible characters. As the boisterous grandmother who travels to Arkansas to help care for her daughter’s family, she’s responsible for the film’s funniest and most heartbreaking moments.
1. Jessie Buckley – The Lost Daughter
My favorite surprise Oscar nomination this year went to Jessie Buckley’s gut-wrenching portrayal of the young Leda, a woman who makes an agonizing, selfishly cruel choice in life that she later comes to regret. Though she was universally ignored in virtually all major awards this Oscar season, I had a gut feeling the Academy would recognize her exceptional work in this film, and as was the case for the similarly ignored Jesse Plemons, they came through. How could they not. Buckley holds her own against the indomitable Olivia Colman, a daunting task for the greatest of actresses.
Supporting Male Performance
5. Troy Kotsur – CODA
Troy Kotsur is irrefutably the best thing about the uneven CODA. Kotsur, tonight’s likely winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, is the heart and soul of an otherwise unexceptional film. The film’s best scene, at its climax, is all Kotsur, and his performance is a triumph.
4. Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah
Daniel Kaluuya won last year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his magnetic performance as assassinated Black Panther chairman, Fred Hampton (yet another example of Oscar category fraud). In spite of an excellent performance by co-lead LaKeith Stanfield, Kaluuya steals every scene he’s in.
3. Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog
Kodi Smit-McPhee’s performance as the creative, but icy young man ridiculed for being different, is full of surprises and smart choices. His actions near the end of the film are foreshadowed early on via brief narration, but they’re nonetheless surprising. In a film in which all four leads give career best performances, Smit-Mcphee is brilliantly beguiling.
2. Vincent Lindon – Titane
Vincent Lindon’s lonely fireman in Titane faces his own body horrors, the horrors of aging (a horror to which I can personally attest), as he attempts to prolong his youth through increasing steroid injections. Broken and in denial over the disappearance and likely death of his son, he finds an unexpected solace with the terrified Alexia in one of the most unusual and moving relationships in recent memory. Of the many images in this film that stayed with me for days after I saw it, Lindon’s sorrowful eyes remain the most indelible.
1. Jesse Plemons – The Power of the Dog
Jesse Plemons strong, silent George provides the grounded center around which the other characters revolve. Beginning his career as a psychopathic child killer in the TV series Breaking Bad, Plemons often plays characters with buried emotions, but there’s a quiet passion underneath George’s silence that speaks volumes. He’s the film’s archetype of fully realized masculinity, unafraid of love and beauty, and confident enough in his manhood to not make a show of it.
5. David Lowery – The Green Knight
4. Lee Isaac Chung – Minari
3. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi – Drive My Car
2. Joachim Trier – The Worst Person in the World
1. Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
5. Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth – Dune
4. David Lowery – The Green Knight
3. Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter
2. Ryusuke Hamaguchi – Drive My Car
1. Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
5. Wes Anderson – The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
4. Julia Ducournau – Titane
3. Lee Isaac Chung – Minari
2. Pedro Almodóvar – Parallel Mothers
1. Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt – The Worst Person in the World